Wichita, Kan. — In the battle over critical race theory and how to teach about topics like racism or history in Kansas schools, conservative activists and lawmakers have a new clarion call: curriculum transparency.
They want schools to be more open about what they’re teaching, and they want districts to put classroom and training materials online for the public to see. They also want more oversight of materials centered on race, gender or sexuality, or other topics they think are inappropriate for youngsters.
A proposed Parents’ Bill of Rights would require Kansas school districts to create an “academic transparency portal” on their websites to post information on learning materials and activities.
If approved, Kansas K-12 schools and libraries would no longer be exempt from obscenity laws, opening them to potential criminal charges if they distribute material found to be harmful to minors. It also would shield teachers who refuse to teach against their religious or philosophical beliefs.
“People have seen the news stories, and I think parents are saying, ‘Wait a second, is this happening in my kid’s classroom, too?’” said Rodney Penn, founder of a Salina-based parent group, Kansas Parents Involved in Education.
“And they realize they don’t know, and they don’t know how to find out,” Penn said.
Opponents of curriculum transparency bills, including teachers’ unions and free-speech groups, say schools welcome and encourage parental involvement.
“Schools are some of the most overseen areas in the country. We have school boards. We have superintendents. We have PTA meetings. There’s an entire infrastructure of transparency and visibility already created,” said James Tager, research director for the free speech group PEN America.
“We see these laws really as more teacher intimidation and surveillance of teachers,” Tager said. “This is essentially creating new means to pressure teachers to change their curricula not in ways that serve children, but in ways that reflect political biases and partisan actions.”
In a series of tweets last month, Christopher Rufo of the conservative Manhattan Institute said pivoting from critical race theory to curriculum transparency is a “rhetorically-advantageous position.” Since then, measures echoing a proposal from conservative Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley have been introduced in at least a dozen states.
“By moving to curriculum transparency, we will … bait the Left into opposing ‘transparency,’ which will raise the question: what are they trying to hide?” Rufo tweeted.
Some parents in the Shawnee Mission school district near Kansas City protested a teacher training program called Deep Equity. They say it is rooted in the tenets of critical race theory – the idea that slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism are key to understanding American history and culture.
One parent told the House K-12 Education Budget Committee last month that she was barred from viewing program materials because they were copyright protected.
District spokesman David Smith said Deep Equity training sessions weren’t recorded, and materials presented during them aren’t district property. But parents who ask could view workbooks or other materials the district has.
“Sometimes people, rather than speaking with their teacher or principal or somebody in the central office, they will go to somebody outside of the system and complain,” Smith said. “And that creates the appearance of a problem when, in fact, it doesn’t exist.”
Republican Kansas state Rep. Susan Estes, a former teacher, said it used to be easier for parents to keep track of what their children were learning in school. As materials shift from traditional textbooks to multimedia lessons or training sessions, that gets harder.
“So much of what is happening that parents are concerned about is happening conversationally in the classroom,” Estes said. “So a parent is really left in the dark, and never should be left in the dark.”
Opponents of curriculum transparency laws say teaching is an organic process that can’t be captured in lesson plans or lists of materials.
For example, the Blue Valley school district posts a list of novels approved for high school English classes, along with teachers’ rationale and some curriculum standards covered by those lessons. But once students are in a classroom talking about a novel, it’s hard to say what direction a discussion will take.
Brent Lewis, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said requiring detailed lesson plans as much as a year ahead of time would be not only impractical, but bad for students.
“If you wanted to do harm to the education of our children, you would make teachers provide one-size-fits-all instruction like this, instead of allowing us to adapt and meet the needs of individual students,” he said.
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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