In this year’s political season, groups of parents, like “Moms for Liberty,” have demanded more control of their children’s public school education, particularly in the teaching of sex education, gender identity, racial injustice and anything that may make their children “uncomfortable.” These adults protest that schools have overreached their academic authority and intruded into matters solely the province of parents. As a retired public school teacher of thirty years, I find this “parental rights movement” both ironic and disingenuous.
Let’s first consider the bang-up job generations of parents had performed when the responsibility for sex education did reside primarily in the home. Judging from my own childhood education in the 1950s and 60s, I know there was virtually no sex education in the schools. Unfortunately, parents generally tended to be puritanically tight-lipped on the subject. I suppose they grappled with a similar question parents face today: Will the facts of life encourage or discourage risky behavior among children?
Unfortunately, in the vacuum of parental guidance, sex education was conducted primarily in the streets and playgrounds among peers, often in crude language and pornographic detail. It was peppered with misinformation and myths like “girls can’t get pregnant if it’s their first ‘time,’” and “pregnancy is not possible if a girl has her period.”
In those days, America’s racist and sexist history was a similarly whitewashed subject, tailored to a heroic narrative of America’s founding and subsequent development in which indigenous people, enslaved Africans and women played stereotyped, bit parts. Rarely were these tales contradicted by parents who’d been taught in the same narrow way. And I suppose this same uncritical system has helped to perpetuate centuries of jingoism, sexism, and racism. How else to account for 400 years of prejudice and injustice in a democracy supposedly dedicated to the proposition that all are equal?
By the 1970s, when I began my thirty-year career in public school education, teachers and administrators were not clamoring to extend their duties beyond their academic mission or to make schools a social cure-all. Rather, this role was thrust upon them by a society awash with teenage pregnancy, STDs, bullying, homophobia, sexual abuse, racism, and gender inequality — thanks in large part to generations of parents missing in educational action.
Granted, this is a new day and a new generation. But parental groups currently accusing schools of overstepping their authority and responsibility concerning sex education and racial justice seem to ignore how we’ve gotten here. And though I’ve always believed that parental involvement in children’s education is vital for students’ academic and emotional development, I also find this recent “outrage” disingenuous because it’s been blatantly provoked by ambitious politicians manipulating their supporters to achieve partisan ends.
For instance, Republican governors Youngkin of Virginia, DeSantis of Florida and Abbott of Texas have used red herrings, like public schools teaching Critical Race Theory and teachers “indoctrinating” children’s gender identity, to pursue their political ambitions. Any parent seriously interested in the truth of those accusations can simply talk to a teacher, visit a class, or read the curriculum. Instead, it seems the sound and fury at recent school board meetings amount more to political theater than to sincere communication.
Likewise, Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act that prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” embraces censorship over communication, which ironically, is the same failed strategy that caused the social mess foisted on public schools in the first place. “Just say no” doesn’t teach children to abstain from sexual curiosity and questions of identity any more than it stopped young people from experimenting with drugs. And far from protecting children from harm, these policies often victimize them.
Consider that “Among the 10 states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy among girls 15-19 years old, five are states without mandated sex education: Arizona, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, and Arkansas.” Consider also that prohibiting school discussions of race and of gender identity may only subject minority and LGBTQ students to further bullying, alienation, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Ironically, if anyone is being indoctrinated, it’s not children by teachers, but parents by politicians. Worse, when politicians ban books, censor teachers, and cut school curricula, it means politicians are shaping what schools can teach and what children learn.
Perhaps parents concerned about what schools teach may be wise to follow the recommendation of Republican Joseph Ricca, school superintendent and member of the New Jersey state Board of Education: “Talk with your child’s teachers. The politicians know nothing about education.”
Thomas Cangelosi is a retired teacher residing in Avon.