Commentary by Cori Petersen originally published by RealClearEducation.com
More want a voice – and a choice.
“I want to see parents more involved with the board of education,” said Scarlett Johnson who leads the Mequon-Thiensville parents group and is seeking election to the school board. “And I want to see less ideology in the classroom.”
National School Choice Week is a celebration of parents using publicly funded vouchers to send their children to private schools. However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a movement of parents who want more say in directing their child’s public-school education.
When schools went virtual in March 2020, parents became very involved in their children’s education overnight and needed the schools to open up as soon as possible. When Mequon decided to go virtual in the fall of 2020, a group of concerned parents began meeting and held some of the town’s first protests.
Once schools opened in later September 2020, this parent group shifted their attention to curriculum concerns exposed through virtual learning. For instance, in spring 2020, Mequon Thiensville paid $42,000 for Blaquesmith Consulting to bring “The Talk” and “Realizing Our Vision” to the district.
“Our ‘homework’ was to read ‘White Fragility,’ Ibram X Kendi and Paulo Freire’s Marxist guide to indoctrinate youth titled ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed.’ Freire was an admirer of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China and he helped facilitate Fidel Castro’s brutal reign in Cuba,” Johnson said. “This is why parents like myself are outraged.”
Mequon’s high school has long been considered Wisconsin’s best public high school. However, test scores have been declining. From the 2015-2016 year to the 2020-2021 year, third through eighth grade reading proficiency fell from 71% to 58%. The pandemic only perpetuated this decline with grade-level reading rates falling from 67% to 58% between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years.
The parents group led a failed school board recall this past fall, but they do believe they have made some headway: the district now has an academic recovery plan and Johnson is running for the school board. “On the board, I want to be a voice against the prevailing status quo,” Johnson said.
Joshua Russow of Belleville was only met with cagey responses from his district when he urged them to open. After discovering like-minded parents in his county with similar experiences, Russow began spending 20 plus hours a week gathering evidence for reopening.
Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) cited Harvard time and again for keeping schools closed. So Russow, in December 2020, got in contact with Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor and Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard and one of the main experts cited in Harvard’s “Schools and the Path to Zero: Strategies for Pandemic Resilience in the Face of High Community Spread.” Turns out, Harvard’s guidance was changing, and they were encouraging schools to open. Russow organized a call with all of the Dane County district superintendents and Allen. Allen told the superintendents that their decisions to keep children out of school was “unconscionable.”
Following the meeting, Russow said his open records requests exposed collusion between the Dane County superintendents who all agreed to fall in line with PHMDC instead of prioritizing their community’s needs. Two days following the meeting with Allen, PHMDC changed their reopening guidelines making it now up to the individual school districts. Schools began opening in early 2021.
In other districts parents have gotten involved with less success. Inna Turner of Whitefish Bay stated the school board is unresponsive to parents with opposing views. “When we did a FOIA request they ignored it,” she said. “They had $36 million in the budget that was allocated in three very general categories for which they would not provide us a breakdown.” The district has continued to push Critical Race Theory. “There is now an elective course in the high school called ‘Leadership for Social Justice’ to teach our children how to be Social Justice warriors,” Turner said. Turner began sending her son to a private school in the fall of 2020.
Other parent groups have arisen to protect districts from what they consider harmful political ideologies. Bill Brewer has led a parent group in Slinger and is now seeking election to the school board. “We have to take proactive steps to prevent things from taking root and that’s the work that is not being done by the school board,” he said.
While Brewer feels he is fortunate to be in a district that appears not to push critical race theory, he does feel the school board needs to be more responsive. “I came as a concerned parent in June to talk about resources, websites, books, etc., and to ask for the school board’s help. At times I was met with denials and hostility.” Brewer is running because he wants to “help parents to be heard.”
Choice is about just that: giving parents the right to have a say in their child’s education. Public school parents wanting choice is not just a Wisconsin phenomenon. Parents all over the country have since the start of the pandemic, been getting more involved with their schools. This fall protests erupted in Southlake, TX over curriculum concerns, in Springfield Mo. over COVID-19 protocols, and just this week parents in Stafford, Va. protested the mask mandate, just to name a few instances.
“I’m concerned about kids getting hurt and parents having no voice,” Russow said. “These school districts put politics ahead of the kids time and again. I’m here to say, ‘No more.’”
Cori Petersen is a writer and research associate at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.