by John McClaughry I consider myself a long time champion of local democracy. I co-wrote with Frank Bryan a book subtitled “recreating democracy on a local scale” (The Vermont Papers, 1989). But over the years I have occasionally had the thought that there can also be a problem with local democracy, when powerful outside forces are brought to bear on local decision making.
What public schooling should teach their students gave rise to controversy as far back as the 18th century, when townspeople engaged in recurring struggles over which ministry and which brand of (Protestant) religion the taxpayers should be required to support.
Over the past fifty years, public education in Vermont has evolved far from traditional local control. Nowadays we have an all-powerful State Agency of Education (per Act 60 of 1997), a school boards association ever-vigilant to stamp out competition from independent schools, and a 12,000 member teachers union constantly demanding more pay, more benefits, smaller classes, and more control inside the schools.
These three entities sometimes disagree among themselves, but there’s one thing they agree on: decisions about our children’s education is too important to be left to parents, who have few qualifications to interfere with the policies of education professionals, and can’t be counted on to make the correct choices for their children.
On the other side are parents. Aside from solving an occasional problem for their own children and voting taxes to meet the needs and demands of the education system, most parents usually don’t pay much attention to what’s being taught in their public schools.
But now and then an issue arises that alarms the parents (and grandparents). Right now, in many places across the nation, parents have come to believe that the education professionals have been captured by an aggressive left wing movement dedicated to turning out students who are ideologically and socially reshaped in line with the beliefs not of their parents, but of groups promoting a radically different ideology.
One example of a controversial issue is the 2018 “Full Spectrum” handbook distributed by the Agency of Education, in cooperation with Outright Vermont (LGTBQ) and Planned Parenthood. It advises the teachers of sex education to “recognize that anyone with certain anatomy can become pregnant including individuals of all genders”, banishes reference to “male and female reproductive systems” in favor of “people with vaginas” and “people with penises”, encourages classroom role playing where children are required to pretend to have different genders and sexual preferences, and warns against offensively referring to one’s “mother”.
Even more controversial is Critical Race Theory. CRT scorns the civil rights movement for advocating equal opportunity and mutual understanding among the races. It calls for continual conflict among racist white oppressors and black victims.
What brought CRT into sharp national focus were the resolutions adopted last July by the assembly of the National Education Association. One delegate-approved measure calls for the union to issue a study criticizing ‘empire, white supremacy, anti-blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy (!), capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.’” More ominously, another urges NEA union teachers to lead campaigns to push CRT into the nation’s classrooms.
In the face of local controversy, friends of local democracy would probably say, let’s all sit down together and work out some rational compromise. Instead, angry parents are berating and even threatening their school boards, while the education establishment insists that the protestors go away and let the experts correctly mold the next generation of young Americans. National organizations, Left and Right, are using school controversies to mobilize supporters and raise money.
One astonishing feature of this debate was the letter sent by the National School Boards Association to the Attorney General of the United States, requesting that he send the FBI – the FBI! - to attend school board meetings to intimidate and arrest protestors suspected of “hate crimes” and “domestic terrorism”. He has promised “to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel."
This battle is not likely to resolve soon, but there is one helpful solution, drawn from the college level. Parents of students unhappy with radical curricula infused into their children don’t go to college board meetings to complain. They pull their kids out and send them to colleges that share their values and their hopes for the children’s future lives and careers.
There’s no reason we can’t at least diminish this bitter clash with parent-empowered universal K-12 choice here in Vermont.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He was vice chair of the Senate Education Committee and has been Kirby town moderator for 55 years.