Education’s Exposed Right Flank

Tips for education leaders tired of clashing with conservative parents
People listen to the Salt Lake County Council before their vote to overturned the health department's "order of restraint" on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, that would have required K-6 students to wear masks when school starts next week.
Conservative parents tend to think they are only temporarily entrusting their children to the care of their schools. Leaders can avoid some clashes with these parents by not excluding them from school decisions that affect their families.

There may be no more familiar question in education than, “Why can’t we put politics aside and do what’s best for kids?” The answer, which is obvious to anyone who’s ever sat through a school board meeting, is because we don’t agree on “what’s best for kids.” It’s not even clear what it would mean to “put politics aside,” given that politics is how we resolve public disagreements—and that public education entails the use of public funds to hire public employees to educate the public’s kids.

Today, politics have taken on new urgency for education leaders navigating polarized debates about CRT, SEL, DEI, gender identity, and more. Especially in red and purple communities, a lot of frustrated conservative parents are squaring off against equally frustrated educators. We suspect that’s the reason, since the publication of our recent book Getting Education Right, why we’ve heard from so many school and system leaders asking some version of, “Any advice on how I can better get through to those conservatives?”

Unfortunately, few school and system leaders get much preparation or support when it comes to building trust on the right. Education leaders are immersed in a world of conferences, associations, degree programs, and trainings with a pronounced leftward tilt on hot-button issues such as race, gender, and parenthood. Indeed, they can grow so used to certain assumptions and phrases that it’s easy for them to get blindsided by conservative pushback. This is bad for schools and students alike.

Education leaders can fall into a reflexive disdain for conservative perspectives, even those that are otherwise innocuous and broadly popular. For instance, a wealth of evidence points to the obvious benefits of following the “success sequence”—finish high school, get a job, and get married before having kids. Seventy-seven percent of Americans, whether they’ve practiced it or not, say schools should teach it to kids. Yet, in education circles, those who promote the success sequence have become accustomed to being attacked as racists. Heck, we’ve repeatedly watched an accomplished Black educator get derided as a bigot for insisting his school teach his mostly Black students about the success sequence, as we note in the book.

In talking to leaders (whatever their own views) who are seeking to engage better with right-leaning parents, teachers, politicians, and community members, we’ve found ourselves repeatedly hitting on a few themes that seem to be helpful and thought it worth sharing those here. We aren’t communication pros or politicos, so this isn’t about PR or pandering. Rather, it’s about engaging with parents and other stakeholders in principled, productive ways.

Respect the whole community. Including those on the right.

Sitting through a professional development session as a conservative teacher or a community workshop as a conservative parent often means feeling like an interloper. Trainings and workshops routinely feature speakers who go on at great length about the virtues of DEI, restorative justice, and other “equitable” initiatives while casually deriding “right-wing book banners.”

Leaders can become inured to all this. At the institutions that prepare them for their roles, at district-sponsored events, and at the professional conferences they attend, such rhetoric is commonplace. As a result, they can make the mistake of assuming that everyone regards it as forward-thinking, even inclusive. Well, for those on the right, such talking points feel less like accepted truth than disingenuous barbs. They see divisive practices that have nothing to do with diversity or inclusion, “restorative” practices that fuel chaotic classrooms, and “equity” wielded to eliminate advanced math (as in California) or basic graduation requirements (as in Oregon). Conservatives find those denunciations of “book banning” to be politicized misrepresentations of attempts to remove genuinely pornographic texts from the shelves of middle-school libraries.

Heck, at the National Book Awards, beloved children’s entertainer LeVar Burton threatened to “throw hands” if there were any members of Moms for Liberty in the crowd. The room’s response? Laughter. So, in this bastion of progressive inclusiveness, it’s apparently cool to winkingly joke about violence against women . . . as long as they’re right-wing. If you’re seen as tolerating or accepting that kind of double standard, understand that conservatives will inevitably regard you with distrust, no matter how unfair you may think they’re being.

Here’s a simple standard for school and district leaders: presume that all of your parents deserve respect, no matter their politics. Do your homework on the speakers you hire to address students, teachers, and families. Are they going to engage constructively or peddle ideological agendas that denounce whole swaths of your community as rubes and racists? Are they going to allow for respectful discussion and disagreement or spew lazy stereotypes? When it’s a question of race, ethnicity, or immigration status, today’s school leaders intuitively accept that schools can’t appear to dismiss whole swaths of their community. That same moral compass ought to apply here. The ranks of teacher trainers and DEI consultants include too many incompetents and ideologues. Don’t invite those outrage artists into your school or system.

Engage with parents, even when you disagree with them

Conservatives tend to agree with Russell Kirk that, “The family always has been the source and center of community.” This primacy can seem discomfiting to some educators, counselors, and administrators (especially the ones with the “I’m your mom now” posters in their classrooms). After all, if an educator contends that first graders should learn about gender identity or middle schoolers about their “white privilege,” they think they’re just doing what’s right and that parental objections must be evidence of troubling personal agendas. We get it. Leaders who choose to hide a child’s in-school gender identity from parents are convinced they have the child’s best interests at heart.

But parents, in good faith and without any agenda other than their child’s well-being, may see things very differently. There already exist protocols for when teachers suspect that parents or guardians are abusing their charges. If such concerns exist, teachers should act on them. Where they don’t, schools should not be in the business of keeping things from parents. Given that parents rightly expect to be notified when the school gives their child an aspirin, it’s ludicrous to imagine that schools would hide the fact that their child is adopting an entirely new identity at school. You personally disagree? Okay. But understand that the thousands of schools that have adopted a policy of hiding a student’s in-school gender from their parents have taken an aggressive, ideological stance—and that it will be interpreted as such.

School leaders do well to appreciate that conservatives tend to think they’ve very temporarily entrusted their children to the care of their schools and have learned to be skeptical about what that entails. There are, of course, practical limits on how much influence parents should have on discipline or curriculum. And we’re all acquainted with problem parents who may be inclined to create conflict just because it’s in their nature, or because they can’t conceive that their child would ever misbehave. But a commitment to communication and transparency strikes us as a nonnegotiable baseline. A leader who can’t (or won’t) agree to that is unlikely to win the trust of conservative parents.

Take “true history” seriously

Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, has observed, “Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.” These competing dispositions emerge when it comes to teaching American history. In their most extreme iterations, such perspectives can, on the one hand, lead to teachers turning a blind eye to the mistakes and shortcomings of our nation—or, on the other hand, becoming entirely consumed by them.

Conveniently, the vast majority of Americans occupy a reasonable position on the teaching of American history. In fact, 90 percent of Americans agree with some version of the statement, “Schools should teach American history, warts and all.” Contra the social-media rhetoric, conservatives know that America has a checkered history and agree that students need to learn about the Three-fifths Compromise, Jim Crow, Korematsu, and the Trail of Tears.

We fear, though, that far too many classrooms tilt toward vilifying America rather than teach a balanced and accurate history. The enthusiasm for the New York Times’s factually-challenged 1619 Project-based curriculum, the architect of which describes America as a “slavocracy,” is illustrative. There’s little pedagogical or public purpose in approaching history as a series of overwrought, oft-dubious tales of American villainy.  Educators need to tune out the noise from the extremes—both from the parents offended by books depicting Ruby Bridge’s harassers as white (they were!) and from the activists seemingly intent on convincing children that America is irredeemably evil. There was a time when schools leaned too far to the right on all this. Today, many lean too far to the left—and educators shouldn’t be surprised by the backlash that can result.

There are, however, sensible remedies. The teacher unions and ed school activists urge schools to teach “true history.” We think that’s a terrific idea. Teach about America’s shortcomings but also its successes at expanding the franchise, incorporating wave after wave of immigration, fending off genocidal fascists during World War II and murderous totalitarians during the half-century-long Cold War, creating shared prosperity, cleaning up the environment, combating the scourge of ethnic and racial hatred, erecting stable governing institutions, and pioneering deep and enduring protections for civil liberties. Teach it all, the good and the bad. If your educators haven’t been exposed to the good in their teacher training or fear being labeled naïve for discussing it . . . well, that’s when an unabashed commitment to “true history” will be especially useful.

Effective public stewards forge relationships with their whole community. There have been laudable efforts to make sure that educators reach out across racial, ethnic, linguistic, and sexual identity differences. Making every child and every family feel welcome and respected is important. Given intense polarization and roiling tensions between conservatives and their schools, leaders who haven’t gotten much useful counsel when it comes to engaging the right will find it an especially propitious time to apply this advice to a relationship that’s on the ropes.

Frederick M. Hess is an executive editor of Education Next. Michael Q. McShane is director of research for EdChoice. They are the authors of Getting Education Right: A Conservative Vision for Improving Early Childhood, K–12, and College (Teachers College Press).

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