From Loudoun County, Virginia, to Poway, California, and everywhere in between, a heated national debate has ensued over what is taught in public schools. A national poll found 73 percent of registered voters are “extremely” or “very” concerned about what public schools are teaching children. Parents, increasingly more engaged in their children’s education, are flooding school board meetings to debate what their children should and should not be required to learn.
This topic received even more attention in October 2021 as Attorney General Merrick Garland testified before Congress on a memo he issued, which instructed the Department of Justice to investigate parents who have threatened school board members.
As Washington debates Garland’s memo, state-based think tanks are listening to parents’ concerns and working to find solutions. These organizations are close to the people in their communities and look for answers that transcend politics and partisan fights. One way to address curriculum conflicts, according to many state think tanks, is through transparency—or allowing parents to view the instructional materials their child is taught.
Promoting fiscal and academic transparency can lead to better outcomes for public school students and their families. Let’s take a look at what states are advancing education transparency reforms.
As mentioned above, curriculum transparency is a solution that requires schools to share with parents the content they teach to their students, usually online. These reforms could help prevent politically charged materials from entering the classroom. Sounds like a good idea, right? It is, but most public schools across the country are not required to make this information available to parents. Several states, however, are developing solutions that give parents access to this information.
The Center of the American Experiment’s efforts led to a two-year pause in the implementation of new social studies academic standards in Minnesota. American Experiment was the first entity to sound the alarm on the direction taken in the first draft of new standards released by the Minnesota Department of Education. Based on their research and commentary, 5,000 Minnesotans sent comments to the Department voicing their concerns about the omission of important historical concepts and the insertion of critical race theory-informed concepts.
Center of the American Experiment has also launched a new website and parent chat tool that will shine the light of accountability on the state’s education system as it moves further away from the values of Minnesota families. The www.IlluminEdMN.com website features a parent chat page where parents can join conversations with others in their local school district about current education issues, such as critical race theory or school referendums.
With direction from the Show-Me Institute, Missouri is considering a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” similar to Florida’s bill. The bill states that the government cannot infringe upon the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare, and mental health of their child.
The Goldwater Institute represented Rhode Island mom Nicole Solas after the National Education Association, the largest public sector teachers’ union in the country, sued Nicole for asking questions about what her daughter would be taught in Kindergarten.
In October 2021, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to pass powerful new curriculum transparency legislation to bring sunlight in—and take politics out—of its K-12 classrooms. Based on the Goldwater Institute’s model policy language, and with the support of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the Wisconsin State Senate and State Assembly passed mirror bills establishing parents’ rights to know what is being taught in their schools by requiring school districts to post on a publicly accessible portion of their website a listing of the specific learning materials being used at each school. In early December 2021, the Wisconsin Governor vetoed the legislation, but WILL is continuing to explore ways to give parents the information they deserve.
The Sutherland Institute in Utah has been advocating for enhanced curriculum transparency for grades K-12—and their efforts are paying off. In May 2021, Utah passed a law that requires local school boards to make curriculum “readily accessible and available for a parent to view” on an annual basis. The Sutherland Institute noted this law is a good step, but Utah can and should do more. In October 2021, the Utah Legislature started to discuss options for increasing curriculum transparency for parents of public school students. Sutherland submitted testimony on the topic and recommended that the proposals consider the impact curriculum transparency will have on the partnership between parents and teachers. Sutherland added that curriculum transparency is a necessary practice that will build the parent-teacher partnership.
Education is mostly funded by state governments through property and income taxes. Taxpayers have a right to know how exactly school districts are spending that money. Research shows that more and more school funding is spent on administrative costs, rather than costs directly related to educating students. The public needs to be aware of where the money goes so they can make informed policy decisions. Promoting fiscal transparency in schools will help the public do that.
In June 2021, thanks in-part to the efforts of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, the Louisiana Legislature passed legislation that requires local public-school systems to make information about school spending more readily available to parents and communities. However, a month later the Louisiana Governor vetoed the legislation.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty ran a campaign that led to the passage of fiscal transparency legislation in Wisconsin. In October 2021, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill that makes public school district spending more transparent. The legislation requires the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to collect data at least annually and upload to a website that allows the public to access, sort, and download school district information relating to local, state and federal funds. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty partnered with the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG) and ExcelinEd in Action in supporting and advancing this legislation.
The Kansas Policy Institute created a website that outlines district-level data on school spending, funding, employment, enrollment, and achievement.
In August 2021, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy released the “Fat Cat Report”, a summary of the top 50 highest paid public officials in Mississippi. The report found almost half of the highest paid public officials in the state are education bureaucrats. The state’s Superintendent for Public Education earns $300,000 per year—making them one of the highest paid State Superintendents in America.
Through their transparency website, the Empire Center for Public Policy has been tracking how much school districts pay public school teachers and administrators. In September 2021, Empire pointed out that almost 20 percent of New York educators outside of New York City were paid at least $100,000 in 2020.
In August 2021, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a report that shines a light on how the state of Tennessee spends tax dollars on education. The report found that in the Volunteer State, only 53 percent of educational funding makes it into the classroom—seven percent below the national average. Beacon noted the state continues to spend more and more on administration and systems rather than funding students and teachers.
In addition to curriculum and fiscal transparency, academic transparency can help improve K-12 education for students across the country. Academic transparency is a solution that allows parents to understand how their state’s public schools are performing—or how well those schools are preparing students and setting them up to succeed in life.
The Kansas Policy Institute created a helpful, popular tool that helps Kansas parents find out how their child’s school is performing and how it compares to other schools. KPI is also encouraging state lawmakers to pass legislation that requires every Kansas school district to publish a student achievement report on their websites.
Pelican released a report on Louisiana’s accountability policy and outlined principles of an effective policy. Pelican noted an effective accountability system is a powerful tool in driving the behavior of the adults in our education system to act in the best interest of student outcomes, and it’s an even more powerful tool for parents as they make decisions about the best educational opportunities for their kids.
In response to the failure to provide adequate transparency by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Show-Me Institute released a new tool that ranks school performance in Missouri, giving each school a GPA and helping parents to compare education options.
Academic transparency to protect students from radical politics in K–12 education
American Enterprise Institute