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The Insidious Grip of Parents’ Rights Advocates in Our Local School Boards

Jasmine Y. Ma

Here in New York City, many of us are horrified to read news of places where we’re glad not to be raising our children. We are outraged by what’s happening in Florida, where a patently racist law known as the “Stop WOKE Act” bans educational institutions and businesses from teaching–or even talking–about race, privilege, and oppression. We are disgusted by the repugnant homophobic and transphobic law often called “Don’t Say Gay,” which erases and negates any non-cis, non-heteronormative gender and sexual orientation identities of children and their families. 

“Thank goodness we live in The City,” my friends and I say. “In the Northeast we care about equity!” However, when we look in our own backyards, I’m not so sure we can make this claim. Across local school boards (called Citywide and Community Education Councils, or CCECs in New York City), individual parents who appear to be committed to ensuring educational opportunities for our children are running for, and winning, seats. In fact, these candidates and Councilmembers are actually backed by groups that are designed to seem local but are actually interconnected nationally through membership and through funding by the same small set of wealthy conservative politicians and leaders. What’s more, these organizations explicitly offer trainings for interested parents to run for school boards and public office. 

Let’s call these parent candidates “Parents’ Rights Advocates” (PRAs). Their statements and platforms often sound reasonable to us. They advocate for things like “improving educational opportunities to help all students reach their full potential” and students having “access to schools that meet their educational needs.” On the surface, these seem like really great goals. Equitable, even. Of course, these arguments are fine-tuned (in part through those trainings mentioned above) to “sound reasonable” to us, in the same way “education advocacy” groups have succeeded in places like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. Most importantly though, if you look into the logic of these reasonable-sounding arguments and solutions PRAs offer, things begin to fall apart. The trick of PRAs’ “advocacy” is that there is always a hidden “other” in their assumptions and arguments–an “other” that has completely been erased in their rhetoric, and yet will inevitably be harmed by their solutions. 

As an example, let’s take accelerated programs (including tracked courses, Gifted & Talented programs, specialized high schools, and even “high achieving” middle and high schools). PRAs often advocate for more accelerated opportunities as the way students’ “educational needs” will be met. Sometimes they frame it as “more access,” implying these programs may allow students who have historically been left out of these programs to participate. However, the promise of “access” is contradicted by the strikingly persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities apparent across accelerated programs in New York City. There is a common belief that, for many from underserved spaces, like immigrant and low-income families, having access to these kinds of programs is the path to social mobility. If we think carefully about the big picture though, accelerated programs presume that there are children who are not accelerated. Maybe they are “normal” or “average.” Maybe they are “slow” or “remedial.” In other words, for accelerated programs to make sense, we have to agree that sorting and ranking children in terms of perceived academic potential (measured by past school achievement, no less) makes sense. Some children are “accelerated” (and deserve to be!), and some are not. 

The assumptions underlying this kind of sorting have long been disproved by education research. The major assumption bolstering this argument is that learning occurs in a cumulative fashion, like filling up one’s brain with information, one textbook chapter after another; some kids are able to take stuff in faster, and others are slower. But as a learning scientist, I can tell you that this is simply not how learning works. Learning involves meaning-making, the development of new practices and routines of representation, problem-solving, and communication. People learn at all different rates depending on what they are learning, how they are being asked to learn, and what else is happening in their lives. Further, there is always more to learn about any particular topic. Just because a student “knows” how to multiply fractions does not mean they must move on to dividing fractions. Instead, we might ask: What is it that the student knows about multiplying fractions? For example: Which models of multiplication have they encountered? How do they decide which to use? Which procedures do they know? Do they know why they work? When to use them? Learning also involves becoming particular kinds of people. Acquiring as many math facts and procedures as possible as quickly as possible makes good test takers, not good mathematicians or good problem solvers. Pushing our children only to learn faster (and faster than the other kids!), rather than with more rigor, and with wonder, and with love, does not serve them in the long run. Why not urge our districts to support our teachers in providing deeper conceptual instruction and acquiring resources for richer curricula, rather than advocate for a system to sort and rank our children, a system which by definition segregates children by perceived ability or effort, and inevitably leaves some behind? 

I have heard one of these PRAs say, at a CCEC meeting, that everyone just wants what’s best for their own children. Of course we all want the best for our children. But here’s something to consider: what’s best for our children can actually be accomplished in many different ways. And many of these ways do not have to be at the expense of other families and their children. In fact, some ways can even lift up those who are most vulnerable.

PRAs try to mislead us into thinking there is only one possible solution for protecting your children, and your family. They assume that education is comprised of a finite set of resources, and the only way to advocate for your children is to fight hard for those resources. This is the captivating logic of extremist conservatives, and of White Supremacy. It pits us against each other, rather than encouraging us to work together to find solutions that benefit everyone. Under this ideology of ranking, sorting, and resource-grabbing, some folks necessarily need to be left behind. It’s not a coincidence that those folks are usually students of color, students with disabilities, students from lower socio-economic communities, immigrants, and English language learners. 

We want school boards that can investigate multiple solutions toward our community’s goals, rather than fight for singular solutions that reproduce inequity. We want school boards that seek to fight not just for individual families but also for a better educational system that leads to positive imagined futures for all of our children, and that models for our children concern for the wellbeing of our most vulnerable neighbors and friends. For those of you in New York City, in the next two weeks, as you consider who you will be voting for in your CCEC election, I urge you to look out for those PRA arguments and solutions, and cast your ballots for equity (click here to see the Alliance for Quality Education’s recommendations).

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Jasmine Y. Ma is an Associate Professor at NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning.