Academic transparency is gaining traction in the states

Thus far this year, 13 states have passed legislation or regulations alleging to “ban” critical race theory. I have argued repeatedly that these measures, which effectively aim to ensure that no student faces a racially hostile learning environment, are a welcome development. But they also can’t be the end of the story.

So much of what parents object to may not necessarily meet the legal criteria articulated in these laws. And, ultimately, state law is too blunt an instrument to affect what happens inside the “black box” of a public school classroom. The next step, then, must be to help parents see inside that box — to know what their children are being taught. Textbook review committees are hardly sufficient for this purpose, given that a RAND study found 99 percent of elementary and 96 percent of secondary teachers draw upon “materials I have developed and/or selected myself” for their lesson plans.

Parents need a clear and direct window into school curriculum. Earlier this year, the Goldwater Institute’s Matt Beienburg articulated a compelling proposal for academic transparency for AEI’s “Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda” series. The idea is simple: schools should publicly post all materials used in the classroom so parents can see — at a glance online — what is being taught.

Parents protest against critical race theory being taught in local schools.

This proposal is starting to catch fire across the country. It has been introduced in Texas and Illinois, and passed in the Arizona state Senate and the North Carolina state House, and recently passed out of committee in the Wisconsin state House.

Earlier this month, Wyoming became the latest state to take up this proposal, when state senators Dan Dockstader and Ogden Driskill announced their plan to introduce the “Civic Transparency Act.” Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s state superintendent and a member of AEI’s Conservative Education Reform Network, explained that the bill “empowers parents with the tools they need to oversee what is being taught in their district and provides guidance to districts on comprehensive US history and civics instruction,” Superintendent Balow said in a press conference.

The Civic Transparency Act presents a modest but substantive twist to academic transparency bills introduced to date. Whereas most bills require the schools themselves to list the curriculum — under the theory that parents have a right to review curriculum before they choose schools — Wyoming’s bill puts the onus on the school board itself. This would create an extra layer of internal review, as well as make it clear to citizens that the school board members they elect — and could replace — are ultimately in control of school curriculum.

While the school-level reform works well for Arizona — a choice-rich state — putting the responsibility on the school board makes more sense in states where zoned public schools are the default for the vast majority of students. Senators Dockstader and Driskill and Superintendent Balow deserve congratulations for taking a good idea and making it better by more closely tailoring it to the their state’s needs. This is how the “laboratories of democracy” are supposed to work.

More state leaders should take up the cause of academic transparency. The argument for it could hardly be more compelling: Parents have a right to know what their children are being taught — and through knowing, they will have more power to influence it. The strongest argument made against it to date: that it is administratively burdensome for teachers. In the era of fax and Xerox machines, this may have been reasonable; but in an era when one can simply click-and-drag to the cloud, it’s a laughably weak case. It won’t take much public deliberation for citizens to realize the real argument against: that teachers’ unions and other education interest groups don’t want you to know what they’re teaching your kids.

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