A new podcast from The New York Times suggests that “Nice White Parents” are the reason for failures in the education system. The podcast, according to The Heritage Foundation’s Mary Clare Amselem, cites “examples of parents getting involved in the day-to-day operation of the school, and paints this involvement as an affront to public schooling,” implying parental involvement is somehow detrimental.

Amselem joins the podcast to discuss it.

We also cover these stories:

  • About 2,000 American troops are coming home from Iraq this month. 
  • Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday during a press conference that a federal program called Operation Legend is cracking down on Chicago’s surging crime, making more than 500 arrests and charging 124 people with federal criminal counts since the beginning of the program. 
  • The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it will represent President Donald Trump in a defamation case filed by E. Jean Carroll, a woman who claims to have been raped by Trump in the 1990s. 

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Mary Clare Amselem. She’s a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation Center for Education Policy. Mary Clare, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Mary Clare Amselem: Thanks so much for having me.

Del Guidice: We have recently had a really popular piece on The Daily Signal called “‘Nice White Parents’ Responsible for Failing Public Schools, New York Times Says.” Can you start off, Mary Clare, by telling us about your piece?

Amselem: Sure. So I decided to write the piece because I was listening to the latest New York Times podcast.

I’m sure many listeners out there know that The New York Times comes out with a lot of pretty popular podcasts, “1619 Project,” one of them. This is also from the makers of “Serial,” which is, of course, I think, the most popular podcast ever—sort of kicked off this sort podcast revolution that we have.

So I was definitely interested in the podcast and … the title is quite catching, it’s called “Nice White Parents.” And it’s an education-themed podcast, so that was definitely interesting to me as an education policy analyst. And listening to it, it was pretty shocking what I heard.

There’s a lot of debate over why the public school system continues to fail America’s children. It’s a very complicated question. People have solutions. At The Heritage Foundation, I think we have some pretty good solutions and we’ve been trying to get those solutions out there for quite a long time now.

But this podcast says the problem is pretty simple and it’s that white parents are making decisions that are hurting the overall integrity of public education, which is quite a shocking claim. And it’s something that we should be talking about.

We shouldn’t really let them just sort of make such a claim and then not do a little bit of our own fact-checking.

It’s important to point out that the podcast chronicles the experience of a single school and then sort of extrapolates the experience of this school into sort of the broader issues, plaguing all of public education.

But what bothered me as someone who studies these types of issues for a living is that the underlying premise, setting aside that they single out parents of a specific race, but they single out parents.

They say that the parental choices are sort of getting in the way of this plan that the public education system has for America’s children, which is such a nefarious way of posing the problem.

… People like myself … believe that parents should be the sole deciders over what and how their children learn. Parents should have autonomy in this space.

For people who come to this issue from that approach, hearing something like, “The choices that parents make make the public school system a worst place,” it is really troublesome. And it’s something that we should be talking about and fighting back against.

Del Guidice: Yeah. That was actually one of my questions.

Something that you wrote about is how you said that there were examples of parents getting involved in day-to-day operation of the school and that this podcast painted this involvement as an affront to public schooling.

Can you talk about that statement that they alleged or that they said and your response to that?

Amselem: Sure. So again, this podcast talks about a single school. So the, I guess you could say author, the host of the podcast doesn’t give a ton of examples. She gives a couple examples and then sort of says, “Now you see the problem.”

So the problem that she gave an example of was that when a bunch of new parents came into the school system, they decided they wanted a French program. And so they got a lot of parents together, they did a little bit of fundraising. They were able to hire a French teacher and then, boom, they offered French classes at the school.

Me, as a school choice advocate, I look at this and I go, “Wow, what a great example of parental involvement of parents advocating for the type of education that they want.”

However, the host of the “Nice White Parents” podcast said, “Well, these parents sort of pushed in what they want to see in the curriculum onto the school. … Not all parents wanted a French course.”

Again, the solution to that isn’t, “We’ll take decision-making power away from all parents.” The solution is [to] give every parent in America choice over where they send their kid, children to schools, so that when they’re shopping around for schools, they say, “Hey, I really want my kids to learn French.”

And they are able to pick between the public schools, the private schools, the charter schools, whatever they want, they’re able to choose the school that offers the types of things that they want their children to learn and that they have the financial power to do so. School choice programs enable that to happen.

But this podcast from The New York times, “Nice White Parents,” says that the solution is, “Well, we can’t have some parents advocating for their children”—and this leaves behind the students that you can have serve a tyranny of a majority-type thing—”so we should just take away all the decision-making power from parents and leave all the decision-making to education bureaucrats.”

And that takes decisions out of the hands of parents. And quite frankly, it’s kind of scary to think that we have these unelected people who are making such important decisions over how and what our children learn.

Del Guidice: Another point made by The New York Times in this podcast, “Nice White Parents,” [that] they responded to is that parents choosing to exit the public school system leads to underfunded schools.

Can you explain the thinking behind a perspective like this and what your response to this is?

Amselem: Yeah. So this is a common criticism that anti-school choice advocates have is that they say, “Well, if you have people exiting the public school system, they’re taking those education dollars with them and they’re going elsewhere.”

First of all, if the public school system is serving America’s children so wonderfully, then they shouldn’t have to be worried about people exiting if given the choice.

If the only way your school survives is by people being forced to be there, then maybe you have a bad product that you’ve got going on there. And that’s certainly not a situation that we want America’s families to be in. But it’s a giant mess that is constantly pedaled, that schools are underfunded.

We spent a massive amount of money on education in America. Since the creation of the Department of Education, education spending has only gone one direction, up, and it’s gone up quite steadily.

Test scores, on the other hand, have remained entirely stagnant. By pretty much any measure, we have not improved education outcomes largely since the creation of the Department of Education, which has come along with billions, and billions, and billions of dollars in education spending.

Looking at that, you can’t argue that more money will somehow solve the problem if more money has not solved the problem for the last 40 years.

Something else is going on here and we need to come up with more innovative ways of addressing the deeply rooted problems in the public schooling system, besides simply saying, “Well, let’s try throwing more money at it because that’s the only thing we’ve been doing for, like I said, 40 years, and that hasn’t yielded the outcomes that we want to see.”

Del Guidice: On that note, something else you talked about in your piece is that there’s a disproportionate growth in the number of teachers compared to the growth in the student population. What’s going on here and why do you think that’s the case?

Amselem: As I mentioned, there’s a massive amount of money going into the public school system.

The teachers are right when they say, “Hey, we’re not getting paid a ton.” Or if you look at school buildings and some of them are not up to date and you see students learning from outdated textbooks, all of those things are true, but it doesn’t mean that the schools are underfunded. It just means that the money is not going to the right places.

So I believe in the piece I quoted Dr. Ben Scafidi at Kennesaw State University. He’s done a lot of really great work looking at, well, where is the money in public schooling actually going? And what he found was between 1950 and 2015, administrative staff has grown over 709% in that time period compared to about a 100% increase in the student population.

So that’s a massively disproportionate increase in the number of administrators versus the number of students. And so when I look at those numbers, I say, “OK, that’s very clear to me. That’s very clear exactly where the money is going.”

If you look at Washington, D.C, we’re spending about $30,000 per student per year in the public school system, far and away higher than any private school tuition, $30,000 per student per year.

And D.C has some of the poorest schools in the country. We have consistently low test scores, low graduation rates. D.C schools by and large are not doing well despite that massive investment. And poor people who are really concerned about these issues [should] take a look at, where is the money going?

We have a massive education bureaucracy going on in our country and it’s this huge untold story that podcasts like the “Nice White Parents” podcasts are completely glazing over.

So that’s why I mentioned at the beginning that they say that the problem with the public schooling system is quite simple and thus the choices of parents. I would argue that it’s a massive bureaucracy problem that’s deeply rooted in the entire system and it’s going to be quite complicated to simplify that.

And in the meantime, we have students stuck in schools that are not serving them well, which is exactly why we need to pass legislation that would enable students to move around schools if it’s not working for them.

Del Guidice: Mary Clare, we had talked pretty briefly about that one example that was used in this “Nice White Parents” podcast, where they were talking about these parents that wanted to have this French class and they formed a committee and they tried to bring this in. And that was kind of looked down upon.

So my question to you is, if you were talking to this host of this podcast or talking to people who felt threatened by that, what would you tell them in that situation?

Amselem: I would say that squashing the voices of parents in this conversation about how to improve our schools really is a dangerous road to go down. And it’s not going to yield the kind of school system that anyone wants their kids to go to.

The reason we have a public schooling system is to serve America’s children. And the people who know their children best and can advocate for them the best are their parents.

You can have the most well-intentioned school administrator who believes in public education and loves what they do, but they don’t know your kid. They don’t know how your kid studies math. They don’t know that your kid doesn’t have an ear for languages and might need special attention, but you know that about your child.

So that is why the system needs to be set up so that the people who know and can advocate for their children the best are the ones who have a voice.

I think that it’s really troublesome to hear people advocate for completely removing the role of parents altogether, because then we have a system where we have teachers deciding how your children are going to be raised.

And we have a very diverse country when it comes to culture, when it comes to religion, values, and there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all system that meets the needs of this very diverse country’s different values, religions, cultures, etc. And that’s why we need people.

We need to have many options that fits in schooling needs of children. And we need to give parents a voice. I think that squashing the role of parents in public education is exactly the opposite direction that we need to go.

Del Guidice: Mary Clare, you also talked about how the podcast not only attacks the autonomy of parents, but also their race. What’s the problem here?

Amselem: That was definitely a very troubling aspect, completely underlying the entire podcast. And to be honest, it’s hard to know what to say.

They singled out a group of parents based on their race, assumed that they all act the same, that they’re making the same decisions, and that those decisions are where the entire system’s problems lie.

If that makes me uncomfortable, I think that makes pretty much anyone listening uncomfortable to hear that. And I think that there’s a reason for that, is that it’s simply wrong. That’s un-American.

Here in America, we treat people as individuals. That’s something that I very firmly believe. And I think that treating people as individuals is how we should walk into all policy conversations. And so I definitely found it troubling and something that we should be fighting against.

Del Guidice: You also highlighted that this podcast in The New York Times did not offer any policy solutions in their whole discussion. And I know we’ve talked briefly about school choice and how important that is, but in addition to that, and maybe even in more depth, what sort of policy solutions would you suggest?

Amselem: Absolutely. So school choice, it cannot be overstated how important it is, especially at a time right now for every child in America to have access to a school choice program.

If you are in a school that offers French and you want to take Spanish, you should be able to shop around and pick what classes fit the needs of your family.

I’m using language, but there are far more controversial issues that might drive people away from a school system, like sexual advocation or the way that they approach religion. These are deeply personal questions that every family grapples with and approaches differently.

And to have an assignment by ZIP code system, where we’re saying, “You must go to this school, and if they’re teaching something that undermines your values, you’re out of luck,” I think that that’s wrong and we shouldn’t be asking parents to make sacrifices like that.

So definitely empowering parents through school choice programs. But we’re at an interesting moment where a lot of these public schools that people are assigned to are not reopening in the fall. And so at The Heritage Foundation, we’ve been talking a lot about how more parents, they’re looking toward homeschooling, they’re looking toward pandemic pods.

These have always been fantastic options for families, but we’re at such a unique moment right now where families who had never really considered that before are suddenly saying, “Maybe I will consider homeschooling. Maybe I will consider starting a pandemic pod in my neighborhood with the neighborhood kids.” Because the public school system has been falling short of meeting the education needs of many of these families.

So it’s definitely an interesting time. There’s definitely never been a stronger need for school choice.

Del Guidice: Well, we talked about various aspects of this podcast from The New York Times, “Nice White Parents,” but if there’s one overall message that you’d like to share with The New York Times to respond to them and to their listeners and even to our listeners, what would that overall top one response be?

Amselem: I would say that singling out parents is the wrong thing to do, that we should be lifting up the voices of parents, not squashing them.

I think that if we gave parents more of a voice when it comes to what happens inside the classroom, we would see a much better school system based on unique knowledge of individual children.

We have the technology now, we have the resources to be able to customize education to the needs of a child through things like education, savings accounts, through things like vouchers. We have that ability. And we get there through empowering parents, not squashing their voices.

Del Guidice: Finally, on somewhat of a related note, Mary Clare, you’re working on starting a new podcast. Can you give us a little sneak peek on what it will be about?

Amselem: Sure. So yes, I am starting a new Heritage Foundation podcast called “COVID in the Classroom.” So if you are interested in what we’ve been talking about here today, this podcast will definitely be for you.

It’s talking about this unique moment that we are in in education, about how a lot of families are considering homeschooling, they’re considering pandemic pods. How are the public schools failing to meet the needs of a lot of America’s children? And what options do parents have? Where should parents turn?

So if you’re a parent and you’re really struggling with distance learning, you will definitely be interested in our new podcast, “COVID in the Classroom.”

Del Guidice: Mary Clare, thank you so much for joining us today on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” We appreciate having you.

Amselem: Thanks for having me. Any time.