The COVID-19 pandemic revealed disturbing trends about how critical race theory and LGBT indoctrination were being promulgated in schools. Parents, infuriated that their kids are being brainwashed, went to school board meetings to express their discontent. Now, some educators are attempting to hide their lesson plans from parents who would take issue with them.
But there’s pushback. Many state legislators across the country are introducing bills that would require educators to be transparent about what they’re teaching kids. The director of education policy at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, Matt Beienburg, says these bills are simply about empowering parents with respect to their children’s education.
“It’s bringing transparency. These are our public schools, and it’s to say, ‘We don’t think that the content that’s being taught to K-12 students should be materials that are taught in secret,’” he explains.
Beienburg joins the show to discuss efforts by state governments to promote curriculum transparency.
We also cover these stories:
- Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, says a federal filing by Special Counsel John Durham proves former President Donald Trump was illegally spied on at Trump Tower and at the White House.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is walking back his earlier claim that Russia would attack his country on Feb. 16.
- Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser says the city soon will lift its COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matt Beienburg: Thanks for having me.
Blair: In light of increased national scrutiny surrounding things like critical race theory, LGBT education in schools, we’ve seen an uptick in states that have decided to draft laws to increase curriculum transparency. You are from Arizona, can you give us a little bit of an impression of what those efforts look like in your state?
Beienburg: Sure. Yeah. As you said, I think we’re seeing a national effort to bring transparency to the content that’s going into the classroom.
We at Goldwater Institute, actually, a couple years ago, put out a policy report saying it’s time to … get some what we call academic transparency and essentially boiling down to saying, look, we’re in the 21st century, let’s make it so that parents are able to see what’s actually being taught in the classroom is something as simple as having our schools post a list of the materials that are being used in the classroom on the school website so that parents can see what’s actually in the schools when they’re making an enrollment decision, when their kid is going to be advancing to the next class, what their kid may be learning this year.
Essentially, just a very simple idea that says, right now it’s very difficult, surprisingly difficult—and happy to go more into this—for parents to actually see the content, the materials that are used for student instruction.
Arizona, there’s now a bill here, SB 1211—actually just advanced from the Senate Education Committee this week—that moves forward on that. We’ve seen, there are now about 20 other states that have introduced legislation along the same idea.
Blair: Really what this legislation is, it’s just parents should have the right to see a list of the materials the children are being taught?
Beienburg: That’s what it boils down to. You would think that that would be a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense kind of thing. We’ve spoken to a lot of folks, they’re shocked that that’s not already the case.
Now, that’s not to say that there are already schools, both in K-12 and higher education, and individual teachers who will post their content online and show, “Here’s my syllabus. I am totally comfortable to share this.”
It’s something that is being done and yet, when we look at schools, we’ve heard countless testimonies from parents across the country saying, “My teacher is not doing this. My school is not doing this. When I’m trying to find out information, they are running into a brick wall.”
We’re actually even representing a parent in Rhode Island who had an incoming kindergarten daughter. She had some concerns about the content used at her school based on just some of the other things that they put on their materials on their website. She asked for their curriculum and they gave her a runaround, gave her old curriculum documents, told her that she had to submit formal public records requests just to even know what was going to be used in the classroom.
When she went through and complied with that, they then threatened to take legal action against her, saying that she was asking too many questions. The National Education Association, largest teachers union in the country, stepped in and filed a lawsuit to block her access.
What you would think would be a pretty straightforward request on behalf of parents is something that we’ve actually seen incredible resistance from within the education community.
Blair: That parent that you’re working with is Nicole Solas, who is a friend of the show. We’ve had her on a number of times. How is that case going? I guess, are we seeing this is going well, that these types of legislative battles are working? Or are we seeing that they’re getting a lot of pushback?
Beienburg: Yeah. I mean, those cases are still working their way through. I think it’s fairly clear that the arguments that are being put forward on the other side to argue that the public and parents don’t have a right to this content, it really is a stretch on the legal arguments that they’re trying to make.
But her case obviously is one that’s gotten a lot of national attention, but unfortunately, it’s one of many parents who have run into this problem and we had several parents testifying this week in Arizona about different experiences they’ve had, the difficulty of trying to get access to the content that their kids will encounter.
Blair: What is the end goal of this kind of legislation? What are we trying to get out of these types of bills?
Beienburg: Sure. I mean, ultimately, it’s about empowering parents to know what content is there. It’s bringing transparency. These are our public schools and it’s to say, we don’t think that the content that’s being taught to K-12 students should be materials that are taught in secret. It’s to make that clear, it’s to empower parents to have that information.
Not only does it just give them that knowledge, it helps them be collaborative partners with the teachers, to know what content is being taught. It helps them make those informed decisions and honestly, it actually helps teachers.
We’ve spoken about this in the past that, right now, especially new teachers, when they come into the system, they’re commonly expected to build their classrooms from scratch. They may be handed a textbook, but then they’re told, “You need to go scour the internet, search Google and find articles, YouTube videos, what have you.”
Teachers are spending, as they have reported from multiple national surveys, four hours every week just searching for materials, essentially reinventing the wheel each week. Whereas with something like this transparency proposal, teachers could come on and see what their peers are using, what veteran teachers are using, and save that time and be able to take great ideas and adapt it for their own classroom.
Blair: I think that’s an angle that doesn’t really get talked about all that much, but other teachers might appreciate having access to what their fellow educators are using.
Beienburg: That’s right. Actually, we’ve had multiple teachers and, you know, testifying as a teacher in the face of union pressure is pretty daunting, but we’ve actually seen teachers testify in some of these states.
There was one in North Carolina on a bill that would’ve brought transparency to the materials. She made exactly that point and said, “This would be a fantastic collaborative effort. I’m a former teacher, I’m a parent. I used to document all my materials and submit my lesson plans. Putting that information online now would be so much easier than what I had to do, and it would help other teachers see it.”
In fact, so compelling was this point that a North Carolina legislator who opposed transparency did so on the grounds by saying she was concerned about who would get credit for those lesson plans, because she didn’t want someone just coming into the system and grabbing the best lesson plan, which is a pretty extraordinary claim to make, because it’s essentially doubling down on this idea that we want our teachers to be siloed in a “every man or woman for themself” approach, instead of saying, “Let’s put it up there and if new teachers want to come in and take inspiration or use those materials, you’ve now just shared high-quality materials instead of sending somebody on a scavenger hunt.”
Blair: One of the things that you mentioned that I thought was really interesting is that some teachers are in favor of this. What is the response from some other teachers?
Beienburg: Sure. The teachers unions themselves are extremely opposed to the idea of transparency. They have organized petitions, they have organized campaigns against this. These are obviously the same unions which tried very hard to shut down schools for the last one to two years. They are now actively trying to shut down access to that content.
Essentially, what we’ve seen, even the ACLU actually came out just a few weeks ago, similarly, and said, “These curriculum transparency efforts are just a thinly-veiled attempt to chill teachers’ ability to have important conversations about race and gender.”
They basically see this as a direct threat to their ability to push materials. Again, especially around sensitive topics like those that they clearly recognize that if parents could see what content was going into, what sounds like, oh, it’s just an innocuous conversation, if parents could actually see the materials that go into that, they recognize that parents would probably find much of that to not be appropriate for the K-12 environment.
I think their other point is to argue that this is too burdensome on teachers, right? To say, “Well, this is another task on us. This is just too much work.”
I think that’s where we have pointed out that we literally have even had representatives in Arizona, for instance, the vice president of the teachers union has previously come out and opposed transparency, even the same testimony that she turned around and said, “Look, I submit my lesson plan to my principal and my site coach every week, because I’m a professional.”
The argument that our teachers are able to document their lessons, their materials, and their plans, and have that be known within the school walls, but that somehow that’s too burdensome to allow parents and the public to see it outside there I think really is a tough sell.
These transparency laws, we crafted model legislation that has helped impact many of these bills. It’s very clear that schools and teachers can use something as simple as Google Docs. You don’t have to go build out a new website.
It’s literally as simple as essentially typing in the basic information about, if you want to use a book and you want to just type the title, the author and maybe a link to it, that’s all you got to do. This isn’t going and photocopying every page of each work. It’s really just putting together a simple syllabus.
I think the argument that the other side has made, which they have tried to beat the drum as loudly as possible to say, “This is unimaginably burdensome,” while at the same time, then turning around and saying, “We’re already fully transparent. In fact, many of us already document everything we’re doing.” These points are at odds with each other, and I think it’s because it’s not something that is prohibitively difficult to do. In fact, there’s a strong precedent for teachers and schools already disclosing this content.
Blair: You mentioned that the Goldwater Institute has drafted and created model legislation for lawmakers to follow if they want to insert this type of law into their state’s laws, right? What does that model legislation actually look like?
Beienburg: Yeah. We put out our initial Academic Transparency Act legislation that very directly just says, “Each year the school should post a list of learning materials and activities on their website.” Again, very much just a direct approach to have this information out there.
We’ve since worked with other think tanks, with legislators, folks like the Manhattan Institute, Chris Rufo, Stanley Kurtz have also gotten involved. We also reissued a new version, the Sunlight in Learning Act, which takes that same model and again, basically says, “Let’s make sure that we have written out a very clear policy for how this can be implemented.”
I think one of the difficulties is that we hear from the other side, “Oh, our curriculum is already transparent,” and so, if you just pass a law that says, “Post your curriculum online,” what I think is a distinction loss on a lot of folks is, curriculum may be just the officially adopted textbook and a few other resources at the district. What parents are concerned about are all these supplemental materials, The New York Times’ 1619 Project, those essays that are attached to it, or YouTube videos that go along with it.
Our Sunlight in Learning Act model legislation is very clear and says, “Post your textbooks, your articles, your videos,” to make clear what it is that’s there, while also providing protections for parents to be sure that the content that the schools are using isn’t something that the school can say, “And we’re also not going to let you come in and see it,” that you’re not allowed to say, “Sorry, this is top secret and you’re not allowed to come down to our school site and take a look at it for yourself.”
So putting some extra protections on there, but we’re excited to see so much momentum behind this nationally now.
Blair: Now, before we go any further talking about the intricacies of bills like this, I think it might be helpful to give our listeners a bit of a background. Would you be able to go into how this type of response to education in terms of academic transparency came to the forefront?
Beienburg: Sure. As I mentioned, we’ve been working on this for a few years, basically recognizing that there is a concern about politics and content in the classroom. I think nothing really exemplifies this better than what we’ve seen from the NEA, the National Education Association.
Back in 2019, they had a resolution, it was their national assembly in which they said, “The NEA will rededicate itself to the pursuit of increased student learning in every public school in America by putting a renewed emphasis on quality education. NEA will make student learning the priority of the association,” and it goes on.
That sort of thing sounds fantastic. This teachers union, the largest teachers union in the country, voted that down. At the same time, they voted up a whole series of resolutions dealing with white fragility, racial reparations, abortion, American foreign policy, making very clear that they believe that politics needs to be infused into the classroom.
We’ve obviously only seen this escalate over the last 18 months or two years as we’ve seen things like critical race theory and that conversation gaining more national attention.
I think that parents who already had concerns when things like the 1619 Project came out back in 2019 [are] now seeing other materials compounding the content that clearly is not actually imparting knowledge that students need to thrive, covering reading, writing, math, science, understanding of historical fact, and instead supplanting that with efforts to really push ideological activism.
Blair: I want to follow up on that because you were quoted in an NBC article that was titled, “They fought critical race theory. Now they’re focusing on ‘curriculum transparency,’” implying that this is the next battlefield in this fight over education. You’re quoted in this article as saying, “People are going to disagree on a lot of these issues. Transparency is something I think that at least allows for that conversation to know what is being taught. Everybody should be able to rally around the fact that we shouldn’t be teaching something in secret.” Would you be able to expand on that a little bit more?
Beinburg: Sure. Yeah. There’s two pieces to this. One is, this really is a principle that, regardless of your political leanings, I think folks should be able to get behind this idea of, our public schools should not be teaching content that we are prohibiting the public from knowing what’s going into it. Because people are going to disagree about, well, should this resource be used? Is this an appropriate instructional material? People are going to disagree about that.
Rather than trying to have a one-size-fits-all approach that says, “Well, we’re going to hand down from on high the exact materials that you must use,” education as a guiding principle, it is good to leave local control, so that we can have a variety and a diversity in terms of the content that’s used. And so having transparency says, “Look, it’s not about trying to force one set of materials on one group or on another, transparency allows for that plurality.”
At the same time, I think as referenced in that article, we have seen a lot of support from folks like Chris Rufo, who blew the whistle initially on critical race theory, recognizing that while a lot of states have taken steps to ban critical race theory and particular tenants of it to narrowly say, “Look, we have existing state and federal laws [that are] aimed at preventing racial discrimination in our public institutions. There’s no good reason for those public institutions to be teaching racially discriminatory content,” things like Ibram Kendi that explicitly calls for racial discrimination.
But folks like Rufo who’ve said, “OK, we’ve got that on the books in several states, but even that still leaves a piece that needs to be addressed,” which is transparency, because we hear over and over from the education community, from the activists in the media, “Critical race theory isn’t taught, this is all just a make-believe problem.”
I think transparency says, “All right, look, we’re not going to play word games with you, where you claim that even though you’re teaching Ibram Kendi’s ‘How to Be an Antiracist,’ which calls for racial discrimination, if he doesn’t use the words ‘critical race theory’ in that certain paragraph, you can dance around and say, ‘That’s not critical race theory.'”
But at the end of the day, if you have to disclose that that’s what you’re using, then parents can see that and expose it for what it is.
I think that, yes, those folks … as we would pose critical race theory as having no place in those schools would see the transparency is a even broader approach to make sure that we have accountability for what’s being taught to our kids.
Blair: I think a lot of parents and a lot of Americans are resonating with that messaging because, as we saw recently, education was such a huge deal in a bunch of these elections that just happened, including the governor’s race in Virginia. I think Glenn Youngkin rode this wave of anti-critical race theory, anti-politicization of education to the governor’s mansion.
I wanted to ask if that has happened in Arizona. Has education affected previous elections in Arizona in the same way it might have affected the election in Virginia?
Beienburg: Yeah. I mean, education is always a major issue in Arizona. We’ve had education walkouts that the unions organize. We’ve had major questions around funding and school choice. Our Legislature here just invested a few years ago $600 million to give a 20% pay raise to the teachers here. Then we saw the unions turn around and basically say that that was nothing.
We’ve had education at the forefront of issues. I think that, especially in light of the pandemic with the school shutdowns and with parents seeing the content that’s being taught, the focus on that has shifted somewhat to say this is not just a conversation where we’re being told the solution is just put more money into our schools.
I think it started to raise a lot of questions about saying, “Well, are the schools satisfying their basic requirements of providing instruction to students and providing instruction to students that is academically rigorous and quality as opposed to ideological activism?”
Blair: That same NBC article that we were referring to earlier in the interview reported that there are free speech concerns with this type of legislation. Are there any implications for free speech with bills like this?
Beienburg: Yeah. That I think the ACLU and the groups who have come out and said that this is really just an effort to chill speech from our conversations about race and gender. We saw a huge backlash against that sentiment from actual free speech advocates who said, “This is nonsense. Transparency in what our government is doing, what our state employees, what our teachers at our state public schools are teaching, to say that that should be public is somehow inhibiting free speech is nonsense.”
I think that parents and the public can see through that, because again, the concern from the opponents is they don’t want parents and the public to know what’s being taught. Our K-12 teachers are not brought on board to preach political ideology. They are brought on board to educate students.
To say that we, as taxpayers, expect to know what our public institutions are teaching is somehow inhibiting free speech, I think that sentiment was roundly and rightfully condemned as nonsense.
Blair: Maybe playing devil’s advocate briefly here, some people on the left might see books getting removed from libraries or books getting removed from schools and say that that is the issue with free speech. Does this legislation that the Goldwater Institute is proposing have any provisions for what happens when a parent sees a book that they don’t like, that they see a book that they find inappropriate for a child?
Beienburg: Yeah. The legislation, it does not contain any provisions beyond the providing information to the parents about what’s in there.
We saw a controversy recently about the book “Maus,” and folks like Robert Pondiscio, scholar over at [the American Enterprise Institute], have written on this. The left claims that it’s book banning if a school decides to use one book or another.
There’s a very large distinction between saying we have a finite amount of time and finite resources. By definition, when a school selects one textbook or one novel or one book, as opposed to another, they don’t have infinite time, you have to choose one set of books or another. To say that you have banned or censored every book that you happen not to choose I think is nonsense.
Again, to the extent that there are, if you have parents who would say, “Look, I’m uncomfortable with something like Ibram Kendi’s book,” I think that that is a very fair point to arrive at, to say, “Maybe we should have a conversation about whether this is appropriate to be assigned to the schools.”
If a school board wants to say, “Look, we’re choosing to assign a book or one book or another,” if the parents think that, “No, this isn’t the route we want to go,” that’s especially where having options for things like school choice … it doesn’t require that everybody assign the same set of books. I think arguing that to have public awareness and public accountability is somehow akin to censorship is completely missing the mark.
Blair: Do we see this type of legislation in terms of academic transparency popping up in other states?
Beienburg: Yeah. We now have about 20 states that have come on board. The governor here in Arizona mentioned this in his State of the State address. Iowa’s governor, just a few days ago, announced support for it. We’ve seen states ranging from even in some blue states, like Illinois, we’ve seen support.
But Wisconsin actually passed, both chambers of their Legislature passed a bill based on that same concept a few months back and it was vetoed by their governor. We are seeing an enormous push now for this legislation while, obviously, still resistance from it from those who are typically more aligned with the establishment status quo.
Blair: Do we see these getting successfully implemented in the near future and maybe other states where they’re not appearing currently?
Beienburg: Yeah. I mean, I think that Arizona’s, for instance, the bill moving here, SB 1211, that just passed out of our Senate Education Committee earlier this week and is now headed for the full Senate, the Indiana House of Representatives—I think just about a week or two ago—passed legislation around this.
I think that we are likely to see, even in the next few weeks or months, several states enact this legislation. I do think that as more do it, you’re going to see a domino effect as states realize that there is no reason to be blocking this. Legislators, obviously, are always cautious about trying something new, but I think especially as states lead on this, we will see even more come on board and say, “Yeah, absolutely, we should be allowing the content in our classrooms to be visible to parents and the public.”
Blair: Before we wrap-up, I want to give you the opportunity to let listeners know where they can go to learn more about these types of proposals.
Beienburg: Sure. Yeah. … We have Twitter accounts, we have our goldwaterinstitute.org website. You can check out our model policy, the Sunlight in Learning Act. We’ve put out some videos and content around this I’d be happy to share. But we’ve tried to make this something that is very clear in states like Arizona where legislation is moving to have folks reach out and contact their lawmakers to say, “Hey, look, this is the kind of thing that we need,” I think are absolutely the kind of steps that the folks can take.
Blair: Excellent. That was Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. Matt, really appreciate you coming on.
Beienburg: Appreciate it. Thank you very much for having me.
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