The Republican position on kids, education, and culture is solidifying: Children should not be exposed to anything that the most bigoted, fearful parent in their school objects to. To do otherwise would be to violate the “rights” of “parents.” The parents whose rights get so much concern are assumed to be white and Republican. The right in question is to control not just one’s own children but other people’s children and the project of education as a public good.
Last week, House Republicans passed a "Parents Bill of Rights" intended to move this toward a reality nationwide, but you only have to look at Florida to see how it plays out. In Pinellas County, Florida, a movie about Ruby Bridges has been removed from the schools for review after a parent—her name is Emily Conklin, go ahead and remember it—complained that it might cause white kids to learn that white people hate Black people.
We are talking here about a Disney movie made in 1998 and shown in Pinellas County schools for years, according to the Tampa Bay Times, and now, in 2023, it’s going to be a problem because … white kids are going to learn to be more racist? Or white kids are going to feel bad about white racism? We’ve been through the “white woman objects to kids learning about Ruby Bridges” thing before, and you cannot fool us: The objection is to kids learning just how how ugly racism is and how recently segregation was the law and racism was open and public and vicious. The objection is to kids identifying with Bridges and being upset about how she was treated.
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Any second-grader who watches a movie about what Bridges experienced as a first-grader becoming the first Black student at a white school and comes out thinking “I should dislike Black people” is a second-grader who went in already disliking Black people. That kid has already been measured for their KKK uniform. But there is a very real risk that kids will come home and ask their families about segregation, about racism, about whether Nana and Gramps went to school with any Black kids. Bridges was taught by a white teacher, so if white kids need a white hero in that story, they can find one. That’s not enough for the Emily Conklins of the world.
But this is not ultimately just about Bridges. This is about the idea that one parent’s objection can up-end the curriculum for an entire school district. Conklin had already not allowed her child to watch Ruby Bridges. But that wasn’t enough for her. She had to keep every kid from seeing it by claiming that it was inappropriate for all of them.
Again, we are talking about a Disney movie from 1998 that has been shown in the schools for years.
Pinellas County also recently pulled Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from high schools after a single parent’s complaint. And this is all happening in a state that last year rejected 42 math textbooks because they included social-emotional learning concepts and discussion of race that the state prohibited. A similar review of social studies textbooks this year led a textbook company to preemptively strip mentions of race out of the Rosa Parks story. It’s a state where the governor is instituting a partisan takeover of public higher education, with political appointees having the last word on faculty hiring decisions. The objections to specific texts may come from individual parents, but they are empowered by the entire state political structure.
In the cases of both Ruby Bridges and The Bluest Eye, curriculum development experts and teachers used these texts for years as part of educating all the kids in their classes. They developed lesson plans and held class discussions and knew what they were trying to help their students get out of Ruby Bridges or The Bluest Eye. And then one parent comes along and objects and that’s that—thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators and their “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop WOKE” laws, which severely limit what can be taught in schools and give individual parents with no educational qualifications new power over the curriculum taught in entire school districts.
The parents who want their kids not just watching Ruby Bridges but discussing it with their classmates under the leadership of a professional educator? They do not matter here. Conklin and her worry that white kids might learn white people don’t like Black people is the only person whose views matter. The loudest, most conservative white person has the power under Florida law. And the goal is to expand that to other states and into federal law if they ever get the chance.
Public education should be a public good. It should be about ensuring that all children have access to a good education, designed and offered with the intention of creating a population with a baseline of knowledge and understanding. It’s not just about a workforce educated enough to drive the economy, though it is about that. It’s also about strengthening democracy by educating kids about how we got where we are and about what threats to democracy—like segregation and institutionalized racism—look like. It’s about teaching kids that their communities go beyond people who look and think just like them. Republicans are trying to dismantle all of this. They’re trying to dismantle public education through privatization and poor funding, but while public schools are still standing they’re trying to tear apart the basics of education itself.
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March 23rd: Super-sized election roundup with 2024 Senate updates
It's just barely springtime in an off year, but there's been loads of election news lately, so co-hosts David Nir and David Beard have a super-sized roundup on this week's episode of The Downballot. The Davids recap the first round of voting in the race for Jacksonville mayor (which saw Democrats do unusually well) and the collapse of an effort to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell before turning to big batch of 2024 updates.
On tap for the Senate: The GOP's desperate effort to compete with Democratic fundraising enthusiasm by recruiting self-funders; why Republicans are afraid the guy who succeeded John Boehner in Congress will try to challenge Sherrod Brown; and how Democrats' plans to clear the field in Michigan may not succeed. Plus developments in the battle for New Hampshire's governorship, a key House seat in Wisconsin, and the saga of Tennessee's answer to George Santos.