WASHINGTON — Virginia parents can now report teachers who they believe are covering “divisive” subjects, via a tip line announced on Monday by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
“Part of what education is meant to do is to take on divisive topics and to take on issues that might make you uncomfortable, and help students understand them,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of Georgetown University’s FutureEd think tank. “It seems like this sort of approach is only going to limit what teachers can do.”
In an interview with conservative radio host John Fredericks, Youngkin shared a government email address where parents can send a complaint about any public school teacher who is “behaving objectionably.”
“We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations that they have that will help us…be aware of their child being denied their rights that parents have in Virginia,” Youngkin said. “And we’re going to make sure we catalog it all.”
Experts question the logistical challenges of a tip line.
“What’s the process? Is some guy in Richmond gonna get a complaint and then go out to the school district?” Jordan said. “I have a lot of unanswered questions on how this is going to work.”
Instead, experts are worried the tip line will have a “chilling” effect on teachers.
“Teachers need to be able to have the discretion to deal with issues that come up and not feel like Big Brother is watching them,” Jordan said.
Civil rights groups are worried about teachers being harassed for teaching about racism through the tip line, and a teacher’s union in Virginia blasted Youngkin for trying to “intimidate teachers.”
“Dangerous policies start with bad ideas, and it can quickly balloon out of control,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy organization.
Teachers don’t have First Amendment rights in a classroom, said University of Richmond law professor Jack Preis, but the new tip line may pressure them to “stick very, very close to the script.”
“I’d be worried that students would be recording me in class,” said Preis, who noted Virginia law allows people to surreptitiously record as long as one party consents. “It would not be beyond me that certain teachers and certain parents would say, ‘hey, make sure you record Mrs. Simpson’s discussion today because she’ll be talking about the consequences of this or that.’”
Youngkin banned critical race theory and all “inherently divisive concepts” several hours after taking office earlier this month.
Yet Republicans have increasingly used the term to push back against teaching about race in schools and to advocate for what they’re calling more parental control in schools.
Youngkin penned an op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday in which he argued parents should “decide what’s best” for their children in schools.
“I think conservatives are opening a Pandora’s box with this,” Jordan said. “Yes, they want to have input into education and curriculum. But if you grant wide latitude to parents to engage in what teachers are teaching, you’re also granting that latitude to liberal parents.”
The Virginia rule has also garnered widespread attention from those in opposition. Even singer-songwriter John Legend weighed in on Monday, urging Black parents to report “complaints about our history being silenced.”
Pranksters have already flooded the tip line with false complaints, mirroring the reaction to a tip line meant to help carry out a Texas law deputizing private citizens to sue anyone who aids or obtains an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.
The tip line is also part of a larger GOP strategy ahead of the 2022 midterms. “Parents Bill of Rights” legislation has been promised by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, released by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
An EdWeek analysis found 36 states have taken steps to restrict teaching critical race theory or to limit discussing racism or sexism in classrooms since January 2021. Fourteen states have gone through with bans or restrictions.
Teachers and parents have filed lawsuits against New Hampshire’s ban on “divisive subjects,” and experts expect lawsuits to be filed in Virginia as well as a result of the tip line. However, legal experts are skeptical that challenges to a curriculum change preventing race-based issues from being taught in schools would hold up in court.
“If the Board of Education really went bonkers and came up with ‘don’t ever use the word slavery, try to pretend Black people don’t exist,’ yeah, there’d be some legitimate challenges to that,” Preis said.
But if teachers are told to teach their students that the sins of slavery no longer exist in our society – or that systemic racism doesn’t exist – Preis said teachers will have to “fall in line” and teach what they’re given, and they may find that loss of discretion frustrating.
“It makes their job feel less alive and that they’re just a factory worker,” he said. “You stand up in front of the room, you repeat a bunch of phrases that have been given to you. You ask those students to repeat those phrases back to you in a test and then you move on to the next set of students.”