Tipline enables the divisiveness it aims to defeat

Published 4:46 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The thorny path to level-headed consensus about what Virginia’s schoolchildren should be taught about race and sexuality mustn’t go down rabbit holes.

That’s where Gov. Glenn Youngkin unintentionally has taken us with a tipline for parents to tattle on teachers and administrators who peddle in “divisive” lessons. The ensuing game of “gotcha” between parents and schools will be never-ending, time-consuming and, it says here, unsuccessful in fixing what Youngkin and many parents believe is a major problem with the public education bureaucracy: instilling values that are contrary to those of many families. Reading, writing and arithmetic surely will suffer from the distraction.

Long before Youngkin was elected governor on a platform of more parental control of schools, my email inbox had become a de facto tipline for Isle of Wight parents concerned about specific lesson plans, instructional materials and student surveys. I’ve seen enough to know that there are valid concerns, especially about the age-appropriateness of certain materials, but also that addressing case by case, video by video and book by book will be terribly inefficient, a distraction for busy people charged with educating children, and ineffective at establishing trust between parents and teachers. Public education is in a world of trouble when parents no longer trust teachers.

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Youngkin would do better for Virginia to disconnect the tipline and get squarely focused on a collaborative approach that gets parents talking to and working with their school boards, administrators and educators rather than tattling on them.

I’d start with a nonpartisan panel of educators, parents and historians to crystallize a framework for what both sides say they support: a thorough, authentic teaching of American and Virginia history — warts and all. There’s plenty to fill up lesson plans that surely conservatives and liberals can agree on.

Trickier, but still achievable, is common ground on ways to ensure that each child has the same opportunity to succeed regardless of skin color, gender, sexuality or socioeconomic status. That likely will include less emphasis on equitable outcomes, which are impossible no matter how noble the intent, and more on access.

School boards and administrators must come to the collaboration table more humble, less haughty and more respectful of honest differences of opinion about educators’ role in the pursuit of “social justice.”

The well-intentioned goal of inclusion might have a better chance if schools focused more on what children have in common. Preaching to kids about accepting their differences can unwittingly reinforce those differences. Perhaps discrimination will be defeated once and for all when kids — tomorrow’s adults — see that they are much more alike than different.


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is steve.stewart@smithfieldtimes.com.