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They fought critical race theory. Now they’re focusing on ‘curriculum transparency.’

Conservative activists want schools to post lesson plans online, but free speech advocates warn such policies could lead to more censorship in K-12 schools.
Illustration of a hand holding a magnifying glass over a teacher speaking to her classroom of students.
Some conservative activists say the curriculum transparency effort is a potent strategic move to expose and root out progressive ideas from schools.Anuj Shrestha for NBC News

As state legislatures kick into gear this month, Republican governors and lawmakers who have fought to limit discussions of race in public schools are lining up to support a new aim: curriculum transparency.

Lawmakers in at least 12 states have introduced legislation to require schools to post lists of all of their teaching materials online, including books, articles and videos. The governors of Arizona, Florida and Iowa, who have previously raised concerns about how teachers discuss racism’s impact on politics and society, called for curriculum transparency laws in speeches to their legislatures this month. 

“Florida law should provide parents with the right to review the curriculum used in their children’s schools,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said in his State of the State address last week.

Some conservative activists say the effort — which has come under fire from Democrats, teachers and civil liberties advocates — is a potent strategic move to expose and root out progressive ideas from schools. It’s the next move in a fight over critical race theory, the academic concept typically taught in college courses to examine how laws and institutions perpetuate racism, which some conservatives have used to describe ideas and books that they believe are too progressive or political for the classroom. 

In a series of tweets this month, Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who has been instrumental in drawing opposition to racial sensitivity training, said shifting from pushing bans on teaching critical race theory to pushing curriculum transparency bills is a “rhetorically-advantageous position” that will “bait the Left into opposing ‘transparency.’” 

“The strategy here is to use a non-threatening, liberal value — ‘transparency’ — to force ideological actors to undergo public scrutiny,” Rufo said. 

The push for curriculum transparency policy emerged after at least seven conservative think tanks publicly called on legislators to enact such laws over the last year. Two of them, the Goldwater Institute and the Manhattan Institute, have published model bills, policies and resolutions for legislators and school boards to use as templates.

“People are going to disagree on a lot of these issues,” said Matt Beienburg, the Goldwater Institute’s director of education policy. “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.”

But teachers, their unions and free speech advocates say the proposals would excessively scrutinize daily classwork and would lead teachers to pre-emptively pull potentially contentious materials to avoid drawing criticism. Parents and legislators have already started campaigns to remove books dealing with race and gender, citing passages they find obscene, after they found out that the books were available in school libraries and classrooms. 

“It’s important we call this out,” said Jon Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America, a nonprofit group that promotes free speech. “It’s a shift toward more neutral-sounding language, but it’s something that is potentially just as censorious.”

Last year, 25 states considered legislation — and nine enacted laws — to limit how schools can discuss race and gender as part of a campaign to block critical race theory

PEN America has said that the laws amount to “educational gag orders,” and it is no less concerned about the curriculum transparency proposals, which Friedman said are designed to generate more outrage over lessons on race and gender in schools. 

Friedman said the proposals recall tactics conservative activists have used over the past several years to systematically pinpoint college professors and accuse them of liberal bias, which were widely condemned by free speech groups and resulted in some academics going into hiding because of threats.

“It’s almost like it’s trying to be replicated at a K-through-12 level, and it’s alarming,” Friedman said. 

While most schools have insisted that they don’t teach critical race theory, a new report by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access found that local efforts to restrict schools from teaching or using critical race theory emerged in at least 894 school districts, which enroll more than a third of all K-12 students in the country. The outrage over critical race theory has resulted in educators’ being ousted from their jobs, parents’ becoming suspicious of mental health initiatives and schools’ banning books by Black authors.

Many curriculum transparency proponents point to a remark Democrat Terry McAuliffe made in a Virginia gubernatorial debate in September, when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The comment by McAuliffe, who went on to lose the election even though Virginia is trending increasingly blue, drew swift condemnation from conservatives, and it was widely seen as a boon for Republican candidates in the state. 

Republicans nationwide have vowed to keep conversations around critical race theory at the center of their midterm elections strategy.

Image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event in Las Vegas on Nov. 6, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a law to give parents the right to review the curriculums used in their children's schools.Bridget Bennett / Bloomberg via Getty Images files

“We reject the notion that parents shouldn’t have a say in what their kids are learning in school,” DeSantis said in his speech last week, appearing to refer to McAuliffe’s comments. Beienburg, of the Goldwater Institute, said McAuliffe’s comments were “a slap in the face to parents.” 

“I think that has further energized parents to say, ‘We’re part of the process,’” Beienburg said.

Some of the proposals under consideration in state legislatures, including a bill in Missouri, would require schools to post all teacher training materials online, in addition to descriptions of what is taught. It’s part of a legislative package that would also ban schools from using curriculums that teach that any group of people is “systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.”

State Rep. Doug Richey, a Republican who sponsored the Missouri bill, said that if schools are “doing things right,” they shouldn’t have anything to fear from his legislation. 

“It is not to blow apart public education — it is about trust,” he told a House education committee last week. 

The bill has drawn criticism from Democrats, including state Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, who called the proposal an attempt to undermine public education. 

“It ties the hands of educators,” Nurrenbern said in a recent interview. “This is absolutely just an easy tool to censor anything controversial.”

Teachers unions see the proposals as a solution in search of a problem. 

“Good schools and good school districts have always had curriculum transparency — including extensive two-way communication between parents and educators on what we are teaching and how to support our kids,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “Pretending otherwise is just the latest attempt by Chris Rufo and others to exploit the frustration of Covid to create a toxic environment where the biggest losers are children and their recovery.”

In Indiana — where three anti-critical race theory bills include curriculum transparency provisions — educators said in hourslong committee hearings this month that requiring them to post all of their materials online would create an extra burden that would push overworked teachers to leave the profession. 

Educators said that the bill didn’t take into account that they also create separate materials for students with disabilities or that most teachers use snippets of news articles and videos they find online for lesson plans, which can easily add up to two dozen materials for a single day of instruction.

Keith Gambill, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is lobbying against the bills, said he worries people will make assumptions about reading materials or assignments without knowing the context in which they’re taught. 

“Sometimes individual items are pulled out as if that is the only item being discussed,” he said, referring to controversies over teaching materials. “Oftentimes in classrooms where you’re studying essays, for example, the class may have a variety of items to choose from and that particular document may be one of five or six choices that students have.”

One of the three bills in Indiana, HB 1134, advanced out of an education committee last week without Democratic support. Its author, state Rep. Tony Cook, a Republican and former school administrator, said at hearings this month that there needed to be more awareness of what children are taught.

“That’s where this whole bill is going — involve your community, involve your parents so that they have an understanding and they have some vetting of the materials,” Cook said.

Image: Elicia Brand leads a crowd of parents and community members singing the Star Spangled Banner at a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Va., on June 22, 2021. Local school boards in the state criticized critical race theory teachings.
A woman leads a crowd of parents and community members singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Virginia on June 22.Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters file

While curriculum transparency proposals have gained momentum over the last year as more conservative activists began to focus on discussions of race and gender in schools, the idea predates the fight over critical race theory.

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute issued a policy brief in January 2020 calling for curriculum transparency laws at the state level. It noted that several states already guarantee parents a right to review their children’s curriculums but that they must ask for them and that they lack recourse if schools make it difficult or refuse to comply. 

“There’s a big difference between saying we’re going to teach units on American history or the Civil War or whatever period of time and here are the actual documents,” said Beienburg, the author of the Goldwater Institute’s curriculum transparency brief.

Beienburg said teachers could fulfill the institute’s transparency proposal by simply posting links to public Google docs and update them if they add new resources at the last minute. He also argued that the idea wasn’t biased toward conservatives — he said liberals would have an interest in seeing whether their local schools rely on textbooks with overtly right-wing beliefs. And he said more transparency would reduce the workload for teachers, because they could get ideas from colleagues at other schools.

“The status quo right now is that new teachers come in and have to start from scratch,” he said. “This is also saving teachers time from reinventing the wheel over and over again.”

Last year, GOP-controlled legislatures in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania became the first to pass curriculum transparency bills. The proposals won praise from the pro-Republican group FreedomWorks and from Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s education secretary, who predicted that the issue would become the “next battle” in a “war for parents’ rights in education.”

But Democratic legislators pushed back. Pennsylvania Rep. Dan Frankel argued in legislative hearings in October that the proposal was an invitation to “the book burners and the anti-maskers to harass our schools and harass our teachers.”

“This bill isn’t about transparency for parents,” Frankel said at the time. “It’s about bringing the fights that get started on Fox News to the kindergarten classroom near you.”

Democratic governors vetoed both bills. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers criticized the proposal for exempting private schools, while Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said the legislation was a “thinly veiled attempt” to politicize what’s being taught in schools. 

While no state has yet enacted a law to require that schools proactively post curriculum materials online, Beienburg predicted that curriculum transparency bills will be voted on in at least a dozen states this year. 

“We will see a lot of momentum for it this year across the country,” he said.