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November 4, 2022 11:25 AM EDT
Silver is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Applied Research in Education within the Center for Social and Economic Research at the University of Southern California. He co-authored the report A House Divided? What Americans Really Think About Controversial Topics in Schools

In times as divided as these, it might come as a surprise that adults across the political spectrum broadly agree about what topics are appropriate for children to learn in schools. For example, nearly all adults (98% of Democrats, 97% of Republicans) want children to learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills in schools, and majorities from both parties want children to learn about controversial issues in balanced ways (for example, learning about both gun control and second amendment rights). At the same time, though, more than 6 in 10 Americans think parents should be able to opt children out of school lessons that include content they find disagreeable.

This should terrify us.

These findings come from the Understanding America Study, a national survey for which I led analysis as an education researcher. Although evidence indicates few parents have pulled their children over disagreement with content, attention to the idea is growing ahead of the November midterm elections, especially from right-wing candidates claiming to support parents’ rights. If the practice becomes widespread, it could lead to greater political polarization and an overall rightward shift in lesson content at the expense of accurate, nuanced instruction. This shift would undermine the rigorous thinking that parents want for their children and that our democracy needs from its citizens.

As a former third-grade teacher, I have always had faith that schools can be a path away from the cliffs of extremism. But when a parent chooses to censor a lesson over its content, their child loses the opportunity to engage with a different perspective. This robs the child of the benefits to critical thinking, social development, and civic engagement that come from grappling with diverse perspectives. In engaging with difference, we promote the type of informed thinking that forms the bedrock of democracy. In avoiding difference, we stifle it.

If all parents opted their children out of lessons equally, our country’s political rifts would grow deeper and uglier. But support for opt-out is remarkably partisan. According to our survey, 81% of Republicans support content-related parental opt-out, compared to 46% of Democrats. Although the survey does not make clear exactly why the practice is so much more popular on the right, it does fit into a larger pattern of mistrust of schools that has emerged in Republican punditry and political strategy in recent years.

If Republican and Democratic parents opted their children out at those rates, two major problems would emerge.

First, instruction would shift to deemphasize topics related to identity, equity, and certain scientific ideas that many Republicans find objectionable, since understaffed schools would look to minimize the number of students requiring supervision outside the classroom. This would create pressure on teachers to forego discussion of topics like racial inequality and evolution, which Republicans in our survey opposed assigning in the elementary curriculum.

Experts broadly agree that racial inequality is appropriate and essential to discuss with young students, and there is consensus that students must understand evolution to engage with important current issues in science and technology. A democracy that ignores scientific truth and does not grapple with the ugliness of its past in efforts to improve its future can never grow into a country where all citizens enjoy life, exercise liberty, and pursue happiness.

Read More: ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

Second, if 4 in 5 of Republicans families opted their children out of “objectionable” lessons compared to just under half of Democratic families, over twice the share of children with Democratic parents would encounter alternate viewpoints during their schooling, compared to children with Republican parents. Over time, they would learn varied perspectives on social issues including racial and income inequality, immigration, and gender and sexual identity, whereas children from Republican households would lack that nuance. Democracy’s fundamental assumption of an informed populace breaks down when swaths of the populace don’t see the complexities of reality.

Nearly all parents of both parties say they want their children to think critically in school about important issues. But opportunistic politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or Pennsylvania Senator Doug Mastriano have stoked fears that schools “indoctrinate” children. They are betting that, come Election Day, parents’ fear of losing their children to a vaguely defined “woke agenda” will trump their desire for a diversity of viewpoints. Politicians who use parental rights and opt-outs as rallying cries are jeopardizing our democracy’s future to gain an election edge now.

What can we do to avoid this future? As ordinary citizens, we can help parents understand the individual and collective harm of opting out. We can vote to ensure the loudest supporters of opt-outs do not gain power in November.

Schools and districts have more direct control: They can simply make it very difficult to opt a student out over political disagreement with a lesson’s content, perhaps by requiring substantial paperwork from a parent to request a lesson opt-out or by vetting opt-out requests carefully and rejecting those motivated by partisanship. Of course, we should not advocate for a total ban—a student should not be forced to dissect an animal in biology class if their religion bars them from doing so. However, this type of opt-out should be rare, granted on a case-by-case basis, and certainly not built on purely political disagreement with a topic.

If schools did make political opt-out impossible, some families might remove their children from public schooling altogether by enrolling in private schools or even homeschooling. But switching schools can be difficult and expensive, and given the rarity of political opt-outs, a strong statement from neighborhood schools could be enough to keep the practice from materializing into the existential threat that some politicians seem intent on creating.

Right-wing politicians frame it as a right, and most Americans currently support it. But using opt-out to preserve a child’s rosy view of our democracy won’t mean much if there isn’t a democracy left to revere at all.

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