As a school board member in Arizona, I hear the concerns, hopes and frustrations that parents and citizens have about our public schools. The things that families worry about? School safety, shrinking budgets, student achievement and the accessibility of programs.
These are the issues that unite our students and families in our public schools and the kinds of problems that they want addressed. And these are the issues that I really want to work on with other policymakers who, regardless of political affiliation, care about similar things.
But the school board environments that I and so many of my colleagues from around the country work in make it seem like parents are more concerned with cultural and curriculum issues. So where is this coming from?
Recent polling of Republicans and Democrats revealed that a supermajority across both groups — approximately 76 percent — believe that their child’s school does a good job keeping them informed about the curriculum, including controversial topics. An incredible 86 percent agree that learning about the history of racism prepares children for a better future.
It’s surprising to read these results about how parents and students really feel when aggressive steps are being taken around the country to stop the teaching and discussion of race, culture and gender in public schools. Since 2021, school districts in 26 states have banned or opened investigations into more than 1,100 books dealing with those topics. Arizona has tried multiple times to pass statewide bans on ethnic studies and recently passed House Bill 2495, which severely restricts what students can be taught about sexuality and gender identity.
When I first read the results of that recent polling, I was skeptical. It’s hard to get that level of agreement on any issue, let alone on topics that we’ve been told are deeply dividing our nation’s communities. But the findings offer proof that families across the country understand why our public schools should provide an honest, accurate education to students, including exposure to diverse cultures, languages, perspectives and experiences.
Students in my district’s schools in suburban Arizona are beautifully diverse. Forty-nine percent identify as white, 36 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 4 percent as Black and 6 percent as Native American. To be a student in our schools means studying alongside other students from a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as those from wealthy, poor, immigrant and mixed-race families.
The diversity that my district’s students experience is likely the same they will encounter in their working and social lives after they graduate. Whether they settle in New York City, Tulsa or Phoenix, our students will be well prepared to live and work together with others who do not look like them.
This exposure to diversity of all kinds is important; similarly, students must learn to think critically about our nation’s complicated past and discuss it with educators and their peers so they can learn important lessons for the future. Discussing controversial issues in the classroom is how students learn how to handle conflict and work together peacefully and respectfully.
Research over several decades has shown clear benefits from such discussions for the development of critical thinking and decision-making abilities, and parents across the political spectrum clearly agree. Yet in 2021 alone, legislators in 35 states wrote 137 separate bills attempting to restrict teaching on race, gender, history and politics.
An incredible 86 percent of Democrats and Republicans agree that learning about the history of racism prepares children for a better future.
These bans were spearheaded by a small but powerful group of special interests who are not in alignment with the people they claim to represent. The same forces pushing these educational gag orders are also trying to dismantle public education entirely, using tactics like the “universal school voucher bill” in Arizona, which allows children to use state tax money to pay for private school tuition and other costs.
Parents, educators and district leaders must stay vigilant and take steps locally and at the state level to make sure that their elected officials understand the reasons that they support honest, accurate and fully funded public education. Book bans and educational gag orders are more easily passed when it’s assumed that few people are watching.
It’s time for the majority of parents, who want their children to develop critical thinking skills and the ability to consider different points of view, to give voice to their beliefs — and it’s time for elected officials to take note and listen to their constituents. As an elected official who is also a Black woman, I know that topics like how racism impacts our nation can be difficult to discuss publicly. Yet, it’s paramount for our public schools to lean into that discomfort.
In order for our students to learn, grow and succeed in their future personal and professional lives, we must encourage our educators to not shy away from teaching controversial topics.
Sherri Jones has been a leader in statewide efforts helping Arizona’s children, educators and families for 20 years. She is vice president of the Florence Unified School Board in Florence, Arizona, and a member of the HEAL Together initiative.
This story about controversial topics and public schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.