Education is unlike any other institution in our country. Born out of a need to educate our children—a need that is greater than what any individual, family or community could provide—our current system offers more than just a service. It provides a way of being and thinking within society.
But because of its radical, unique power to transform our society, public education is extremely prone to political influence and interference, something that I, as a former history teacher, know all too well.
I personally interpret politics to mean any activity that promotes a specific interest of status or authority. Often these interests bump up against public education. During the Cold War, for instance, both the federal government and local polities encouraged an increase of science, technology and patriotic education in service to the state.
Many will disagree with this interpretation.
Some educators like to see their classrooms and schools as separate silos from the world. In my view, this is a privilege and a flaw of some public education teachers. The truth is the majority of public school students, who are students of color, do not have this privilege. They are impacted every day by political messages that leave them unseen, unheard and unaccepted.
Other teachers understand this, and every day progressive, anti-racist and abolitionist educators like myself work tirelessly and strategically to reject and transform this type of school experience. We do this because we love public education and we recognize that to bring about this transformation requires an understanding of politics.
Speaking Truth to Power
The tension in the debate on public education is between those who would like to transform it to be more inclusive and those who seek to retain the traditional model that upholds a myopic, hierarchical vision of society. This is political.
My vision of public education is different. I see a system where students and educators share and acquire knowledge in learning spaces where critical thinking, exploration, respect and community are key.
In my state of North Carolina, newly proposed legislation by the general assembly, called HB324 “Ensuring Dignity and Non-Discrimination in Schools,” reads as a litany of statements that seek to prevent this vision. In particular, HB324 would prohibit classrooms from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist and that people are inherently racist or sexist, whether consciously or unconsciously. In a statement, our state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction argued that the bill’s intention is to “provide reasonable expectations” of civil discourse in classroom discussion.
On paper the bill might seem innocuous enough, until you understand it in context. In 2020, North Carolina revised the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum standards, which now call for the examination of history through the perspectives of behavioral and social sciences. They provide guidance for educators to help students understand the lasting impact of systemic racism on Black, Indigenous and people of color in the United States, as well as their acts of resistance. This language has led to conservative backlash and accusations that the new social studies curriculum is promoting an anti-American agenda. These arguments are based on a fear of seeing public education become more inclusive.
Education is different from schooling. Schooling is about the training, guidance or discipline derived from a learning experience, often linked with social roles and responsibilities. In the U.S., schooling has often centered the voices and values of the majoritized group over others. So when public schools are targeted by politicians, like in HB324, it is often based on perceived schooling practices rather than education.
This is why educators like myself are seeking to be transformational leaders in our state’s political system. Legislation such as North Carolina’s HB324 and other bills like it are hindrances in meeting the full academic, social and emotional needs of our students in public education.
If politicians are using their platform to make decisions, then educators have to respond. I cannot speak for all educators, of course, but the ones that I am in community and coalition with want public education to be spaces that teach the full truth and reject all forms of bigotry and hatred that deny the voices of marginalized groups in an attempt to whitewash history. We refuse to lie to our students because we know that learning history and truth are not always comfortable, but necessary to create a lasting impact.
We also do not want our students to feel comfortable with the trauma of others. We want our curriculum, instruction, resources and professional development to include the voices, experiences and perspectives of all Americans—especially those from marginalized groups. We believe that an informed electorate is the key to sustaining a true democracy. And finally, we want to build community and relationships through collaboration, problem solving and learning. When I read bills such as HB324, I am left with three questions: Who will be harmed by these laws? Who will be protected by these laws? And why is legislative capital being expended on these laws?
To process and answer these questions honestly should be enough for all educators to understand that our education system is indeed political. Now the question becomes: What are you going to do about it? I don’t know about you, but I am ready to speak truth to political power.