Michael Torres joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss parental rights and school choice in Pennsylvania.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Michael Torres. He’s the deputy editor of RealClearPennsylvania, where he writes about education policy, politics, and other matters in the Keystone State. He’s been writing regularly for City Journal on all things Pennsylvania, and his work has also appeared in National Review and Newsweek. Today, we’re going to discuss his recent writing on K-12 education in Pennsylvania and in the country at large. So, Michael, thanks very much for coming on 10 Blocks.

Michael Torres: Thank you very much for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So across the country, public school districts are putting in place policies requiring faculty and staff members to conceal students’ gender transitions or gender questioning from their parents. These secrecy policies, I guess you could call them, enable school employees to basically facilitate student gender transitions by using in the classroom or in personal exchanges with the students their preferred pronouns and helping them seek transgender medical consultation and treatment. All of this, I gather, without their parents’ knowledge or consent. So first off, how widespread, in your view, are these policies and how would they differ from a traditional public school approach to parental notification?

Michael Torres: So they have spread very widely across the country very quickly. According to Parents Defending Education, the parental rights group, they put together a list of school districts across the country that comprise more than 10 million children. So almost all major cities, most major suburban school districts. You’ll find policies like this that require teachers or administrators to withhold this information from parents. And the policies are strikingly different from traditional policies that require the information, medical or otherwise to be given to parents. And that is something that I was very interested in looking at with this article to try and understand exactly how they were justifying such a striking contrast in approach to how school districts usually act as a facilitator of information between parents and teachers with regard to how their children are doing in school.

Brian Anderson: So the school districts are relying on particular legal theories to justify the secrecy policies. So among these theories are the notion that students have a right to privacy from their parents, that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment establishes, basically, the children’s right to transition without their parents’ permission. And that under Title IX, revealing a student’s gender transition can constitute a form of harassment. These theories, and you would have to say they’re very recent theories, are pushed by activist organizations and are premised on the position that parents harm their children by refusing to affirm their gender transitions. So, in your view, do these theories have any kind of real legal grounding?

Michael Torres: To be frank, they do not. Organizations like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, ACLU, Education Law Center is one that I looked at in Pennsylvania. They’re all pushing similar theories, and you’ll find boilerplate wording put together by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, in most of the policies that you look at in school districts. Of the school districts I sampled from the parents defending education lists... Almost all of them had very similar language that say that a child has a right to privacy, indicating that that right to privacy also is from parents, not from strangers who usually do not have a right to any information about the child at school. But perhaps the most striking legal theory is about Title IX, the basis, the reasoning of that legal theory comes from the idea that parents are essentially guilty until proven innocent.

If a child comes to a teacher or an administrator and says that they want to transition genders, and the school district has this policy, it requires the teacher or administrator to assume that the parent is dangerous to the child until the child says otherwise, or oftentimes until the parent proves that they’re willing to be affirmative of what the child wants unquestioningly. Until that point, they will often not even speak to the parent. The relationship becomes directly between the administrator or the teacher and the parent. And as I spoke to attorneys about these theories, essentially what I’ve come to understand is that there are no legal cases that have come through the courts that justify any of this with regard to a child’s right to privacy. A lot of that comes based off of a law called FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

But that law was enacted by Congress for the express purpose of ensuring that parents have access to information about their child, not that school districts have a right to withhold information about a child from parents. Instead, school districts are skirting the edge of that legislation to try and create secondary, almost clandestine documentation strategies to hide information from parents blatantly flouting the purpose of that law and with regard to Title IX, no court in the country and the law itself plainly does not allow for information being withheld from parents. And we can go deeper into that if you’d like.

Brian Anderson: Well, I’m kind of curious, though. You’ve been speaking to parents, there must be a really growing pushback about this because most parents would be outraged to discover these policies applied in the case of their particular child.

Michael Torres: Yes, of course. And I’m actually in the process of working on a story right now about parents in a Seattle-area school district, in which a child, a fifth grader’s gender transition was withheld from the parents and the immense consequences that hung on the child, the family, and the entire school district. And I’m sure listeners have heard or seen or read about stories across the country where families are outraged to find out what is happening to their children. One story that I included in my article in City Journal about this happened in Dover, Pennsylvania where a mother found out that the school had been referring to her daughter with male pronouns for more than a year without her knowledge. And when she went to a school board meeting and protested and asked why this was happening, the school board director said, “Well, we can’t, it’s illegal for us to tell you about this sort of thing,” directly referencing these laws we’ve been talking about, none of which is true. There is no law requiring them to withhold this information. And that mother, I believe, has taken it to court.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, I can imagine some lawsuits shaking things up because it really is outrageous. I wonder if we could shift gears for a minute and look at the broader question of school choice in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, the state’s governor, a Democrat, Josh Shapiro, and Republicans in the State Senate, and we wrote about this, negotiated a budget deal that would’ve introduced K-12 education vouchers. This program would’ve enabled more than 10,000 students who are currently attending public schools, ranked in the bottom 15 percent statewide to transfer to private schools using public funds, and it would not have resulted in any reduced funding for public schools. So Shapiro promised initially to expand school choice during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and he repeatedly affirmed his support of the voucher programs, wrote the negotiation process, yet he vetoed it in the final budget. Was this seen as a real betrayal, and why did he reverse course?

Michael Torres: I believe it was definitely seen as a real betrayal, especially by Senate Republicans. The statements they’ve made and the way they’ve acted since the announcement that he would veto the vouchers underscores a true and deep feeling of being double-crossed. Some of the leaders in the Pennsylvania Senate, Republican leaders there discussed with media across the state how they came to an agreement with the governor, how he promised to get the State House, which has a one-seat Democrat majority behind the agreement, and at the last moment, he changed his mind, and now Republicans are using technical means to keep the negotiations going by delaying follow-on legislation to enact the budget further. But there is a very deep, deep sense of betrayal that is going to persist throughout the rest of the Shapiro administration, and it’s going to test the strength of each party in the state significantly as the debate goes on.

Brian Anderson: I mean, what do you think the likelihood is right now of any kind of voucher program being passed in Pennsylvania?

Michael Torres: To be honest, I think it’s very low. Governor Shapiro has expressed vocal support for vouchers several times, even went on Fox News to talk about how he supports it. However, that support has always been very qualified. He’s always made sure to say that as long as it doesn’t take away from public schools, but when it came down to it, and when the negotiations were happening and the final days of budget negotiations came, that vocal support did not turn into real support with teeth when it comes to telling fellow Democrats to change their votes from a no to a yes.

I don’t see that changing any time in the future, especially as he has eyes on bigger offices beyond Harrisburg. People across the country, people watching politics see Governor Shapiro as a likely candidate for president in the coming years. And so having unions as an enemy is not something that he’s likely to see as something to deal with going into a Democrat primary. No one wants to have the teacher’s unions against them and being the governor who for the first time ever enacts of vouchers in Pennsylvania will make teachers unions his enemy.

Brian Anderson: Right, for sure. Now, most state education departments have adopted some form of what is called culturally responsive teaching. This is a pedagogy that requires teachers to ensure that their teaching material and the way they conduct their classes are culturally relevant. So last year, Pennsylvania introduced particularly drastic guidelines that includes speech and belief requirements, and parents and teachers in several counties in Pennsylvania are suing the state’s Department of Education charging that these guidelines violate federal and state civil rights guarantees. So I wonder if you could give us a brief sketch of what those Pennsylvania guidelines look like and why so many people have been upset by them on the grounds of free speech and quality education.

Michael Torres: Yes. The culturally relevant pedagogy, often called the other CRT by academics, is something that’s spread across the country in recent years as well. It’s been enacted by many state boards of education, and in Pennsylvania, the State Board of Education made a sort of sly maneuver in which they required that teachers be trained in culturally relevant teaching, whether it’s on-the-job training or in graduate school, but they didn’t define what that meant. They left it to a host of academics who gathered together to create the training guidelines for teachers, and what they came up with was quite striking. The guidelines often dictate what teachers are able to believe. They must believe that the education system is home to bias and it tells them that they must disrupt that bias, essentially creating an internal protest movement through training requiring teachers to act that way.

It tells them that they must believe and acknowledge that microaggressions are real. It doesn’t define what microaggressions are or allude to the very faulty academic research behind those sort of things, and it also tells them to be aware of their unconscious bias, essentially telling them that you have no choice but to understand that you are a biased person towards your students and that they must accept their guilt. This obviously resulted in a swift lawsuit taken up by several school districts after these guidelines became public, as obviously they violate First Amendment rights. But more fundamentally, they are a big attack on the way in which students and teachers and school districts operate, the way they train, and the way that they see the relationship between a student and a teacher, rather than being one of education, quite frankly, to being one of activism and social justice, which many parents and even people who work in school districts find distasteful.

Brian Anderson: What can parents do in Pennsylvania to resist this kind of ideological infiltration?

Michael Torres: I mean, the best option would be to join the lawsuit. There’s several districts that have joined it, at least three or four now, but more important than that is understanding that it’s happening in the first place. I don’t think that most parents have any idea what their teachers are being taught, how they’re being trained to come into the school, especially young teachers. This theory comes from a critical theorist named Gloria Ladson-Billings. It has a long history, and it’s really gone under the radar for quite some time as it’s spread across the country. Another thing that they need to do is contact their legislators, because this was something that was allowed with a Republican majority in the State House and State Senate a couple years ago. So, it’s very much gone under the radar as people just plainly don’t understand what it means. Culturally relevant pedagogy is not something that’s either understandable or self-defining. You have to take the time to really see what they’re training teachers to do to understand how frightening it is.

Brian Anderson: Thank you, Michael, for the overview of what’s going on in Pennsylvania—most of it troubling, from your description. Don’t forget to check out Michael Torres’s work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. He’s been covering the education beat in Pennsylvania for us and for RealClearPolitics. You can follow him on Twitter, @mindoftorres, and we’ll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @cityjournal and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. If you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please leave us a ratings on iTunes. Michael, thanks very much for coming on.

Michael Torres: Thank you, Brian. It was a pleasure.

Photo: Drazen Zigic/iStock

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