The Right and Wrong Ways to Be a Reformer

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The last two years have seen an unprecedented amount of parental activism. Organizations like Parent Revolution, Moms for Liberty, and Parents Defending Education have not only brought education reform to the forefront of the collective hivemind, they have gotten real results — more than a dozen states enacted new school choice programs in 2021, and 2022 seems primed for more. 

As someone who supported education reform before it was cool, gaining millions of new allies in such a short period of time has been a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, as with many major movements, the education reform movement has attracted people who are a little overzealous. However, instead of rejecting them, we should include and train them so that they become assets rather than liabilities. 

Parents know what’s best for their children, and the role of part-timers, laypeople, and supporters without any particular expertise in the education reform movement is invaluable. All in all, this article is meant as gentle, supportive criticism rather than an attack. We’ve all had enough of the “listen to the experts” mantra, but if reform advocates want to expand on 2021’s gains, attention to detail will be of utmost importance. We have to do activism right.

For example, there are a number of ways to criticize social-emotional learning (SEL) — what the American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Pondiscio defines as the “sudden and dramatic expansion of schools’ missions, growing to encompass monitoring, molding, evaluating, and assessing students’ attitudes, values, and beliefs.” Some critics argue that the process has not been shown to benefit students. Others are concerned that SEL intrudes on the role of parents in a child’s moral development. 

But a growing number of education reformers claim to have identified SEL’s most serious problem — that it’s tied to Satanists and occult magick

It sounds laughable, but it’s worth saying: That’s not true. SEL is little more than a scientifically-dubious fad, but it’s far from the only area in education advocacy in which falsehoods are spreading like wildfire. And if we want better schooling for our kids, this kind of thing isn’t helpful. For instance, a Michigan mother caught the attention of state Republican leadership after falsely accusing her school district of putting litter boxes in bathrooms for students who identify as “furries.” What’s more, it has also become commonplace to call public schools “socialist” or “Marxist,” which is an oversimplification at best. At worst, it’s outright wrong.

And newcomers are already doing so much correctly. They’re speaking at school board events, taking a more active role in their childrens’ educations, and testifying before state legislatures. They’re meeting privately with elected officials, holding rallies, and mustering support for their respective causes on social media. None of that needs to change, nor should it!

But in those meetings with legislators, reformers should be sure they have facts rather than ideological dogma, so that they may be considered informed citizens rather than political performers. In those legislative testimonies, reformers should ensure that their presentations are rehearsed and refined. The results can be embarrassing and counterproductive otherwise, and nobody wants to be laughed out of a Capitol building. Rally organizers should have plans in place so that they may respond to intrusions by party-crashers and unsavory groups quickly and professionally. Nobody wants to have their event forever attached to Nazi sympathizers or Antifa insurgents. 

Importantly, becoming a good activist does not require a litany of degrees or thousands of dollars of debt, nor does anyone need fancy letters next to their name to be taken seriously. Everything I listed above can be learned through practice and experience. All good activism requires is passion, patience, experience, and a willingness to learn from others. 

In turn, the “experts” — journalists, policy analysts, academics, and experienced public advocates — should ensure that they don’t get a little too big for their britches. Expertise is real, but it should be used as a learning tool rather than a hammer. What may be a normal, daily occurrence to an “expert” may be the most important thing in a concerned parent’s life, and it’s vital to remember that. 

The education movement has accomplished so much in such a short amount of time. It would be a shame to lose all of that progress due to dogma, inexperience, and/or bad information. We all want a better future for America’s children, and it’s up to us to better ourselves so that future can become reality. 

Garion Frankel
Garion Frankel is a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management. He is a Young Voices contributor, and Chalkboard Review’s breaking news reporter.