If an issue is ripe for demagoguery, Todd Rokita will be on it like a dog on a bone. The phony outrage over what schools teach about race was made to order for the Indiana attorney general.
Rokita came out Wednesday with a “parents bill of rights” that purports to educate parents about their right to understand and be engaged in their children’s education. That sounds reasonable; but for Rokita, it’s an excuse to dive into a culture war.
Predictably, he jumps on the right-wing bandwagon to attack critical race theory and the 1619 Project. Never mind that K-12 schools almost never teach CRT, a theoretical framework for examining the role of race in society that may be taught in law or graduate schools. Or that the 1619 Project is exactly what it claims to be: an attempt to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Rokita lists six “rights” for parents with regard to their children’s education: the right to question school officials, to question the school’s curriculum, to expect schools to comply with the law, to participate in setting state academic standards, to review instructional materials and to run for school board.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. I’d go further and say those rights belong to all Indiana residents. As taxpayers, we all pay for public schools, and they are accountable to us, the public. And to be fair, school boards and administrators sometimes need to be reminded of that. Most of us can think of occasions when school officials were not as open and transparent as they ought to be.
But while Rokita suggests he wants to promote “meaningful civic dialogue,” the tone of his comments seem to suggest parents should take a confrontational approach to their local school officials. That’s not helpful at a time when we’re seeing angry citizens showing up at school board meetings to stage protests and demand information about curriculum, COVID-19 precautions and other matters.
In a Q-and-A section, the attorney general provides somewhat useful explanations of the difference between standards and curriculum and information about the roles of the legislature and the State Board of Education in determining what schools must teach.
At some point, though, the document goes off the rails, falsely suggesting that “controversial political and social groups” can’t be discussed at school without parental consent and making outrageous claims about critical race theory and the 1619 Project designed to appeal to white racial resentment.
“Both teachings are widespread, and its principles not rooted in American history or deep historical fact,” it says. “Rather, CRT, The 1619 Project and other similar ideologies attempt to create their own truths through historical concepts and Marxists (sic) ideologies, seeking to abolish individual rights and redistribute wealth. As such CRT’s teachings have a discriminatory effect against students who are inappropriately defined as having ‘privilege or being ‘oppressors’ based solely on their race.”
Rokita says CRT and the 1619 Project are being “backdoored” into classrooms in the guise of social-emotional learning, which involves teaching skills that students need to get along with others. “Indiana schools have witnessed an influx of SEL model practices utilized as a means of introducing distorted theories and activities aimed at making students feel bad about themselves,” he says.
These claims, which are seeded by right-wing think tanks and activist groups, are simply false. I doubt that even Rokita believes them. He believes in one thing: the political future of Todd Rokita. But, across the country, Republican legislators and governors are busy stoking outrage over the very idea that students might learn about America’s flawed history regarding race, with the goal of making sure the white Republican base turns out to vote in the 2022 elections.
Rokita is supposed to Indiana’s top lawyer. Instead, he appears to be using his taxpayer-supported office to position himself as the hard-right candidate – Indiana’s heir to Donald Trump – in the 2024 gubernatorial election. Let’s hope Hoosiers see his act for what it is.