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Public Schools and Pushing Politics

Editor's Note: Education Week Opinion welcomes a diversity of opinions and voices with the goal of encouraging broader discussions about education.  

The Education Week Opinion blogs are written and curated by the Opinion bloggers. Julie Gunlock was invited by Rick Hess to write three guest posts on his blog--the one below, this one, and this one. Education Week has no relationship with Julie Gunlock and does not condone or endorse her behavior on social media, including Twitter.

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This week we're fortunate to be joined by the flat-out funny Julie Gunlock, the director of the Independent Women's Forum's center for progress and innovation. If you don't know Julie, who isn't really an "education" professional, you're in for a treat. A onetime congressional staffer, Julie is a contributor for outlets including the New York Post, Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, and Forbes; the author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back; and a mother to three boys. She'll be putting on her parenting hat and will spend the week sharing her questions, concerns, and frustrations with how "back to school" has been handled this year.

— Rick

I called out the door for my son to come in from the backyard. 

"You have to watch the orientation meeting for middle school," I told him as he climbed the deck stairs. 

He was sweaty and breathless from the game of wiffle ball he'd just played with his brothers. He didn't want to sit down for an online meeting. But I felt this was important as school officials were going to cover the all-virtual reopening plans, announced just days ago, and walk the students through what the online learning day would look like.

The principal appeared on the screen, tie and suit jacket on. He introduced himself and apologized for the technical issues (the original link sent to parents was wrong—a near-constant problem). He then began chirpily explaining how exciting the new school year was going to be, not a hint of worry or cynicism in his voice.

The principal then introduced the other school officials on the call—the cheerful assistant principals, who smiled and waved into their screens; the school counselor, who looked compassionate and relatable; a tech staffer and a few other school officials. 

At first, when I saw the dean of student's background banner, I assumed it was educational in nature. The primary colors reminded me of those preschool classrooms bedecked in the bright shades of the rainbow. But this banner wasn't educational. It was political. 

The Zoom background read "No Family Separation, Black Lives Matter, Pro Civil Liberties, Climate Change is Real."

My son gave me the side eye. He was wondering if I'd noticed. Probably hoping I hadn't. My kids are used to my intolerance for this sort of thing from the public schools, so he knew what was coming if I caught on. After all, this wasn't the first time something like this had happened... In the past, my complaints to district and school officials had just been ignored, or, worse, greeted with malice. More recently I've worried that that malice would spill over into the treatment of my children as the offspring of a parent who dared to complain.

Some may look at the dean's background banner and ask, what's the problem? In fact, many did when I posted the picture on Twitter.  Some even admired the message, saying he was conveying universal truths. But to believe that, one has to pretend that we don't live in a highly charged, emotionally fraught nation and that passionate debates aren't currently raging about the issues the dean listed. 

I get it. Many want to ignore some of the very concerning things the founders of the Black Lives Matter organization have said about the traditional family, the capitalist system, and Jews. But those are important details, and by virtue of knowing them, it might reasonably make some people uncomfortable seeing a teacher promote BLM to young kids. 

There are also important conversations going on about immigration and family separation, conversations that didn't occur at all when President Obama's administration was separating families at immigration detention centers. Perhaps the absence of those conversations five years ago makes some parents squirm that they're suddenly being championed now. 

Sure, civil liberties—like freedom of speech and a free press—are critically important, but one only need look at the anger and staff uprisings at The New York Times to realize smart people aren't in full agreement on those knotty issues, either. 

And what of my universal truths? I think owning a gun is my constitutional right. I think unborn babies deserve life. I believe parents need educational choice and that the public school unions need to be dismantled and their power diminished. I think black lives do matter, while also caring deeply about the safety of police. I think climate change is real but don't think it's a crisis that's going to end life on Earth in a decade. I think the so-called "pay gap" between men and women is a myth. I love tax cuts, dogs, red lipstick, and good French bread.

But you know what? I wouldn't display any of my universal truths during a meeting with 10-year-old kids. Considering this, might it be better for educators to keep those Zoom background banners blank, or at the very least, politics-free? 

Seems a small request. 

— Julie

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