You know we are now living in a Bizarro World when Obama-era Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is championing parental activism on a mammoth scale.
As head cheerleader for the nationalized Common Core standards during his seven years at the helm of the U.S. Education Department (USED), Duncan routinely aimed snarky, if not downright mean, put-downs at parents organizing to prevent the one-size-fits-all Common Core curricular guide from being forced on their kids’ schools. In one particularly nasty outburst, he slammed some opponents as “white suburban moms” fearful of their children getting bad marks on the federally subsidized assessments.
Plainly, Duncan detested parent-activists who opposed the Obama agenda.
Ah, but now Bizarro-Arne has gone all-in on a tweet from his former assistant education secretary, Peter Cunningham, who mused that “maybe it’s time for America’s 50-million school parents to simply pull their kids out of school until we have better gun laws.”
Duncan tweeted in reply that his aide’s brainstorm was “brilliant and tragically necessary.” Smitten by the shared brilliance of it all, he added: “What if no children went to school until gun laws changed to keep them safe? My family is all in if we can do this at scale. Parents, will you please join us?”
Whether Duncan and Cunningham plotted this exchange or it was Twitter spontaneity, only they can say. Either way, they evinced a strange appetite for large-scale disruption of governmental institutions they once tried to remake from Washington, D.C.
Moreover, the naivete of their conviction that simply enacting more gun-control laws will actually keep schools universally safe is simply stunning. If their end game is creating turmoil to lay the groundwork for attempted governmental confiscation of some 270 million guns already in circulation, they are dabbling in extra-constitutional territory that could have tragic results.
As an alternative, how about building on a steady but non-chaotic parent-and-child walkout from institutional schools that has accelerated over the past decade? The exodus has been most notable in the swelling enrollment of children in homeschooling, including homeschool co-ops. Some parents have said they departed to be free from centrally manipulated curricula like Common Core, while even greater numbers have cited fears for their children’s safety, particularly as a consequence of bullying.
Though not heavily advertised, a provision clumsily called the Unsafe School Choice Option within the federal Every Student Succeeds Act allows students to transfer to a different public school when their current school meets their state’s definition of being “persistently dangerous.” The catch is that states don’t necessarily like to tell the whole truth about their public schools. As a result, fewer than 50 of 96,000 public schools nationally have received the dangerous designation making families school-transfer-eligible.
My colleagues at The Heartland Institute have unveiled a proposal to give parents much faster and broader access to safer schools when they find their children endangered. Their idea is for states to create Child Safety Accounts (CSAs), a kind of education savings account, that parents could use expeditiously to switch their children to safe schools of their choice, be they regular public, charter, virtual, private, or parochial. CSA funds also could help pay homeschooling expenses.
The problem goes far beyond this year’s Parkland and Santa Fe massacres, deeply tragic though they were. From studying a USED safety survey of every public school in the USA in 2015–16, Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson uncovered some staggering numbers: 1.1 million “serious offenses” (one for every 50 students); 789,000 attacks or fights without weapons; 11,900 attacks or fights with weapons; 24,000 robberies; 10,100 sexual assaults; 1,100 rapes or attempted rapes; 5,700 cases of possession of a firearm or explosive device; 240 schools reporting at least one school-related shooting.
The bullying figures fairly scream epidemic: The year brought more than 135,000 “individual allegations of harassment or bullying on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation, disability, or religion,” with some 114,000 students disciplined as a result.
Public school students, Benson observed, “are made to feel unsafe in their school in a variety of ways and for multiple reasons, including physical and emotional bullying, random acts of violence, hazing, sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of peers and teachers, gang activity, harassment over food allergies or other special needs, and unsafe classroom conditions. And the advent of cyberbullying, which is likely to expand in the coming years, has added a new and pernicious twist to school safety.”
It is not a pretty picture. And it is too huge a mess to be dispelled by passage of a few more gun-control laws. Parent power is the answer—but not the Twitter-activated robotic kind Arne Duncan favors.