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Federal Relations Lunch Speaker Spells Out What to Expect Over Contentious Curriculum Challenges in the Coming Years

Attendees at Thursday's Federal Relations luncheon. Photo by Micah Anthony II.

Controversial curriculum has been a hot button issue for school districts across the nation, divided on political lines, said Morgan Polikoff, author of Beyond Standards, an education researcher at University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and AASA’s Federal Relation Lunch keynote speaker.

In remarks at Thursday’s annual luncheon held during the AASA national conference, Polikoff presented state and federal education policy issues that evolved out of the 2022 midterm elections, including parents’ rights, school vouchers, Critical Race Theory and LGBT topics. Drawing on a review of current policy agendas and public opinion data on what Americans want from public education systems, the presentation offered predictions for the next two years and strategies for state and local leaders to navigate ongoing controversies.

“How do we rebalance curriculum control?” Polikoff asked attendees.

He said adults perceive state leaders and local school boards as having the most control. Findings showed that along political lines, conservatives have been interested in more parental control in curriculum, whereas the left has been more interested in putting control in the hands of teachers.

Polikoff offered his thoughts on student success, stating, “The solutions need to be more structural in nature. … If there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that it’s all about politics.”

He elaborated, saying there’s an imperative for state leadership. Bearing in mind political realities and existing systems and structures, states should offer guidance for what materials meet standards, require public school districts to adopt from among a small list of materials and provide or identify providers for professional learning, to name a few things.

He moved on to the parents’ rights movement, seeking to shift curriculum control to involve parental involvement at a greater capacity.

“We’re all bought in to local control, but the reality is that local control thwarts equity,” Polikoff said. “When everyone’s in charge, is anyone?” he asked.

The general public supports controversial topics at a high school level and wants engagement with that content. It is at the elementary level that parents oppose controversial and critical topics such as slavery and LGBT identities. However, purging libraries of controversial books, especially for older children, is seemingly unpopular.

So what are the implications for school administrators? What do superintendents need to know about controversial curriculum as it hits the main stage of politics in 2023?

“Expect increasing and ongoing politicization  between blue and red state education policies for the foreseeable future,” Polikoff said during lunch. “Public schools are increasingly caught under demographic and choice-induced strain, which will drive enrollment declines in public schools.”

With parting thoughts, Polikoff offered the following advice, “There is a large, sane middle that is drowned out by loud voices on the extremes, and administrators should work to make the centrist case on controversial curriculum.”

(Kat Sturdevant works in the public policy department for AASA.)

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