When it comes to the explosive, hugely sensitive question of how public schools support transgender students, there’s frequently been more heat than light. The debates have featured more invective and charges of “transphobia,” frequently from those who seem more interested in sweeping declarations than in considering what policies actually say.
That has been especially true in Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin recently issued new model guidelines regarding parental rights, schools, and transgender students. Youngkin replaces an unworkable, widely ignored set of directions issued by his predecessor with the direction that schools “respect parents’ values and beliefs,” “keep parents informed about their children’s well-being,” “serve the needs of all students,” and “partner with parents.”
In practice, the rules stipulate that no student “shall be required to participate in any counseling program to which the student’s parents object” and that “parents must be informed and given an opportunity to object before counseling services pertaining to gender are given.” They further state that school systems may not “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.”
While sensible, responsible, and in accord with public sentiment, Youngkin’s guidelines have provoked howls of rage from progressive activists and made national headlines. Enter Andy Rotherham, veteran Democrat, one-time special assistant for education to President Bill Clinton, member of the Virginia board of education, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, and author of the Eduwonk blog. Last week, at his blog, Rotherham penned an invaluable examination of the issue that managed to be simultaneously empathic, practical, and unflinching. Any school community struggling with these questions would benefit from sitting down and starting the conversation with Rotherham’s brief essay.
For starters, the debate is frequently driven by advocates whose familiarity with the particulars of the guidelines may not match their strong views. Indeed, Rotherham ruefully observes, “I’ve interacted with plenty of people, including professional media, who have strong views but haven’t read them,” and that Youngkin’s policy has generated 59,000 public comments but the page actually featuring the document has only been visited about 7,000 times.
The result has been backlash fueled by ideology and symbolic politics. Indeed, Rotherham points out that many of Youngkin’s Democratic critics “have decided that concealing things from parents” is “a hill to die on.” One can almost sense Rotherham’s incredulity when he shares a Democratic fundraising missive lamenting that, before Youngkin, schools “only” had to notify parents about a student’s gender identity if they thought it was “in the best interest of that child.” As Rotherham witheringly writes, “You’d be excused for thinking a political communication about notifying parents only at the school’s discretion as to what constitutes ‘best interest’ on a sensitive issue like this was a Republican ad rather than a Democratic fundraising pitch.”
More fundamentally, it’s unclear why anyone would want to routinize the idea that helping students assert their gender identity means driving a wedge between them and their parents. There are, obviously, situations in which home environments are unsafe. But there already exist legal mechanisms for reporting and addressing such concerns. The idea that schools should habitually try to hide important aspects of children’s lives from their parents seems destructive and short-sighted.
Rotherham puts it well, observing, “I don’t support policies encouraging schools to withhold information like this from families because it’s not good for trans kids or LGBT kids more generally.” As he writes, “Concealing information from parents is at odds with the common sense notion that if having supportive adults is important to helping transgender youth, then cutting key adults out of their life is counterproductive.”
The very notion that educators who’ve known a ten-year-old for three months should be empowered (much less encouraged) to cut parents out reflects a bizarre, reflexive distrust of parents. It’s tough to think of something more calculated to fracture the parent-teacher relationship.
While there are legitimate debates about how much influence parents should have over school curricula or pedagogy, the idea that parents should be routinely deemed bad actors or cut out of their own children’s lives is truly shocking—and a recipe for poisoning the relationship between parents and their schools.
Governor Youngkin has offered a sensible path for doing better. And Mr. Rotherham has offered a vision of how we can think about the needs of students, parents, and educators in a way that trades hyperbole for hard-headed problem solving. Now we’ll see who’s willing to set down their pitchforks and roll up their sleeves.
Published by the American Enterprise Institute. Republished with permission.
(Note: This article originally appeared at Forbes)
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