FIRE’s response to thought reform efforts in K-12 education: Part 2

April 15, 2021

Students need an education without coercion or intimidation simply because their personal beliefs may be at odds with those who hold power over them at school. After receiving many calls and emails from distraught K-12 parents whose children are targeted by thought reform efforts in their schools, FIRE’s High School Network has released an action sheet for confronting school indoctrination.

Any school policy or practice that violates a student’s freedom of conscience stands in direct opposition to the right to be free to think and believe as you will — including the right to be wrong. Surrendering that right is surrendering the means to preserve a vibrant, free society. If you are the parent of a K-12 student being targeted for their beliefs, we recommend following the steps outlined below: 

  1. Stay plugged into what’s going on at your child’s school. Review your children’s assignments. Read all school communication closely and inspect the language carefully. Your definition of a word may differ drastically from the school’s.
  2. Document everything. Assume good intentions (until proven otherwise), but verify. Don’t automatically believe everything your child tells you without seeking confirmation. You don’t want to make a misinformed accusation.
  3. Educate yourself on parental rights, student rights, ethical guidelines governing the teaching profession, and the limits of teacher speech in the classroom.
  4. When you have a concern, follow the proper chain of command. Start with the classroom teacher and give him/her a chance to explain. If unsatisfied, escalate to the department chair, principal, district office, superintendent, and/or school board. Ultimately, if your complaints are still unaddressed, you can make complaints to the state’s licensing and disciplinary board.
  5. Insist on total transparency from the school regarding lessons and curriculum. Use the Parental Transparency Protocol to ensure complete honesty. Use open records requests and invoke sunshine laws if the school attempts to hide facts.
  6. Learn how to locate the learning standards for your child’s grade in your state (usually located on your state’s department of education website) and confirm that lessons adhere to them. Public school teachers are paid with tax dollars to instruct according to established state and district standards; anything else is a misuse of public funds.
  7. If you’re dealing with a hostile teacher or school, insist on pre-notification of lessons or programming that deal with personal values, morals, or attitudes. Opt out of any planned lessons that violate your family’s values and insist upon the provision of a suitable learning alternative for your child.
  8. Ask to have your child reassigned from a problematic classroom. An open records request may show if other parents have done the same. If you are considering legal action, consult a licensed attorney in your state.
  9. Take concerns about student mental health in a politicized classroom to the school counselor, who is responsible for the emotional wellbeing of students in school.
  10. Start attending school board meetings regularly. Better yet: run for school board!
  11. Organize. It’s easy to ignore one parent, but much harder to ignore two, ten, or twenty. Here are some groups that have already formed to combat biased instruction in K-12.
  12. Propose that your child’s school adopt a free speech and/or critical thinking statement.
  13. Survey your child and others (anonymously) about their experiences. Take results to the school board. Have your child evaluate their teachers for their classroom fairness. (You can also use RateMyTeachers.com.) Share results with administrators.
  14. Take bad lessons public. Sunshine is often the best disinfectant.
  15. Stay in contact with your local legislators. Some states are now proposing new learning standards that will completely alter traditional educational aims. They need to hear from you to know what matters to you!

You can read Part 1 of this series here.

FIRE’s K-12 efforts are entering their fifth year. In that time, in response to a diminishing understanding of and decreasing respect for First Amendment rights, we’ve pursued a number of initiatives aimed at improving the climate for free speech in American schools. Chief among these is our growing library of Free Speech Curriculum materials. We’ve also developed a free speech comic, designed classroom posters (claim one, free, today), and written articles in order to combat the devaluing of the First Amendment. 

Please share any comments, questions, or concerns with us by emailing highschooloutreach@thefire.org.