Monday, July 17, 2023

Why Would MCPS Give False Information Twice?

I am intrigued by the situation involving opt-out at MCPS, as a kind of pure, possibly intractable, dilemma. So far the protesters -- who want to remove their children from lessons with storybooks containing LGBT+ characters -- have controlled the message, and the press has perpetuated a number of errors. Elected progressives, except for Kristin Mink, have stayed out of the discussion; a couple of politicians commented on Kojo Nnamde's radio show for a few minutes, and that's about it.

There are some major questions about what's going on. One is the relationship between rightwing political extremists and the religious -- mostly Muslim -- groups who are speaking out. Muslim spokespersons insist their objections arise from deep religious beliefs and that they are not puppets of the far right, and they sound credible. I want to believe them and to believe that they are rational, mature people with sincere beliefs. If that's the case then there is hope that something can be worked out in a reasonable way. But affiliating with conservative extremists raises the possibility that the whole "religious values" argument is camouflage for maga-aligned forces trying to slip their own bigotry into local government and school policy. Which is a thing that is happening all over the country. I will want to get into that topic later. For now, a big question is why MCPS seems to have misled the public about the opt-out policy -- twice that I know of.

I don't think anyone thought it was necessary for the school district to have a policy that said students have to attend their classes. Nobody needed to make a rule stating that students did not have the choice to decide what classes were acceptable to them, and requiring the school to provide a different class if the student objected to the one that was offered. That just isn't how school works. The sex-ed curriculum was controversial when it was implemented, and Annapolis lawmakers required the schools to allow students to opt-out of some specific lessons, but that was a special case. The current situation is about English classes. And apparently there was no written system policy that said kids have to go to their English class, or that they could choose not to go.

But some parents believed there was an option, and you can see why. New inclusive reading materials came out in January, and it appears some parents worked out something with their neighborhood school to get their children out of the classes where gay or trans story characters would be discussed. There was no central control over the process, and no consistency across schools. It was basically a loophole, where MCPS hadn't actually said you couldn't do that, and so some people did.

On March 22nd, Fox 5 reported:

The MCPS Spokesperson shared with FOX 5 on Wednesday, "When a teacher selects the curriculum, a notification goes out to parents about the book. If a parent chooses to opt out, a teacher can find a substitute text for that student that supports these standards and aligns with curriculum."

The very next day, March 23rd, the school district issued a statement saying in part:

Students and families may not choose to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials, other than 'Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction'' which is specifically permitted by Maryland law. As such, teachers will not send home letters to inform families when inclusive books are read in the future.

They refuted their own statement from the day before. Were they just stating a fact, or changing something? It looks like they were trying to keep the decision making in the administrative offices, and not in the separate schools all over the county. It does not appear to be a new policy, but a restatement of an implicit existing one.

Something similar happened this month, when the Washington Post wrote:

The school system put an opt-out provision in place when the books were introduced, schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said. But that guidance shifted in March. Montgomery school officials say that Maryland law doesn’t allow students to withdraw from school lessons, except for a portion of the state’s health education curriculum on family life and human sexuality.

Jessica Baxter was MCPS's Director of Public Information, and sometime between talking to the Post and the article being published, she left her job.

Someone, presumably in Baxter's office, said something incorrect to Fox 5 in March, the school district had to respond immediately with a firm statement saying the opposite thing, then a few months later the office Director herself made the same mistake again? I am pretty sure the topic of Screw-up Number One was discussed in some meetings, and the responsible party was read the riot act. And then committed Screw-up Number Two. The exact same thing again. Why? How are you talking about official policy to one of the country's biggest newspapers, and you just make stuff up, knowing already that it's wrong? (By the way, the Post doesn't seem to have any correction or edit to that statement at this time.)

The protesters say there was an opt-out policy and it was taken away. Maybe some parents thought that their informal arrangements were a policy. After March 23 there was an explicit statement forbidding it; before that -- as far as anyone can tell -- there wasn't anything one way or the other. Which makes sense, kids gotta go to class, you shouldn't have to put that in a formal document.

There is no evidence that the district ever had any kind of policy allowing students to opt out of English classes. But MCPS spokespersons told the press there was. Twice. There is also a religious-diversity guideline that offers to let kids do an alternative lesson if something runs against their religion, but it is pretty waffly and specifies that this should only happen infrequently. Also, it is not an official policy, just a guideline document that was produced, I'm sure, with the best intentions for accommodating various holidays and traditions.

The school district has done a lot to create the wrong impression. Their actual position, I believe, is There is no opt-out and there never was. So why did they twice say there was such a provision? And why don't they face the TV cameras and state there was none, if it is indeed the case?

You get framing like the Post's lede, which is worth blockquoting:

For the past few months, hundreds of Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox parents have called on Maryland’s largest school system to restore an opt-out provision for books that feature LGBTQ+ characters.

But there was no provision to restore. Right?

MCPS needs to make that point clear, one way or the other. If there actually was an opt-out policy and it was taken away with no explanation and no input from the community, then the whole debate changes. There is no real evidence that that happened, but many people believe it and the point needs to be clarified.

The Muslim spokespersons say that the school district will not return their calls or set up any kind of meeting with them. So how does the district think this will work? MCPS should have been reaching out to religious leaders as they were developing their LGBT+ inclusive reading program, should have been showing them that the readings do not promote or encourage behavior a group finds sinful, but teach students about the varieties of people they will meet in the world. There are Muslim characters in classroom stories, presented with that same intention, not to convert anyone to Islam but to teach children about the world they are growing up in. A mature and trusting outreach program could have prevented the whole controversy. Instead, it appears the school district is taking a "deal with it" approach, creating polarity and opposition.

There is a lawsuit filed by a high-powered law firm, and they will argue that it is a violation of religious freedom to force kids of certain religions to read stories with two dads in them. The judge may agree it is a violation and order the schools to allow opting-out, which will be a slippery slope to who-knows-what. Or the judge may say it's not a violation, and then they're back to square one, demands suspended in the air, standoff continuing. Communication dead in the water. Zero leadership from the County. CAIR adamant and polarized, claiming victimhood. I think pro-LGBT+ groups are waiting to see what the court decides. Meanwhile, in the absence of facts, the protesters are giving the press a narrative that is not accurate, teaming up with far-right extremists behind the scenes, and winning public sympathy for their wishes.

I would not like to see this end with the Muslims starting a private school. They are a positive part of our community and it is a healthy thing to have them in public school learning side by side with all the other kids. Of course -- unless the court requires it -- this cannot end with students opting out of their reading lessons. Grade school can't turn into a pick-and-choose menu of options; that would get insane real quick. MCPS had the responsibility to show that this baby-step forward is not harmful but they have played their hand very poorly.

By the way, I want to hedge my bet by admitting that it is actually possible that somewhere in the bowels of the administration there was once a policy that allowed opting out of classes. It is impossible to prove a negative, and if anyone produced a document showing such a policy it would settle this particular question. I would look forward to seeing that, and we would discuss the situation in a different way. At the present time, though, it seems almost certain that there was never such a policy.

Though their connections to rightwing radicals are troublesome, I am willing to believe that the Muslim protesters are good, reasonable people and that they are telling the truth about what they believe. Their views on homosexuality go back fourteen hundred years and they're not just going to drop it, but they can adapt a little without giving up their beliefs. MCPS had a responsibility to manage this, and instead they misinformed and confused the public.


Later in the day when I posted this piece, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Zainab Chaudry, the firebrand director of the Maryland office of CAIR. Even the headline itself has at least three discrete errors in it. It reads: Montgomery parents want an opt-out on sexuality, gender education restored. First of all, a very tiny number of parents want opt-out, while the very great majority of actual "Montgomery parents" of students want their children to learn about the world as it is. Second, there is a "sexuality, gender education" curriculum, and it does have opt-out. We're not talking about that here, this op-ed is about English classes. There is no sex in the stories, though there is gender -- can you imagine a story without it? It is just part of a story, characters are male and female. Third, nothing can be "restored" if nothing has been taken away. There never was opt-out, and so it cannot be restored. Some religious persons are asking for a new opt-out provision, which, sure they can ask for it, but it is inaccurate to state it in terms of "restoring" something. The rest of the piece follows through with a narrative that maintains this level of veracity.