Indiana teachers say website for parents’ complaints ‘creating a bogeyman’

<span>Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita speaks in Indianapolis on 11 January 2021.</span><span>Photograph: Darron Cummings/AP</span>
Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita speaks in Indianapolis on 11 January 2021.Photograph: Darron Cummings/AP

An alliance of Indiana teacher unions has called for the removal of a website encouraging parents to report teaching material they perceive as indoctrination, saying it is dividing parents and teachers.

The state attorney general Todd Rokita launched the Eyes on Education portal earlier this month, prompting criticism from educators for hosting outdated and inaccurate information.

Educators in Indiana shared their concerns with the Guardian against a backdrop of a deepening conservative culture war agenda largely fought over over race and gender. Although they didn’t have personal experience with their teaching materials being uploaded to the site, they worried it was contributing to an atmosphere of fear.

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Lee, an elementary school teacher in the state capital Indianapolis said he and his colleagues were facing growing pushback from parents against books that encouraged inclusivity, such as depicting families with same-sex parents.

An educator for two decades in the state, Lee said this was something he had not encountered until a couple of years ago.

“The binds on teachers are just going to get tighter – it feels like we can’t talk about how families are different,” he said. “I was shocked how many classes were listed on the site.”

While teachers don’t set the texts pupils read as part of the curriculum, Lee said teachers at his school had had complaints about books offered in classroom libraries. “Public schools should have books that represent all students,” he said, explaining he offers age-appropriate titles related to Black history, women’s history and Asian American history.

“The objective of a teacher is to teach all, regardless of race, religion or anything else. If you’re not okay with that, then … You can’t have [your child] in a public school.”

He said he was worried that teachers might leave the profession. “I think it’s going to drive a lot of great teachers away – including me. I’m not going to change the way I’m teaching. I will push back.”

Lynn, a language teacher in Fort Wayne, said that while teaching at a school in a rural part of the state two years ago, a group of parents successfully pressured the school library to remove several books from its shelves.

“It makes me uncomfortable that something from my class could end up on Eyes for Education, even though I’d gladly defend any of the content from my classroom,” Lynn said.

“I value transparency and think that parents do have a right to know what is being taught in the classroom, but this already happens at the local level,” Lynn said, adding that many schools post materials online, have monthly school board meetings and have open channels of communication between parents and teachers.

He saw Eyes on Education as part of a “continual attack” on public education in the state, which has expanded its voucher program in recent years to bring more students into the sphere of private education. “If Eyes on Education inspires more distrust of public schools, not only will they start losing students but more and more teachers will leave the profession or even the state, in a time of a severe teacher shortages.”

Like Lee, Lynn said he has considered searching for jobs in states that he perceives are more supportive of public educators.

While she did not want parental concerns to be silenced, an arts teacher in a small town in north-west Indiana worried that Eyes of Education site being an inappropriate way to channel them. “My biggest concern is that the goal of this website is to stoke unfounded suspicion that public school teachers are pushing inappropriate views and materials on children,” she said.

“This is another example of a dog whistle against public education being framed as concern for child welfare and parental rights.”

James Nelson Robinson, a research scientist at the Center on Education at Indiana University, said there had been a “sea change” in attitudes in recent years. Robinson, whose job involves training and supporting educators and schools to create more inclusive learning environments, said teachers regularly tell him “how worried they are that they will face consequences for trying to support all students, for sharing anything about their own lives, for trying to sustain all cultures and backgrounds.

“When Donald Trump was elected we started seeing different players dipping their toes into the education waters and really creating a bogeyman that there was something going on in schools,” he said.

The pandemic then put further distance between educators and parents, he believes. “Since 2020, things have really been in a particle accelerator. I think this was then supercharged by masks and school closures,” Robinson said, adding that many have “very palpable concerns” as students from poorer backgrounds in particular “lost a lot of ground” educationally during Covid.

“There’s a level of distrust that came out of the pandemic … and disingenuous actors are trying to use that for nefarious purposes. Some politicians are going for issues that really rile up voters. The effect is that teachers are feeling nervous. It’s another level of complication to an already difficult job where we’re seeing teacher shortages all over the place.”

“I think most parents support their teacher, and we give a lot of airtime to parents who are opposed. We want parents to be involved and communicating – just not through some big brother website.”

Chris, a high school teacher in Indianapolis, hadn’t noticed the site having any effect yet in his teaching environment or felt impacted by the chilling political climate.

“In terms of anxiety around banning books in US, I think Indiana is different to Florida, even though it’s still a red state,” Chris said. He acknowledged that Indianapolis was “the blue dot in the middle of the red state” and there existed a “cultural divide” in Indiana.

“I’ve looked at the site – it doesn’t look like a serious attempt to pass on information. It’s not systematic at all.”

He said that the school “bends over backwards” to keep parents happy and in cases where a parent objected to a book, they would be allowed to read an alternative text.

“I feel like we haven’t been touched by Rokita’s grandstanding or performative politics. We still teach Beloved by Toni Morrison. We have a racially and economically diverse student population and I feel very supported by the school administration.”