School is closed but public education is in danger

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Irina Popescu is Assistant Professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies at Bowdoin College. This column reflects his opinions and expertise and does not speak for the Order. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars from across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every two weeks.

My son Mateo is 5 years old and one of his favorite books is “Julian is a Mermaid”, by Jessica Love. The book depicts a young boy named Julian who wants to become a mermaid and participate in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the largest arts parade in the United States. This book will almost certainly be banned in Florida, Texas, and many other states if we are not diligent about protecting diversity within our public school curriculum.

When I put on my educator cap, the book details the story of a child curious about inhabiting the world of women and gender performance. When I Put My Mommy Hat On, the book nurtures a young child’s sense of whimsical and exploratory dress, as young Julian wears a dress, puts on beads, shines lipstick on his lips, and heads to Coney Island with his supporting abuela.

In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced that he will “prioritize” the passage of a bill similar to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Bill”, commonly known as the “don’t say gay bill” signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in March. The bill states that Florida public school teachers are prohibited from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in their kindergarten through third grade classes.

Teachers who engage in these discussions, whether through the selection of course materials or references to gender identity or sexual orientation, could face legal action from the school and/or the parents of the child in question. They may even face expulsion from their jobs.

Florida’s current law erases the stories, histories, and lived experiences of members of the LGBTQ community from the nation’s narrative. This, coupled with the countless bans on critical race theory across the country, means our public education system is under attack.

We have just completed another intense school year. Yet we owe it to ourselves and our children to take a critical look at the debates raging over the K-12 program in Maine. Discussions about the CRT have dominated some campaigns and school board meetings recently and will certainly continue next year. The Maine chapter of the national organization No Left Turn in Education has expressed concern at school board meetings.

I want to clarify that CRT is not taught in kindergarten, in fact nothing they propose to ban is CRT. Such bans discriminate against the teaching of authors of color, and now LGBTQ authors, in the classroom. Fortunately, communities in Maine, like the city of Hermon, have taken a stand to protect teachers and assert local control over the K-12 program.

As an immigrant to this country from Romania, I witnessed how my country, during its long dictatorship, adopted similar measures in the public school system. These measures are still being reviewed by scholars and activists nearly 40 years later. These racist and homophobic procedures are detrimental to this country’s public education system, and if they continue, it will take decades to unlearn.

We need to be careful, attentive and active about what is happening within our public school system to ensure that voices and stories are not left out of the curriculum.

Here in Maine, the whitest state in the United States, we need to be extra vigilant of these trends. This means running for the school board, supporting thoughtful candidates who are focused on expanding the worldly knowledge, empathy, and diverse understanding of our children, and being active in your district’s parent organization. We are all exhausted from the work intensity and anxiety that the pandemic and the many recent tragedies have instilled in us. Yet we must empower ourselves to become advocates for the education our children, our communities, and our nation need and deserve.

Helen D. Jessen