In just the last two weeks, California has shown in three separate cases just how far it will go to bully, suppress, and silence those who disagree with state educational policies. This is particularly true for anyone the state views as threatening the status quo of a $128 billion K–12 education system that fails 75 percent of our students.

In one case, the California Department of Education (CDE) has threatened to sue two Stanford University professors to stop them from testifying in a lawsuit against the department, a threat that appears to violate the professors’ First Amendment rights. The Stanford faculty members, Thomas Dee and Sean Reardon, signed separate and unrelated data-partnership agreements with the CDE to receive K–12 data that is not publicly available, presumably because the data may reveal student identities.

The CDE interprets the agreement as preventing Dee and Reardon from being part of any lawsuit against the CDE, even when unrelated to the data that they obtained. The lawsuit in question is Cayla J. v. State of California, which involves damages suffered by economically disadvantaged students while schools were closed during the COVID pandemic.

Both Dee and Reardon are experts on student learning outcomes and were asked by the plaintiffs to testify on their behalf as expert witnesses. Reardon declined to participate due to concerns that he would be sued by the state. Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, did agree to participate on the plaintiffs’ behalf. Dee wrote a brief, which stated:

Because of both its comprehensive data systems and its powerful fiscal and operational capacities, the state of California is in a unique position to provide leadership in better understanding and meeting the serious challenges of academic recovery. However, to date, the state has not clearly demonstrated such leadership, instead emphasizing responses by local school districts.

After the CDE saw Dee’s brief, they suspended his data access, even though that data was unrelated to the lawsuit. The DOE indicated in a letter to Dee that they would seek an injunction against his future participation in the case, along with the possible levy of a $50,000 fine, and they advised him, “Your actions have adversely impacted your working relationship with CDE, and your response to this letter is critically important to existing and future collaborations between us.” All of this is in response to Dee’s opinion that the state did not provide sufficient educational leadership during the pandemic.

The CDE is effectively holding education data hostage unless those using those data agree not to testify against the CDE. This is wrong on so many levels and raises several issues, including how the interests of the public are being damaged by muzzling researchers from exercising their First Amendment rights; just what the CDE is afraid of; and the constitutionality of a public agency being able to immunize itself against breaking the law by withholding public data.

The most eye-opening aspect of all this is that the CDE doesn’t restrict researchers using these data from testifying on the CDE’s behalf, only from testifying against them.

A second case involves state school superintendent Tony Thurmond, who traveled to Chino Hills, California, last week to argue against the local school board’s new policy that requires schoolteachers or school staff to notify parents if their child indicates that they are transgender.

The Chino Hills policy goes against the state, which supports school districts’ choosing to prevent parents from knowing this information. At the Chino Hills school board meeting, Thurmond argued that he was “speaking out against a radical new policy that threatens their [LGBTQ+ students’] safety.”  

Without getting into the many issues involved with teen gender identification, I find it puzzling that California’s efforts regarding trans students don’t acknowledge that many teens have challenges navigating puberty and may become confused about their gender identity: about three times as many teens (13–17 years old, 1.4%) as adults (25–64, 0.5%) identify as transgender.

This suggests that for roughly two out of three teens who identify as trans, this identification may disappear when they become adults. Nowhere have I seen any guidance or recommendations from the state based on these facts, which are fundamentally important for everyone to know—kids, parents, and schools.

State attorney general Rob Bonta wrote a letter to the Chino Hills school district that is a thinly veiled threat of a lawsuit should the district go forward with its new policy. Bonta’s letter cites several legal precedents, all of which appear to be only weakly related to the privacy issue argued by Bonta, as his letter indicates that the policy may violate state law, not that it does.

Bonta’s letter fails to indicate that the state’s transgender student privacy policy likely runs afoul of US law, in which it is illegal for state educational agencies to keep student information from parents; those agencies that do so will not receive federal education funds.  

The third event involves Governor Gavin Newsom and the Temecula school board, which had declined a primary school social studies curriculum that had a lesson on Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay official elected to public office. The school board turned down the curriculum last month because Milk had a sexual relationship with a minor.

This decision incensed Newsom, who called the president of Temecula’s board “ignorant, malicious, and offensive” and threatened the board with “consequences” if it didn’t follow the law. But California law defers curriculum specifics to local school districts. The law requires that curricula reflect the contributions made by the state’s minorities, but there is no mandate that schools teach students about Harvey Milk; there are many other prominent gay Californians who could be part of a curriculum, ranging from athletes such as Wimbledon and US Open tennis champion Billy Jean King and Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis to actors such as Jodie Foster and Paul Winfield.

As the Temecula school board considered alternative curricula, Newsom pulled an end run and announced that the state was ordering thousands of copies of a social studies textbook for Temecula and would be charging the school district a $1.5 million fine for violating state law. This suddenly became a classic David and Goliath story, but in this case, David could not fight Goliath with a slingshot; it would need funding for attorneys that far exceeded its budget. In the end, Temecula accepted the textbook that they had previously rejected to avoid an expensive legal battle.

Irrespective of where one stands on the substance of these issues, these three cases should alarm everyone. The governor, who decries red states as “book banners,” presides over an education department that bans releasing public data unless those receiving the data agree not to testify against the state in legal proceedings. The governor is bullying local school districts and is trying to pass a new law (AB 1078) to give the state the power to assign textbooks if the state doesn’t approve of what a local district chooses. And our state education system may be violating federal law by supporting school districts that withhold information about children from their parents.

There are obviously much better policy approaches than for the state to go to war with local school boards and parents. But for a governor who is eyeing a future presidential run within an increasingly progressive political party, it is imperative that Newsom be seen by his party as a most aggressive advocate of the progressive agenda.

The second term of Gavin Newsom’s governorship has become much more about his political aspirations and much less about California. Just ask the 4.4 million K–12 students in the state who lack proficiency in mathematics, reading, or both.

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