Photo courtesy of Jillian Foster
Photo courtesy of Jillian Foster

Only 24% of parents believe they have too little say over what’s taught and what books are at their kids’ schools. Nearly 9 in 10 parents believe their child’s teacher has done the best they could during the pandemic, and 76% say their child’s school does a good job keeping them informed about curriculum–including potentially controversial topics.

MICHIGAN—Over the past two years, teachers have come under increased scrutiny from a small but vocal coalition of right-wing activists, parents, and politicians. 

This well-organized, well-funded alliance has exploited pandemic-related schooling issues for their own gain. Targeting Michigan’s parents—voters whose emotional pain points are easy to identify—they’ve vilified the place that 90% of Michigan’s schoolchildren can be found five days a week: public schools. 

Pointing to the difficulties of virtual learning—worsening student mental health, teacher shortages, and educational inequities—the alliance has rung parents’ alarm bells, reframing the issues as problems with Michigan’s 86,154 school teachers, and pointing to the heroes who can save Michigan’s children: themselves. (Trouble in River City, anyone?)

The attacks have taken a toll. Teacher retirements in Michigan were up 40% at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and one in five new teachers is leaving the profession within their first five years. A recent survey from the Michigan Education Association found that 20% of active K-12 teachers want to leave the profession for another job within the next two to three years.

While those who’ve waged war on public education have been the loudest voices in the room, polling consistently shows they are a minority. According to a new national NPR/Ipsos poll:

  • 82% of parents say their child’s school has handled the pandemic well and has clearly communicated plans.
  • 88% believe their child’s teacher has done the best they could given the circumstances.
  • 76% say their child’s school does a good job keeping them informed about curriculum, including potentially controversial topics. 
  • Only 24% of parents believe they have too little say over what is taught and what books are in the library at their kid’s school. 
  • More parents believe their child’s school is teaching about race and racism, the impact of slavery, and sexuality and gender identity in a way that is consistent with their values than not.

Jillian Foster is the product of Michigan public schools and now sends her 12-year-old daughter to public schools. She’s a strong supporter of public education and believes teachers are critical to school success and a community’s well-being. She is among that silent majority who takes issue with how teachers have been treated.

We interviewed Foster to ensure voices like hers are heard, and not drowned out by the angry, vocal minority.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Did you go to public school growing up? If so, what was your experience like?

I went to Ithaca public schools in Ithaca, Michigan, about in the middle of the state. It’s a very rural, small community. I think I graduated with around 75 people in my class. I did have a really great experience. Even being in a small town, we were afforded a lot of opportunities for sports and extracurriculars, and I took advantage of a lot of those.

You’re a parent now. Do you have kids in public schools?

My daughter goes to Hastings Middle School. We moved to the Hastings community in 2013, so we learned a lot about the community through the school system. That was where we started to make friends and make those connections. I didn’t work at first when we moved here because our daughter was so young, so I stayed at home with her for about a year and a half, but we were able to meet a lot of people through the schools. I joined the parent-teacher organization, so I got to know more people that way and know more about the school system, and have an intimate look at how the schools work.

What role do public schools play in your community?

I think our public schools are pretty amazing conveners for people—not just because you can get to know other parents and you can get to know the students, but the students have such a wide variety of activities that they can be involved with, with very little cost to them. There are, for instance, a lot of scholarships for students to play sports, so it’s not a burden on their family if there’s a cost to buy uniforms or whatever. 

Especially in Hastings, they built the new Hastings Performing Arts Center and they’ve been able to use this amazing, beautiful facility to put on not only school events, but also community events. The school puts on a musical and typically another play or a series of one acts, but they also are coordinating with our local arts council, so they’re bringing in all of these great musicians. 

They brought in the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, they brought in Three Men and a Tenor to come and do these great events, so it’s really become a community convenor. It’s a great way for people to get out in the community and do something. Our schools have really become those areas where we can meet people and go to events that aren’t extremely expensive. I think we paid $15 to watch the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra play and that’s a pretty amazing benefit that we have at our local schools.

What roles do teachers play in shaping schools and the larger community?

I think bringing in teachers to our community is really important, because if those teachers come in, are treated well, are paid well, they feel valued, then they’re going to become a part of our greater community and that’s a really big plus for all of us. For instance, our band teacher is also the director of the Hastings City Band. And our Arts Council puts on a Jazz Festival, so again, something that starts at the schools also filters out into our entire community.

I think bringing in people who want to become invested not only in the school, but in the community—that helps the overall growth.

Do you think communities would suffer if public schools didn’t exist? If so, how?

I know a lot of our private schools around here, they’re teaching two grades at a time, so I can’t imagine not having the ability for the teacher to teach to just one grade level. It has to be stressful and so I think we would lose a lot of value in our schools if they became something that everyone would have to pay for. I think we’d see a lot more people homeschooling their children and that just is not good for the overall health of the community.

What is a positive vision for the future of public schools in your community? What do you want to see?

I would love to see schools continue to teach students how to be good community citizens, so helping them understand how the community works as a whole and understand where education fits in. Education is a huge part of everything we do and making sure that they see how important it is that we have schools here in our towns, in places that are easily walkable. For instance, my daughter [and other students]—they had a reward and they walked downtown to the movie theater and she said people were just like smiling seeing kids out and about, and I can’t imagine not having that presence of a school within a greater community.

Are you worried about the attacks on schools that have been happening in the last few years, namely the efforts to censor how teachers can talk about subjects like racism and LGBTQ identity?

It’s very concerning. I really feel for teachers and administrators because they’re in a terribly hard position. People are coming at them for literally everything and anything and stuff that they might not even have control over, and stuff that isn’t really happening. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so I can understand why we have people who don’t want to go into that profession because it is scary and it is hard.

People think, ‘Oh it’s so easy, you get out at 3 and you get summers off,’ but that’s not the actuality of it. I’m really proud of teachers that stand up for the rights of students and who make sure that they’re really doing what’s right for the students instead of being worried about what parents might think or say to them. But it’s hard for them to also take a stand on that, because they have to worry about their job and their job security. I personally wouldn’t want to do it and I feel for them and I hope that we can as a society really learn to appreciate all they do for kids. I know when schools shut down last year and my daughter was doing school from home, it was a lot of work and I was not cut out for that, so I can’t say enough how much I appreciate teachers.

What is the purpose of public education? What should it be?

I think the purpose is to give every child a fair shot at learning about what they need to know. And not just what the school teaches them, but the community building, the friendships, the problem solving, not just in classroom stuff, but everything else that you learn by being a part of something—teamwork, listening skills—stuff like that is really important.