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Joe Greenberg MPP '24

By Joe Greenberg MPP'24

Four years ago as a teacher, I watched the parents’ rights movement take shape from the inside of a Mississippi classroom. I immediately recognized the movement as a threat to our students, staff and school operations, and wanted to identify policy solutions. I spent my first year at the Sanford School of Public Policy developing a better understanding of the damage this movement wrought on our education system. In addition, as an intern at the ACLU-Philadelphia last summer, I led a project to evaluate this movement's impact on school districts.

My MPP master's project, entitled "The Parents' Rights Movement's Effect on School Board Functioning," became an extension of this work. But after developing my literature review and methods and analysis plan, I learned about a new opportunity that Sanford was offering: the MPP MP3 showcase competition, which would allow a select number of students to concisely present their Master’s Projects (MP) in three minutes, using a single static slide. The finalists would try to convey the importance of their policy problem and recommended course of action to a non-specialist panel of judges.

Boiling a 45-page paper down to a succinct elevator pitch seemed daunting. But I also saw the showcase as an opportunity to break out of the often myopic writing process and practice an important skill in policymaking: convincing an audience of an issue's significance and the need to adopt evidence-based solutions. Likewise, though many students and professors at Sanford were aware of the movement, I wanted to share the impact that this type of activism has had on schools like my own.

For readers who are unfamiliar––or familiar, but understandably confused by the misnomer––the parents’ rights movement describes a small cadre of conservative parents who take a narrow view of how schools should function. Their policy demands include book bans, curriculum censorship programs, and rules restricting LGBTQIA+ students' freedom of expression. In recent years, members of this movement exerted outsized power, even inspiring state and federal legislation, despite representing only a small minority of public school parents' sentiments around education.

As a teacher, I had felt the effects of a teacher shortage crisis, record-low student performance, and increased fears over gun violence. My school board, faced with one of the lowest budgets in the state, struggled to address the myriad problems. Thus, I hypothesized that activism associated with the parents’ right movement was an impediment to district functioning, forcing administrators to focus on "culture war" issues rather than those that hinder student success.

My MP at Sanford became a case study of school board meetings in three districts with significant parents’ rights activism. Transcripts were split into a period before and after the rise of this movement. My paper used qualitative and quantitative data analysis––using Atlas.ti and R, respectively––to generate a convincing narrative and evidence-backed policy solutions.

At the showcase, I described this process and my findings: first, that increased activism in school board meetings correlated with a notable rise in "political" discussion and a marked decline in "constructive" debate; and second, that meetings in the last school year were an average of two times longer than they were in the period before the movement began. Administrators, in other words, were bogged down in ideologically-driven debates that overburdened them and undermined efforts to make schools more inclusive.

Crafting the presentation helped me become a better writer, speaker, and visual communicator, ultimately earning me first place in the showcase. But, I learned most as an audience member.

For months, I had listened to friends describe seemingly insurmountable obstacles to completing their projects and the amount of time they had put in trying to produce a persuasive final product. Sanford Room 04 became a celebration of students’ devotion to an urgent problem––one that, for most students, impacted their life or the lives of those they care about. While we were often siloed in classes based on our policy interests, the MP3 showcase was an opportunity to see the diversity of work happening at Sanford, from creating greater access to higher education, to improving environmental policy, to the protection of LGBTQ+ individuals worldwide.

Steeped in the work, this program can be grueling, and one can lose sight of the real people being affected by what we study. The MP3 showcase helped ground us, reconnecting our passion for helping others with the policies that further that vision. As I listened to fellow students describe what they had accomplished over the last year, I just felt honored to sit among them.

Joe Greenberg is a second-year master’s student at the Sanford School of Public Policy, pursuing a concentration in education policy. Joe will be attending Georgetown Law School next year where he wants to explore public interest law and help effect positive social change. He earned a first-place honor for his MP presentation at the Sanford MPP MP3 Showcase.