Back to school … and back to the culture war
Public schools have become a minefield over 'woke' ideas, producing legislative battles that distract from kids’ larger needs
Millions of children are headed back to the classroom this fall and finding themselves in Ground Zero of a furious culture war that has produced a torrent of legislative skirmishes over what teachers can say about race and gender — but may be getting in the way of addressing students’ more serious problems.
Many children need mental health support as a result of pandemic isolation, said Marie Wright, a former school board member in Colorado, and there’s a high rate of suicide attempts, but as a result of partisan bickering “anyone who brings up a serious concern about this gets shut down."
“We have people who want to eliminate all school counselors because they believe they’re converting kids to LGBTQ and Marxism,” Wright said. “And on the other side you have people who want more services — but only for transgender kids, who are a tiny fraction of the population.”
As a result, “teachers are afraid to talk to kids and ask them how they’re doing because they’re afraid they’re going to get targeted. We can’t even teach kids that you need to be polite to each other.”
The political battle has often pitted teachers — and especially their unions — against parents, which poisons the educational atmosphere for everyone.
In New Jersey, the state teachers’ union recently released an ad that shows scary, threatening images of parents and condemns them as “extremists” who are “attacking our schools.” Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a county Republican party funded an ad claiming teachers are indoctrinating students that “all white people are racist” and “all people should have equal outcomes.”
Ordinary citizens who don’t have a dog in the ideological fight are unhappy about the conflict. More than two-thirds of Americans in political battleground states now rate public schools as a top issue, according to a poll by a Democratic research firm. And the biggest complaint isn’t about class size, teacher shortages or online learning; it’s that schools have become “too politicized.”
The controversy began in the spring of 2021 with the deluge of news stories — often amplified by conservative media — about critical race theory, sexually explicit materials and transgender discussions in elementary school. Republican lawmakers started backing bills to clamp down on such practices, and the following laws have been enacted in the interim:
Similar bills are actively being considered by lawmakers in Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states.
In North Carolina, the legislature passed a bill that would have outlawed teaching that one race is superior to another, that white people are inherently racist or oppressive, and that meritocracy is a racist idea. But the bill was vetoed by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper.
And in Wisconsin, Democratic Governor Tony Evers vetoed a bill that would have outlawed training for public school teachers that encourages "race or sex stereotyping."
A large number of bills have also been introduced relating to gender issues, although these have not been quite as successful. The one that has garnered the most attention is Florida’s statute that prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity before the fourth grade, which has been derided by critics as a “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Alabama adopted a similar law this year. Arkansas, Montana and Tennessee approved laws that require schools to give families advance notice of lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity and allow them to opt out. And a new Oklahoma law prohibits children from receiving “mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling.”
Other gender-related bills now being considered in 15 states would, among other things, limit the sports teams on which trans girls can play and require them to use male bathrooms, prohibit teachers from discussing their sexual orientation or gender identity, prohibit teachers from encouraging students in the perception that their gender identity differs from their biological sex, require parents’ written permission for students to join gender-related clubs or be addressed with a different pronoun, require parental notification if a student exhibits symptoms of gender dysphoria, and ban classroom materials and library books that encourage alternative sexual lifestyles.
Another spate of bills is designed to create “curriculum transparency” by allowing parents to more easily see what’s being taught to their children. Transparency legislation has been introduced in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. Such bills were vetoed by Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Many teachers complain that curricula are already accessible and that the proposed laws would simply create opportunities for ill-informed outsiders to object and meddle.
“A lot of the people who show up at meetings and complain don’t even have kids in the school,” Wright said.
Finally, there’s a move to restrict how U.S. history is taught. Florida and Texas have banned the “1619 Project” — a controversial curriculum that claims the American Revolution was fought largely over slavery — and a new Kentucky law says that children should be instructed that slavery was bad but that “defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of this institution” is also wrong.
Some of the new laws are being challenged in court, and it’s not clear if they’re constitutional. While teachers are public employees and their free-speech rights on the job are limited, in theory the laws could violate the First Amendment right of students to receive ideas and information.
One of the few relevant cases is a 2015 Ninth Circuit ruling on an Arizona law that prohibited public school courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” or “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” The court said the first two restrictions were valid under the First Amendment but rejected the third on the grounds that it could ban a course on Chinese history even if it were open to everyone.
On remand, however, a district court struck down the law on equal protection grounds because it was targeted at one specific program for Mexican-Americans and was motivated solely by racial bias.
Despite the political and legal furor, there’s little hard evidence that America’s schools are suddenly experiencing an epidemic of Marxist indoctrination.
There are more than 3 million public schoolteachers in the U.S. (and another half million in private secondary schools), and undoubtedly some of them broadcast extreme views in the classroom. Some have admitted as much in social media videos that are highlighted on conservative media.
However, “we find little evidence that a large percentage of teachers are systemically imposing a radical political agenda in K-12 classrooms,” the conservative Heritage Foundation concluded after conducting a nationwide survey in 2021.
While teachers as a whole are slightly more likely than the general public to believe in systemic racism, “teachers are not extremely ideological,” the survey concluded. “In most cases, teacher views are moderate or slightly left of center. The average teacher response was consistently more moderate than that of the average liberal in the nationally representative sample.”
In a 2017 survey conducted by Education Week, 43% of teachers described themselves as politically moderate. Only 29% said they were liberal or very liberal, while 27% said they were conservative or very conservative.
An Ipsos poll this year found that the vast majority of parents had no objection to the way that race and gender are being handled in their children’s schools.
With regard to the teachers who say inappropriate things in the classroom, Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, called these “extremely isolated incidents involving a small handful of people.”
“And we already have systems in place to address such misconduct," DiMauro continued. "But there’s a narrative that all teachers need to be held in mistrust and the way to solve it is with sweeping legislation.
“I’m sure I could find a few bad people in any profession,” DiMauro added. “It’s just like the police. People like to put a spotlight on a few egregious examples but that doesn’t mean that all police officers are bad.”
While there’s little broad evidence of teachers indoctrinating students, there are some examples of education authorities trying to train teachers in leftist concepts, especially in liberal areas. Fox News reported that the Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, required all teachers to undergo an “antiracist” training program taught by an advocate of critical race theory.
But even these claims are sometimes overblown. A group called the Sunlight Policy Center alleged that the New Jersey Education Association, “the state union that represents 125,000 teachers of our children … is training teachers to become political activists and push for radical education policies in local school districts.” The evidence for this turned out to be a link on the union’s calendar page to a program called “Advocating and Organizing for Social Change” that was offered by a separate organization and that was completely optional, cost $150 and was limited to 20 people.
But regardless of the facts on the ground, turning schools into a political battlefield has benefits for the political combatants. For instance, Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Trump, said on a podcast that the route to success for the conservative agenda “is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”
“This is how we are going to win. I see 50 [additional House Republican] seats in 2022,” Bannon said.
On the other side, the country’s two national teachers’ unions, which regularly donate tens of millions of dollars to Democrats in hopes of obtaining policies in their favor, see a benefit in pouring gasoline on the flames in ways that please the party’s progressive wing.
At its annual meeting last year, the National Education Association voted to allocate funds to support critical race theory and the 1619 Project in K-12 schools. The union also vowed to oppose “white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.”
This is not the first time that public schools have been turned into a political football. There’s a widespread belief that in the past teachers were always held in high community regard but “that’s a myth,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Whereas previous school culture wars often centered on religion — including battles over evolution, sex education and school prayer — Zimmerman said it is politics that has typically gotten teachers fired. In the past teachers were fired for expressing misgivings about slavery or World War I, for alleged Communist sympathies during the 1950s, and for their views on the Vietnam War.
“What’s new, though, is that the attacks on teachers now are far more organized and national in scope,” Zimmerman said. “Historically public schools were a state and local matter. But [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis this making it a big part of his presidential campaign. It’s become a national political project.”
The resulting controversy is leaving millions of rank-and-file teachers, parents and students, like refugees in a war zone, ducking for cover as the ideological bullets fly overhead.
A third of teachers say they’re stressed out by the politicization of schools, and 14% report experiencing “hostility or aggression” in the past year regarding the teaching of race — with the bulk of the hostility coming from people who have no connection to the school, according to a study by the RAND Corporation.
“I am terrified to teach in this polarized environment,” one civics teacher in rural Massachusetts confessed anonymously.
“We are supposed to contact the school committee before teaching ‘controversial topics’; however, what these issues are is murky," the teacher added.
DiMauro said that teachers feel “caught up in a culture war they didn’t create” and regularly avoid talking about topics that could in any remote way be considered controversial even if they’re perfectly appropriate and part of the approved curriculum.
The conflict also makes it hard to help children in other ways, he said. “If you can’t have a conversation about gender, what do you do about students who are being harassed because of their sexual orientation? We can’t support them even if they come to us for help.”
According to Wright, “We have a board member who describes anyone who is LGBTQ as a groomer, and on the other side there are people insisting that everything is systemic and institutional, and they want the whole history curriculum redone.” In this hyperpartisan environment, she said, “conversations about what kids actually need are impossible.”