BOSTON (CN) — 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:
- It’s now illegal to teach that white people are inherently racist. (Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee)
- It’s illegal to teach that America is a racist country. (Georgia, Iowa, North Dakota and Tennessee)
- It’s illegal to teach that white people living today are morally responsible for slavery. (Idaho, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah)
- It’s illegal to teach that one race is morally superior to another. (Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah)
- Florida and Virginia prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, Montana prohibits asking students to reflect on their privilege, and Oklahoma doesn’t allow teaching that meritocracy and a work ethic are racist concepts.
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.