(NEW YORK) — States nationwide are grappling with ongoing debates over critical race theory, sexual orientation and book censorship.
In many ways, some of the most contentious and deeply divisive issues in politics are anchored in the classroom and playing out in school boards across America.
Republicans across the country have been zeroing in on how social issues are covered by teachers, including lessons on race, gender identity, sexual orientation and more.
At least 35 states have introduced what is being called anti-critical race theory legislation that limits lessons about race and inequality which are perceived to be divisive by Republican bill supporters.
The country saw the power of “parental rights” and education play out in the Virginia election, where the now-governor was propelled to victory by focusing on those exact issues.
Experts say that Democrats have to pay close attention to these debates and shift the conversation away from the culture wars to avoid losses at the ballot box in 2022.
But students themselves are caught in the middle, especially those in vulnerable groups who are suffering as a result, experts say.
While education has always been a key issue in America, it has gained steam in the past two years a proxy for the culture wars that were intensified during the pandemic.
Many Republicans have been pushing back against what they believe to be aspects of public education systems run amok, first with COVID-related restrictions and then with issues like race and sexuality, attempting to restrict and refocus discussions.
The Florida legislature recently passed the deeply controversial Parental Rights Education Bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by LGBTQ activists, which would limit what some classrooms can teach about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Under the new legislation, these lessons “may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
It’s an effort that gives parents and guardians more control over what their children learn in school and that opponents say is overly broad.
Similar bills from Republican legislators restricting LGBTQ education have crept up in several other states, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Montana and Georgia.
However, a new ABC News/IPSOS poll found that 62% of Americans oppose legislation that would prohibit classroom lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary school, while 37% of Americans support legislation that would.
There have also been attempts to impart issues like structural racism and comprehensive sex education into school curricula. Especially since protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, there has been a renewed push to highlight the role of racism in American history and institutions.
Many of those efforts have been lumped under the banner of “critical race theory,” a discipline in higher education that teaches about racism in U.S legal systems. While it is not taught in K-12 classes, many legislators have been invoking critical race theory broadly in their arguments to attempt to restrict discussions of race in the classroom.
What is taught in schools has typically been a state and local issue (with relatively recent exceptions like No Child Left Behind), impacting governor races across the country, according to experts. However, many experts now predict that the importance of education may extend nationally to the midterm elections.
A recent CNN poll found that 81% of respondents said education was either extremely or very important to them heading into the 2022 elections.
Shavar Jeffries, the national president of political advocacy organization Democrats for Education Reform, said he believed that growing frustrations from parents on their involvement in education may be swaying them at the polls.
Jeffries pointed to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia, after making education a centerpiece of his campaign and promising to “invest more in schools, raise teacher pay, and demand better performance from our schools.” His slogan: “parents matter.”
“The 2022 midterms will hinge on Democrats’ ability to learn from these lessons and lead on education,” said Jeffries in a press release on Youngkin’s win.
Republicans steer education debate
Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Republican Governor Association, told ABC News that Republican governors said they are hearing from parents that they want a say in their children’s education. Now, governors are channeling that energy, and believe a parent’s say “needs to be codified into law.”
Most, if not all, legislation that restricts LGBTQ content or race education in schools comes from Republican legislators.
“As we begin to see those successes — with those surface-level successes, and public opinion changing — we also begin to have these very big conversations around the nation’s history and inequality within the nation’s history,” Rigueur told ABC News.
The debate even made it into the White House, with the Trump administration issuing its 1776 Report in opposition to the 1619 project which reframes the story of America by placing “slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of the [country’s] national narrative,” according to the project website.
Rigueur said that so-called “culture warriors” are trying to channel the fears and vulnerabilities of some parents to turn back the clock on social progress.
“One of the fastest ways to get parents to rally around a cause is to [imply] that schools are teaching something that’s inappropriate … something dangerous,” Rigueur said.
“It is a relatively easy way to get parents, who often feel powerless in the education process, deeply invested in order to change both the curriculum and the subject matter that their children have access to.”
On anti-LGBTQ legislation, Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, said education is the key to combating fear-mongering and the demonization of LGBTQ people.
“It is about painting a picture that is just completely not true,” Oakley said of this legislation. “The American public needs to understand that they’re being lied to by the folks who are putting these bills forward.”
As the midterm elections approach, Rigueur said Democrats have to fight to combat the forces against them.
Not only does the party of the incumbent president typically have a much harder time during the midterms, but the pandemic has also piled on the pressure in several political spheres, Rigueur said.
Rigueur added that a lot of these culture wars have been tied to the pandemic. The debate about freedom regarding mask mandates and vaccines highlights the growing want for parental control amid the dramatic changes that COVID-19 has caused.
“Part of what Democrats can do is really push the issue back to these bread-and-butter issues that the vast majority of Americans signify over and over again that they care about,” she said, like the economy and health care.
However, as politicians fight these ongoing political battles, students lie in their wake according to Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association (NEA).
“True learning only happens when students feel supported and celebrated in the classroom,” Pringle said in response to the Florida anti-LGBTQ bill.
Battleground heads to the classroom
Some students have circumvented book bans by delivering restricted readings to other students, holding sit-ins in the state Capitol building, or walking out of their classrooms in protest of bills that are anti-race education and anti-LGBTQ.
“Students, pre-K through [12th grade] are always silenced,” CJ Walden, a youth activist in South Florida, told ABC News. “Lawmakers need to know that this is not a game that they are playing.”
Other activist organizations, including the NEA, LGBTQ suicide prevention group The Trevor Project and the Human Rights Campaign, have highlighted the impact this will have on students in the classroom.
“We will not fall for the politics of division and distraction, in Florida or anywhere — we will continue to join together to ensure all students can learn, grow, and thrive,” Pringle said.
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