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The misleading narrative behind the attack on public schools

A bit of history reveals the long-term forces at work.

- September 20, 2023

Teaching about race, gender, and sexuality in public schools is once again a hot-button issue in U.S. politics. Since 2021, a common narrative about the intensifying attacks on public school curricula is that they bubbled up organically from parents during the covid-19 pandemic. But new evidence, and a bit of history, suggest otherwise.

One narrative about the pandemic goes like this: Parents saw firsthand that their children were being exposed to histories of white supremacy and discussions about sexuality and gender identity, which sparked outrage and produced efforts to eliminate teaching about race in history courses, ban teachers from speaking about sexuality and gender identity, and challenge books on LGBT topics in libraries. 

For example, in this New York Times story, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis invoked this narrative, saying, “In the covid era, the world went mad with radical gender ideology and began pushing it harder than ever into school curriculum. DeSantis stepped up to the moment and stopped the indoctrination despite the left and the media’s best efforts to cover for it.” The story also refers to “the broader covid-era backlash over school closures and diversity programs,” as if the mobilization in response arose from nowhere. 

A recent Washington Post article sheds some light on what is really behind this narrative. It details a confidential conference call led by Michael Farris, who began his political career in the 1980s as a homeschooling advocate and more recently served as the CEO of the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom. Speaking to an audience of wealthy evangelical donors in July 2021, Farris argued that the post-pandemic moment presented a unique opportunity to move the ball forward on the decades-long fight against public education that he helped to inaugurate. 

The strategy Farris laid out was simple. The timing was right to begin filing lawsuits claiming that teaching race and gender identity are unconstitutional in hopes that the Supreme Court – now with six justices appointed by Republican presidents – would eventually rule that parents have the right to determine which topics are appropriate for their children to learn in schools. A victory would mean that parents could be entitled to public funds to supplement home schooling or vouchers for private parochial education. As an added bonus, such a ruling would also help to reduce public school funding that would, in turn, create the conditions for even more students in charter schools (which would benefit those who profit off them) and further weaken teachers’ unions.

In this light, the freshly politicized concern over what students are taught in the classroom did not begin in 2020, when the majority of schools shifted to online learning, but is instead the latest development in a multifaceted and decades-long campaign to alter the terrain of public education in the U.S. 

My research on evangelical Christians’ opposition to topics like race and sexuality in the classroom shows that politicizing what gets taught in schools and who gets to go to school have always been central to this mission. For example, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1956 Brown v. Board of Education II decision, which required segregated schools to integrate with “all deliberate speed,” evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell established “segregation academies” as alternatives to public education for white parents who were invested in maintaining racial segregation. While the retreat to parochial education was framed as parents simply exercising a right to opt for religious education, anthropologist Susan Friend Harding’s ethnography of Falwell’s church reveals that the school was established out of concern that school integration would lead to friendships and potential romances between Black and white children as they got older. Falwell and other architects of the parochial option in K-12 education used maintenance of white racial purity as a selling point for these schools. 

The politicization of education and the connections to opposing LGBT rights were spelled out later in a 2008 Voter Guide circulated by Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Issues highlighted include “Federal Protections of Traditional Marriage,” “Teaching Homosexuality in Public Schools,” and “Homosexual Adoption,” alongside “Allowing Parents to Exercise School Choice.” This litany of topics central to evangelical Christians’ political agenda in 2008 suggests that concern over the place of sexuality and gender – and even public education – were not new issues that emerged during the covid-19 pandemic, but rather consistent themes that have mobilized evangelical voters over time. 

The true origins of parents’ reactions to pandemic-era virtual schooling is an empirical question that deserves more investigation. The brief history I present here, however, suggests that this narrative often justifies a long-standing political project that seeks to transform that nature of public education, roll back rights for LGBT people, and rewrite knowledge about the history and legacy of white supremacy in this country.  

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