A dedicated schoolteacher in the western United States, who requested anonymity for himself and for the public university where he took a summer education class, wanted to better help the minority students who comprise almost half of his classes.

So he enrolled in a course on teaching difficult topics like racism, antisemitism and LGBTQ+ issues. After a half-hour introduction on respecting various viewpoints, he quickly found himself in what he described as an ideological echo chamber. 

“I was shocked,” he admits, “at the strongly voiced opinions other teachers in the class held on gender fluidity and sexual experimentation.” But what he found most disturbing was “the open discussion on ways — such as teacher-provided books or private student discussions — to get around the rules and obfuscate parents in an effort to sexually enlighten the students.” 

His story is just one more example of what parents worry about as they watch viral teacher rants circulate on social media through accounts like Libs of TikTok and hear about school libraries that offer books describing sexual acts. Their concerns are often dismissed as fiction even when they’re not — as when comedian Stephen Colbert said Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon “totally made up” a father who left the Democratic Party over pornographic material in his children’s schools. (In fact, the account was true, the Detroit Free Press reported.)

But this summer-seminar teacher added an important caveat. “That course was self-selecting,” he points out. “Most teachers I know and work with are not like that, and even in that seminar, a few teachers thanked me outside class for pushing back.”

Who the bad guys and the good guys are in the current education culture wars may depend upon your political leanings. But lost in the proliferation of school-wars news is the complicating factor that both the vocal parent groups and educators working in schools across the country are more divergent and complex than the headlines imply, and in some cases, actually align with each other.

In other words, this isn’t about parents versus teachers, but about educational values versus political ideology. And more often than not, parents and educators are on the same team of trying to keep political indoctrination out of the classroom.

It’s complicated

The parent groups that have sprung up across the country to push back against progressive ideology in schools have been accused of, among other things, wanting history whitewashed; some have even been labeled domestic terrorists. Yet those with whom I spoke talked in measured terms of their desire for open discussion and respect for various viewpoints, even those with whom they disagree. The members of these groups come from the political left and right, are religious and secular, and represent different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Similarly, not all teachers and administrators can be pigeonholed, with many preferring classrooms void of an ideological agenda in which open debate and critical thinking flourish. Sometimes they clash with younger teachers and national training programs pushing for causes. And some join with parent groups because they believe some educators ignore parents at public schools’ peril. 

Concerns about public schools in flux — with families leaving them for home, religious or micro-school education in which students band together in learning groups — also extend beyond conservative media outlets.

The Washington Post warns that “trust in teachers is plunging,” citing Gallup polls and parents worried about classrooms fixated on race and gender identity. New York Times opinion writers wonder if proponents of public schools have given short shrift to valid parental concerns.

The Wall Street Journal declares that education is now a top issue for 60% of registered voters. And Bill Maher quips that parents don’t like their kids coming home and saying, “Uh, they divided the class today into oppressors and oppressed. And if I change my sex, I don’t have to tell my parents.”

Parents wonder, “Do extreme classroom stories have anything to do with my local school?” 

With almost 14,000 school districts in the country, the question is impossible to answer generally, but it can be answered locally. According to involved parents and educators, parents should do their local curriculum homework, whether they live in red or blue states, and not rely on school culture war stories outside their actual district. 

What’s happening on Twitter might not be happening in your child’s school. Still, parents rightly want to know if it is — and if so, what they can do about it.

The parents pushing back

“I’m the type of mom who sends Kleenex for the whole class on the first day, knows all the teachers’ names and goes on field trips,” explains Laurie Gaddis Barrett, of Rhode Island. Although she calls her state deep blue, Barrett finds her town’s schools void of progressive biases and its administrators and teachers willing to work with parents. 

And Barrett should know. She joined with parents across the state, standing first against a comprehensive sex education bill she felt “bordered on hypersexualization,” then on other issues that involved parents “from all over the map: immigrants, racially and politically diverse, but mostly in the middle,” she says. “We come together because we want competing ideologies in the class, not a whitewashed history or simplistic education.”

Like Barrett, Elana Fishbein, of Pennsylvania, questioned the purpose and validity of “Cultural Proficiency,” a critical race theory inspired lesson plan in her children’s elementary school. (Although the definition is sometimes contested, critical race theory is usually understood as a lens through which race is considered a social construct and racism systematic and pervasive in American law, institutions and history.)

Fishbein considers herself apolitical, calling the national grassroots organization she founded “No Left Turn in Education” because “one can’t deny the fact that education has been hijacked by the extreme left,” she explains. “My organization aspires for a future education where appreciation of American founding principles is fostered, family values are preserved, and every individual can pursue truth, virtue, beauty and excellence. Those are apolitical commonsense values.” 

According to Fishbein, parents, community members and educators who join her organization come from all over the country and all over the political spectrum “because we don’t want one point-of-view taught as gospel.” 

Parents’ rights groups often push back on critical race theory, but their leaders insist that parents aren’t in denial about racism, just opposed to a fixation on skin color that, as Fishbein puts it, “pits children against each other based on the color or their skin or other immutable characteristics.”

New Hampshire parent Daniel L. Richards initially welcomed his children’s elementary school’s embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion until he became concerned about statements, for example, that the “Declaration of Independence is the foundation for white supremacy” and experienced hostile pushback from the school administration when he objected.

Conversely, in Texas, parent Laney Hawes worries little about the education her children receive in her school district. “They’re learning the basics of cellular respiration, how to critically think, how to analyze a text,” she says. Hawes urges parents not to give up on public education that is “the greatest pathway to opportunity for all kids in America.” 

What ‘indoctrination’ means

Although she doesn’t see her school district as having been indoctrinated, Hawes concedes that curriculum choices can be fraught with complications. “Which parents, and which families, should determine curriculum when we come from different walks of life and have varying standards of morality?” she asks.

Her Texas district offers “opt-out” policies, an option Hawes considers “one of the best compromising policies schools can have, allowing parents to make decisions for their own children while not making them for all students.” 

But to opt-out, or opt-in, a parent needs to know what’s going on, a process that can be difficult to navigate and one that compelled Corinne Johnson, of Utah, to pivot her parent group, Utah Parents United, from COVID-19 online-school issues into curriculum issues and transparency. The organization grew and went statewide as parents and teachers alike became concerned with what Johnson terms “socioemotional transformation” training.

“There’s a huge difference between teaching children good social, mental health, time management and resilience skills,” explains Johnson, “versus programs that fundamentally transform values, attitudes and beliefs.” 

Utah Parents United considers some national training programs, which districts adopt and receive funding for, as indoctrination, teaching a specific set of values that compete with parental worldviews and go beyond the scope of public education.

But “gender ideology, hypersexualization and fixation on skin color,” doesn’t just worry parents, but also concerns many teachers and administrators as well, Johnson says.

“We work with many educators, one of whom quit over having to teach this type of curriculum in a Utah class,” says Johnson, adding that her group wants to see “various opinions reflected in classrooms, and every race, religion, and gender represented in the American story.”

According to Johnson, Fishbein and others, more than a few school administrators reach out to them and appreciate parent-led efforts. These are, after all, the same parents who join the PTA and volunteer at community events. Most could easily retreat from the fray and take care of their own.

And yet many home-schooling parents like Emily Maikisch, of Florida, remain involved because “real change happens when parents take control of their children’s education and when they work with their local schools and/or school board members to correct any problems.”

Parent organizations across the country also keep parents informed about legislative efforts, various district policies and issues, and curriculum updates. They also help parents make a difference on their own. A current video on the Utah Parents United website, titled “How to have an uncomfortable conversation with my teacher or principal,” helps parents bring curriculum concerns up respectfully and politely. 

‘Cultural transformation’

When extreme-teacher videos pop up in the newsfeed of middle school language arts teacher Melissa Sebourn, she admits, “I feel maligned and villainized.”

COVID-19-related learning loss, terrible behavior and children’s excessive internet exposure all put tremendous additional burdens on teachers, she tells me. With stiff competition from TikTok and social media, “If I can get a kid to just read instead of scroll their phone, it’s a win.”

“It’s crazy what kids are getting off the internet,” the North Texas teacher observes. “And while I don’t think kids should be getting explicit material from school, I also think parents need to take more responsibility at home.” She emphasizes that “I’m not seeing indoctrination from where I’m teaching,” but adds that she knows it could be happening elsewhere.

From Jason Vilos’ position in Utah teaching history, the viral radical-teacher phenomenon is more complicated than meets the eye. “Teachers as a group tend to be more socially liberal,” he observes, “but teachers, broadly speaking, come from the communities where we live and share many of the same values.” 

That said, according to Vilos, “I think that the push for neo-Marxist ideological activism in the classroom is real.” Recently, Vilos received an email inviting him to join a Virtual Collective Equity Institute in which he would “align around a shared language and purpose to collectively drive cultural transformation back at your school.”

“I have never received anything like this before,” Vilos notes, “and think there is a real push to create this kind of transformational change that inevitably creeps into the classroom.”

Federal agencies push mandates in school, Vilos explains, adding that “large, well-funded organizations with packaged curriculum not vetted by teachers can make their way into the curriculum.”

Perspective: Parents are right to be concerned about what kids read
Perspective: The story that’s not being told about the ‘Libs of TikTok’

Advice for parents

So what’s a parent to do? Vilos encourages parents to attend material adoption opportunities, get to know their school board representatives and attend board meetings. Even more important, he adds, “is to get to know your children’s teachers and share your concerns without animosity.” 

Richard K. Nye, superintendent of Granite School District, Utah’s third largest, oversees operations for more than 60,000 students. He insists that “the vast majority of teachers follow the expectations and guidelines of state statute, state board rule and local board policies regarding the appropriate use of curricula in the classroom.”  

Nye assures parents that when administrators learn of teacher misconduct, “School districts engage in rigorous investigations and corrective discipline is administered.” While social media perpetuates the perception that violations occur more frequently within public education than otherwise, Nye emphasizes that district staff “have engaged in more proactive measures and strategies to highlight what actually occurs in our schools.”

Strategies many districts are implementing, such as curricula transparency and parent committees, offer reasons to consider public over private schooling, according to parents Johnson and Fishbein. However, Joel Thornton, a former chief of staff of the Georgia state school superintendent and an attorney for the Child and Parental Rights Campaign, counters that “I’m talking to parents all over the country from Florida to New York to California and all points in between, and indoctrination issues are ratcheting up.” 

Radical teachers online, observes Thornton, aren’t really the problem. “Those teachers usually get fired,” he says. “The real issue consists of national organizations engaging with school districts to create quiet cultural and sexual transformation parents don’t know about.”

While Thornton notes that parents across the country “are not caring what it costs” to pull their kids from public school to home-school or form micro-schools within their communities, he urges parents to care about kids still attending public school. “Ten people showing up at a board meeting,” he insists, “makes a huge difference.”

The anonymous teacher from the “difficult topics” summer seminar wholeheartedly agrees. “Parents are crucial for keeping schools and teachers accountable,” he says. He urges them to look at their child’s Canvas assignment and ask whether anything they’re learning makes them uncomfortable.

“Parent complaints keep teachers accountable because, believe it or not, none of us want to end up in the principal’s office or on the news.” 

The perfect morass

On a warm fall night in Holladay, Utah, students, parents and community members recently gathered in the parking lot of one of superintendent Nye’s district’s high schools, Olympus High, where the school’s Friend-2-Friend club put on a community service night under the direction of parent Jen Wunderli. They were there to do good.

The volunteers made more than 1,100 fleece blankets and assembled 1,000 care kits for the Santa Sack program for disadvantaged children. They also made kits for the Refugee Coalition and Christmas stockings for the Utah State Hospital for the mentally ill. 

Involved families like the ones assembled here form the nexus between schools, communities, children and surrounding neighborhoods. They give a lot, but also tend to demand a lot. So when reports emerge about the San Francisco Unified School District facilitating child sexual transitions without notifying parents or when Joe Rogan complains about educators pushing progressive ideology in schools to a massive Spotify audience, conscientious parents worry about whether similar things could happen at their children’s schools.

Right now, a lot of parents are worried about sexually explicit material in school classrooms and libraries, as has been found in California and Oregon. A new national survey by Rasmussen Reports found that 69% of voters believe that high school libraries should not offer books containing explicit sexual depictions of sex acts, with the percentage rising to 79% for middle schools and 85% for middle schools.

According to Emily Maikisch, the home-schooling mom in Florida who founded Booklooks.org, a rating and review system for books in school libraries across the country, “I don’t like the term banned — it’s reminiscent of book burnings.” Few, if any, parent organizations, she insists, are demanding that sexually explicit books not be sold or available in public libraries; they just don’t want them to be available to children in public schools.

Thornton, the Georgia parent and child rights attorney, agrees that schools are different from book stores. “Teachers and administrators in schools cannot form Bible clubs. Only students can, to avoid the appearance of authority endorsing religion,” he notes. Similarly, “When schools authorize books, students view them differently than sexually explicit content they come across on the internet.” 

But Thornton, Maikisch and fellow school-library book reviewer Brooke Stephens, of Facebook page “Laverna in the Library,” are, along with other parent leaders, well aware of the complications involved in pulling books from shelves. Literary merit, awards and the Miller Test (considered the “primary legal test for determining whether expression constitutes obscenity”) — along with every school requiring its own committees and policies to review hundreds of incoming books — create a perfect morass for parents, librarians and administrators to disagree over. 

One strategy the parents’ groups use is to highlight offensive portions from the books, sometimes on their websites, sometimes at school board meetings. The content is so graphic that parents quoting from the the books at school board meetings have been asked to leave.

And so the culture wars march on, with public schools in the crosshairs and librarians, parents, teachers and administrators alike feeling misunderstood and, at times, vilified. Yet “we all need each other to make public education work,” insists Melissa Sebourn, the teacher from Texas.

Traditionally minded parents might be tempted to withdraw from the turbulence, and even Nye, the superintendent, urges parents to “determine what’s best for their children, whether that’s home-schooling, private or public education.”

But parents like Nathan and Jelaire Richardson, who home-school their kids in an enclosed neighborhood in Saudi Arabia, add a cautionary tale to those trying to protect their children. “Even in a fairly insulated environment in a highly conservative part of the world, our kids come home with surprising questions about sexual content overheard at the park,” Jelaire Richardson says. “So as parents, if you aren’t talking to your children, even at a very young age, about this subject, then you’re the only ones who aren’t talking to them about it.” 

The Richardsons helped create a website, TheFamilyProclamation.org, which offers lesson plans reflective of their religious values. But their intentions mirror the efforts of parents everywhere who want their children to engage with the world, yet retain values that parents view as their prerogative to instill.

Many educators still respect that prerogative. “I think we as teachers have an obligation to build trust with parents,” observes history teacher Vilos, who welcomes genuine, concerned feedback. “Please keep talking to us,” he assures parents. “You might be surprised to find out that your child’s teacher shares the same concerns.”

Betsy VanDenBerghe has written for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Public Square Magazine, First Things, RealClearPolitics and National Review.