The right wing in America has spent the past 18 months waging an increasingly vocal war on education, banning books and restricting the discussions teachers can have in classrooms, usually when it comes to issues like racism or sexuality.
That could be starting to change, however, as progressives have won a series of victories in some states, suggesting a backlash against education censorship could be on the way.
So far in 2022 the left has forced Republicans in Indiana to abandon legislation that would have placed severe restrictions on what teachers can say in classrooms, while in New Hampshire liberal candidates won sweeping victories against conservative “anti-critical race theory” candidates on school board elections Critical race theory is an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society, but it has become a catch-all buzzword on the right.
The progressive wins are a development that looked unlikely as the right wing, often through organizations with connections to wealthy Republican donors, has introduced bill after bill in states across the country. The campaign has successfully banned books, predominantly pertaining to issues of race or sexuality, from school districts, while some states have already banned discussion of the modern-day impact of historical racism in the US.
In Indiana, education advocates celebrated in late February after HB1134, a bill which the Indianapolis Star reported would have restricted how teachers could discuss racial inequality and sexual orientation, which was defeated. The bill had passed the Indiana house in January, but amid concerted protests led by the Indiana State Teachers Association the legislation was watered down before it made it to the Republican-controlled senate, which ultimately said it did not have the votes to pass the bill .
“Every day we had folks that came to Indianapolis,” said Keith Gambill, president of ISTA. “I think it was just that constant drumbeat from our organization and the other organizations that stood in solidarity with us that made the difference.”
It helped that the Indiana senate had previously torpedoed its own version of the house legislation. In early January one Republican senator said teachers “need to be impartial” when discussing subjects including nazism and fascism, prompting national headlines and widespread backlash.
The death of HB1134 was an important victory for Indiana teachers, but Gambill said there had still been consequences.
“What we are finding both in the state of Indiana and nationally is that we are losing educators at an alarming rate.
“Some of that certainly is on pay, but that’s not the only thing that is driving the exodus. When you have bills such as this that continue to just be this wedge issue, invading your workspace, folks start looking around saying: ‘These other companies are hiring and I have all of the qualifications.’”
The Indiana legislation mirrored rightwing efforts in other states to drive honest discussion of race and sexuality from classrooms. PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression, said 155 bills that would censor what teachers can say or teach in classrooms were introduced in 38 states in 2021, while 2022 has seen a “steep rise” in the introduction of what PEN America calls “gag orders”.
In Florida a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would ban discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools, is expected to be signed into law by Ron DeSantis, the state’s governor. The bill would allow parents to file lawsuits against school boards if they believe policies violate the law.
A bill being considered in Kansas would change the state’s obscenity law, making it a Class B misdemeanor for a teacher to use any material which depicts “homosexuality” in a classroom, while looming legislation in Arizona would allow parents to sue teachers and school districts for perceived violations of parental rights.
While the right wing has rallied around the issue of classroom censorship, there is little evidence that a majority of parents are demanding a crackdown on what their children can read, or be taught. In February a CNN poll found that only 12% of Americans believed parents “should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught”.
Far from there being a popular uprising against what teachers are imparting to students, the censorship efforts have frequently been pushed by conservative groups with ties to deep-pocketed rightwing donors.
Groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education have been instrumental in book banning attempts in the US, often presenting themselves as small, “grassroots” efforts, while in reality they have links to prominent, wealthy Republicans.
Those groups have had success in several states by packing school boards, which have substantial say about what can be taught in schools, but there are signs that a shift may be coming.
In New Hampshire, teaching advocates celebrated a big win in March after progressive candidates swept to victory in school board elections around the state. Granite State Progress backed 30 candidates in the elections, with 29 of those successful, some in traditionally conservative districts.
Zandra Rice Hawkins, the group’s executive director, said the group had been inundated with calls from organizations and school board candidates around the country who are keen to replicate the success. She is hopeful that there could be further victories, and a rejection of the right wing’s draconian censorship efforts, to come.
“We think that what happened here in New Hampshire is a sign of things to come across our state and across the nation,” Rice Hawkins said.
“Public education is a bedrock of democracy, and so many people are aware of that and I think the things that are happening now, talks of banning books and other things like that, that’s got a lot of people paying attention, and frankly this GOP strategy of trying to drive a wedge between parents and communities and their public schools is going to backfire in a major way.”