The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Cynical MAGA censors are damaging public education

Kids hold signs against critical race theory near Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he addresses a crowd before publicly signing his "Stop WOKE" bill in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22. (Daniel A. Varela/AP)

MAGA culture warriors have heightened their threats against teachers and school administrators. Our public education system is now paying the price.

That’s the takeaway from an alarming study from a group of researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Riverside. They found that the “virulent stream of hyperpartisan political conflict" has had "a chilling effect on high school education.” Teachers are seeking to avoid controversy by "pulling back on teaching lessons in civics, politics, and the history and experiences of America’s minority communities”; incidents of verbal harassment of LGBTQ students are on the rise; and many teachers and administrator are planning to leave their jobs.

The authors of the report surveyed 682 public high school principals, who confirmed that organized campaigns have attempted to intimidate public schools and force changes to align with right-wing ideology. The researchers write, “Our survey data make clear that political conflict over a set of hot button issues occurred at more than two-thirds (69%) of public schools across the nation during the 2021-2022 school year.” Moreover, “Half of all principals report that parents or other community members sought to limit or challenge teaching and learning about issues of race and racism. Nearly half report challenges to school policies and practices related to LGBTQ student rights.” And a third of principals said “parents or community members raised challenges to school library books they deemed inappropriate.”

This is not about parents getting involved in shaping how children learn in a healthy or respectful manner. Rather, the authors stress, this is about individuals trying to "spread falsehoods, deny civil liberties, and employ hostile and violent rhetoric or intimidating action.”

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That kind of onslaught is most intense in purple communities where competing factions vie for control of schools. “Outside groups have specifically targeted these communities through a ‘conflict campaign’ to gain partisan advantage,” the study finds. In most cases, a relatively small group of hostile parents and community members are leading the charge, thwarting the wishes of the majority of parents and others who want kids to have an accurate, inclusive and skills-building education.

The authors write:

For example, a recent national survey finds that over 95% of Americans want high school students to learn about slavery, and 85% want high school students to learn about racial inequality. These practices are important indicators because they help prepare youth for life in a diverse democracy, the public is broadly supportive of them, and yet there is reason to fear that they may be subject to a chilling effect due to current political dynamics.

Such partisan hullabaloo not only distracts educators, but also spreads an atmosphere of incivility and prompts teachers and administrators to shy away from “discussion of current controversial issues.” As a result, fewer students are learning to debate issues. Again, this is contrary to the wishes of the 80 percent of U.S. adults who “believe that controversial issues such as immigration, the second amendment, and income inequality should be discussed in high schools.”

Intimidation also affects students’ ability to identify misinformation, to the detriment of their development and our democracy more generally. The authors write, “If educational efforts are to address this polarization and conflict, and if they are to prepare youth to participate in productive forms of democratic deliberation, it is of paramount importance that public schools better prepare students to judge the accuracy of information.”

Many principals noted the “mass hysteria” over critical race theory, fueled by disinformation about schools’ curricula. This has impacted schools in purple communities the most, with almost a quarter of principals in such areas reporting that their school board or district leaders limited teaching on race or racism. Only 17 percent of schools in red communities, by comparison, and 8 percent of blue communities did the same.

Purple communities were also more likely to be affected by MAGA partisan’s attempts to ostracize or stigmatize LGBTQ individuals, such as Florida’s “Don’t say gay” law. Thirty-two percent of principals in purple districts report incidents of “hostile or demeaning remarks toward LGBTQ classmates,” compared with 22 percent in red or blue communities. Across all schools, the percentage of principals reporting multiple attacks on LGBTQ students increased from 15 percent in 2018 to 24 percent this year.

The bottom line, according to the study’s authors: Right-wing advocacy organizations and media are impairing the ability of schools to uphold values of "diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Teachers, principals and school officials can try to manage the swirl of political conflict and demand civility within schools. Many are encouraging students to attend school board meetings and lead their own forums to discuss these issues. But until communities as a whole defend the mission of public education and the ideals of respectful and inclusive debate, teachers and administrators will continue to abandon their profession. Meanwhile, students will continue to lose skills needed to function in a diverse democracy.

Letting a small cadre of partisan bullies to prevail will have serious consequences for American society.