Attacks against public schools are nothing new, but today the very idea of public education is being threatened. How did we get here? In her new book, "School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics, and the Battle for Public Education," education journalist Laura Pappano explores the rampant disinformation fueling the so-called "culture wars." A line has been crossed, she says, and we are no longer debating real education ideas and policies.
What were seeing on the ground in these communities that compelled you to write the book?
Laura Pappano: As a reporter, I saw things happening that were involving schools but were not really about education. A lot of misinformation about inclusion, what kids were being taught, what books they should read. We’re in a moment right now where these sorts of attacks have gained too much traction.
I've spent a great part of my career writing about different approaches and ideas about education, ones that worked or didn't work. Real debates. But those policies, those sorts of details, are not what we're talking about right now. I'm concerned about a lot of things happening or not happening in our schools, but I am not concerned at all with this nonsense that students are being indoctrinated by critical race theory, that libraries are collecting pornography, or that we are changing the gender of children. Those are untruths that are distracting from the work of figuring out how do we educate everyone who walks in the door. So I thought it was very important to kind of pick apart all of these things—and to tell the stories of people who are experiencing the consequences of these attacks.
Who needs to hear these stories the most?
LP: It's everybody, but in different ways. I wrote the book to share with parents that their schools are being targeted, that the very idea of public education is being threatened. I also want teachers, librarians, other educators, and school leaders to understand that most parents support them, that they are valued, and that they're doing really important work.
What made these attacks so successful, at least initially?
LP: The far right is nationalizing our local experiences and our local conversations around schools. I covered a school board election in Idaho last November. One of the main issues in that race was transgenderism. I was at polling places on dirt roads where I was hearing people claim that their candidate was going to keep boys out of girls’ bathrooms.
That is not the problem with schools in that community. This district was entering its second year without a K-6 English language arts curriculum. They have huge budget shortfalls. There were mice running over children's feet in the classroom because they didn't have money to hire the cleaning service for the school. But that’s not what they were talking about in this race.
So, let's recognize that these community conversations are being hijacked by a national political agenda. There's nothing wrong with conservative values, but we're talking about extremists here, and they’re using our schools as a political tool.
I do think many people were slow to recognize what was happening. So, the far right got a little bit of a head start. But we're seeing much more grassroots action—from parents groups especially, on the ground pushing back.
There’s a chilling moment in the book when you’re attending a Moms for Liberty conference. I think it was a presentation demonizing social and emotional learning. After it was over, an attendee in front of you shakes her head and says, “We’ve just got to get the kids out of these schools!”
LP: I still remember that so vividly. It stunned me, because, as a journalist, I’m very accustomed to being in situations where I personally, you know, may not agree with the person or what I’m covering. But I always push that stuff aside and say, OK, let me really listen and think about what I'm hearing.
But at the Moms for Liberty conference in Florida, the language, the perspectives were so extreme that from day one, it was absurd. I could not believe that I was hearing people describing social and emotional learning as a form of Marxism. Or that sending your child to public schools is like sending them to Maoist reform prison camps.
There's no connection to reality, and yet people willingly accepted, believed, and followed. And that is what I find so deeply concerning and, again, one of the reasons I wrote the book.
Who was Anne Hale and why is she relevant to what's going on today?
LP: Anne Hale was a popular, wonderful teacher in Wayland, Massachusetts, in the 1950s during the Red Scare. She was open-minded and kind of fearless. Very civic-minded, she belonged to organizations and believed in ending racial discrimination, bringing more democracy into the classroom, more pay and better conditions for teachers.
But she was targeted and dismissed by the local school committee, who cited her one-time membership in the Communist Party.
People were so paranoid back then. Anne lived in a red house, which some people took as a sign that she was a communist. She stood up and said we should encourage new ideas, open-mindedness, curiosity. But she was run out of her job. She ended up cleaning animal cages. It was horrific, and we should not want to see anything like that again. But the same sort of language used to target Anne Hale, we're hearing again, and it's very disturbing.
Poll after poll shows very high support for public school and public school educators. In the book, you talk to pro-public education parent-activists. How challenging has it been to get their colleagues and friends to actually pay more attention—to school board races, for example—and take action?
LP: Well, the support has long been there, but we didn't necessarily feel we needed to act on it. We tend to take our schools for granted. What we are learning through this is that we need to be involved. We need to pay attention to the school board races. We need to maybe even run for school board. People need to know who is representing us on the school board and what their goals and policies are.
When I was in Idaho on Election Day last year, I sat at a coffee shop across from the junior high school with a father who had six children in public schools. His Facebook page has the American flag and the Second Amendment on it. He wakes up and starts his workday at 4:35 a.m.—he builds pole barns—so that in the afternoon he can attend his children's sports practices.
He told me the idea that teachers are indoctrinating his children was, in his words, "paranoid bull-honkey." He said he was so involved with his children that he wasn't concerned they might come home with an idea or opinion he might disagree with. He fully expects that. That's the nature of things, but it doesn't mean that they are being indoctrinated.
Red, Wine, and Blue and other new parent groups are doing a tremendous labor-intensive public service. Moms have done this for years and years with little recognition. This one of the reasons why I call the book "School Moms," because it is these people on the ground who may have jobs and other responsibilities, but who are also very involved in public schools and are experts in networking and organizing and motivating. They're doing what is necessary to protect the public schools that we've long taken for granted. And parents and educators can be a powerful force when working together.
Last year's elections were encouraging and there are other signs the "culture war" messaging is wearing thin. To what extent do you think the ground has shifted?
LP: People are waking up. That wasn't the case when I started the book. I think people are recognizing what's going on, and are organizing to fight back. The school board races last fall were encouraging. Candidates backed by Mom for Liberty definitely underperformed. But there are other groups that have adopted the same sort of language, the same sort of framing that has been quite successful. They're not going away. So, yes, people are paying more attention and recognizing the threat, but we all have to remember that we need to continue to act and organize, because this situation we find ourselves in, the threat to public education, is not going to take care of itself.