Texans aren’t exactly known for their love of big government, although many willingly adhere to a higher form of rule: organized religion. More and more, it’s a combination that’s increasing the schism between parental desires and the state’s public schools.
Many Texas parents are frustrated at how any mention or hint of religion is becoming increasingly taboo in their public schools, where they argue the constitutionally endorsed separation between religion and state is being too zealously interpreted. This secular bias, they say, leads to a decline in moral and educational standards.
And so, many such parents are opting out of the public school system, instead embracing a wide range of schooling alternatives ranging from immersion in Aristotelian principles to home-schooling hybrids.
Part of the problem, according to those critical of the public school system, is that all voters, regardless of whether they’re parents or not, can cast a ballot on the likes of school curriculum and disciplinary processes. The result, they argue, is that politics overwhelms educational precedence.
“The public school board election has become a simple extension of the current political divide,” says Jon Dahm, an Austin parent of three children who graduated from public schools. “The focus has shifted from educational excellence and improving outcomes to political correctness instead.”
This was the background, Dahm and others say, to the recent fracas to hit the public school system in Austin, the Texas capital. On May 21 the president of the Austin Independent School District, Kendall Pace, resigned a week after the teachers union demanded she step down over inflammatory texts she exchanged with another trustee about the Texas Education Agency’s Transformation Zone Program, a state-driven initiative that could help some of the city’s struggling schools. In the texts, Pace said the district would only be considered for the program if its school were set up like charter schools and “with balls to ignore the special interest groups and crazy ignorant community activists and poverty pimps.”
Afterwards, Pace apologized for the “crudeness of the discourse” that “was a stream of conscious rant born out of frustration over the lack of urgency by many adults to address the inequities in student outcomes.”
Pace was roundly criticized for her comments, although others sympathized with her efforts to prioritize educational priorities over social-justice sensitivities.
“The best demonstrated solutions cannot be fanned out broadly because they are unacceptable to the politically active members of the community,” Dahm says. He notes how it used to be possible for disruptive children to be pulled out of schools, but now that’s deemed too punitive and they have to remain in a class, even if it overwhelms the teacher and is to the detriment of the rest of the class.
At the same time, both parents and teachers with strong religious faith are increasingly troubled by a perceived diminishing of religious tolerance for Christianity within schools.
“It gets hard, I have to self-censure—if we’re teaching about holidays or culture we can’t mention religion,” says one woman, a practicing Catholic, who has taught in Austin’s public schools for more than twenty-five years and didn’t want to give her name because of potential ramifications for her job. “It’s changed a lot in the last ten years especially. Where I work now, there is a liberal mentality in the school, and people become very verbal about politics and try to bring it into the classroom, so you have teachers and the administration telling children about gender roles and that they can be whatever they want to be. I hold back, and I struggle with that, as I feel like I’m not being authentic to myself.”
For other teachers who are religious, the frictions between their faith and issues now being broached at school can prove too much.
“I had to attend events where they pushed gender fluid ideology, so in the end I had to leave,” says a teacher who had a thirty-year teaching career that he says was hugely rewarding and enjoyable overall, hence he doesn’t want to be identified or seen as criticizing the school he worked at. “I didn’t want to revolutionize children. I just wanted them to be children.”
The pushback against Texas’s public school system has resulted in Texas parents embracing a striking array of schooling options, including the likes of Founders Classical Academy. Here, teens are immersed in the works of the great Greek philosophers, with Greek and Latin root words taught in upper elementary grades.
Home schooling is another popular option. The Regina Caeli School in Austin offers a homeschooling hybrid whereby students attend two days a week to be taught “according to the unbroken tradition and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the Ignatian Principles of Education, and the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius,” while spending the rest of the week being taught at home, with parents receiving ongoing support from the school. Regina Caeli has a nationwide network, with increasing homeschooling rates across the country reflecting increasing dissatisfaction and concerns among parents about the content of public school education.
“Now it’s not just religious parents, who traditionally have been the ones to opt for homeschooling, but also those who are politically conservative and feel children are not getting a balanced perspective at schools that are becoming agenda-driven,” says Kari Beckman, executive director of Regina Caeli, adding that “parents who are conservative feel their values are being oppressed. Traditional values are no longer respected at schools. Government has gotten too big, so that a parent’s voice doesn’t count now.”
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics and analyses from Brian Ray, a homeschooling researcher at the National Home Education Research Institute, suggest that the number of US children taught at home is growing by 3 percent to 8 percent a year since the total hovered around 1.8 million in 2012. This puts the number now at approximately 3.5 million children, which is far surpassing charter schools.
“Government schools are no longer accountable to the families they serve—at least on the big questions,” write authors Mary Rice Hasson and Theresa Farnan in Get out Now: 7 Reasons to Pull Your Child From Public Schools Before It’s Too Late. “In the view of progressives, concerned parents are ‘the opposition’ to be ‘resisted.’ School boards, superintendents, and teachers follow the lead of the activists, bureaucrats, unions, tech titans, academics, and litigators of the Left and the courts that serve as their enforcers. The truth is that nearly everything in America’s public schools—the culture, discipline, curriculum, hiring practices, school policies, even the names of schools themselves—is determined by progressive ideologues, both inside and outside the school system.”
The issue of how transgender children should be accommodated in schools increasingly serves as the crunch point, as a fierce national debate over gender self-identification is spilling over into guidance for schools. Recently, John Kluge, a music teacher at a school in Brownsburg, Indiana, was forced to resign for refusing to follow the school’s policy that requires teachers to call transgender students by their preferred names instead of their birth name. The 2017 Texas legislative session included the highly controversial bill, known as the Bathroom Bill, which required transgender students to use school bathrooms based on their sex at birth—the bill failed to pass.
“Trans kids aren’t trying to end their lives because they are mentally ill,” Amber Briggle, the mother of a transgender child, wrote in an open letter to the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives following the 2017 legislative session. “Trans kids are trying to kill themselves because of the way we treat them. Transgender youth are disproportionately bullied and harassed at school, and it’s still 100 percent legal to deny services, healthcare and employment to someone for being transgender. With so much standing in their way of living their truth out loud, is it any wonder that these sweet children are trying to find a way out, no matter the cost?”
Eventually, commentators say, the US Supreme Court will have to decide on the scope of sexual orientation and gender identity laws, and how they relate to Title IX, a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. Lower courts have already ruled that Title IX requires public schools to accommodate transgender students as they wish to be accommodated.
“There needs to be clear statutory guidance for schools that incorporates the views of experts from education, the medical profession, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and trans people,” says Claire Birkenshaw, a transgender former teacher who campaigns on transgender issues in the UK, while noting these issues apply to all countries.
The issue is unlikely to become less divisive anytime soon, feeding as it does into the narrative held by many that progressive elites are pushing their ideas onto the masses. But the idea some conservatives hold about transgender being the latest weapon in the progressive elite’s arsenal to effect social change has been shown to be inaccurate, with polls indicating that Americans are fairly evenly split on the matter, with just over 50 percent feeling that whether someone is a man or a woman is determined by the sex they were assigned at birth. Those proportions are likely to shift more in favor of an acceptance that someone’s gender may be fluid or opposite that assigned at birth, as a majority of millennials and younger generations believe.
That the moment seems to be in favor of a shift to embracing transgenderism adds to the concerns of many religious and conservative parents. In their book, Hasson and Farnan discuss the inherent difficulties posed by “dealing with the physical chances of puberty and feeling compelled to sort out distinct sexual, emotional, and romantic identities, ‘discover’ your gender identity, and choose a preferred gender expression—all at the same time.” They also question the validity of teens’ awareness by pointing out that: “Researchers have identified “sudden-onset” gender dysphoria, in which clusters of teens, usually girls, who previously showed no evidence of gender confusion, diagnose themselves as transgender after spending hours on the Internet and in peer discussions about such topics.”
At the same time, shifting teachings in public schools about gay marriage, gender roles, and the role of the family are further alienating parents with more conservative views.
“Parents are feeling that if they want to be able to influence their children, they have to take them out of the public school system, because rather than them being taught how to read, the schools are telling them what to think, and not teaching children how to be free thinkers,” Beckman says. “Parents have a right to choose how to raise their children, and a right to instruct a child through a certain lens, but now that right is being rescinded when they send them to school.”
A cultural revolution is happening, argues Rod Dreher, author of the much-discussed The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher says that in the years to come, Christians will face mounting pressure to withdraw their children from US public schools. And, as has often been demonstrated in the past, where America goes, others are likely to follow.
“We can’t keep up with the demand nationally,” Beckman says. “And now we have people reaching out from Australia, and we are about to start our first international partnership in the UK.”
Such reaction abroad emphasizes that the US is far from alone in experiencing rapidly changing societal norms. But discourse about rights and the interpretation of whom they apply to and how they should be enforced can become particularly ornery in America.
“All children deserve a first-class education,” Birkenshaw says. “Standardizing guidance for our more vulnerable children, such as gender-variant children, ensures we fulfill on this promise.”