‘Channeling the Mama Bear’: How COVID-19 Closures Became Today’s Curriculum Wars

Debates over what children are reading and learning in school, and who gets to decide, have divided school board and other state and local races nationwide. But most Americans, and especially parents of school-aged children, are satisfied with their local schools, found a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times. Yet, there is one issue that generated more opposition than any other: teaching about gender diversity, and about the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

This topic — more than teaching about critical race theory or social-emotional learning — was the most divisive, found the survey of 4,421 people in October. Four in 10 respondents opposed such instruction, and the same share supported it (the rest weren’t sure).

One group of people was more likely to oppose teaching about sensitive social issues and want more parental control in schools: people who said schools were closed too long during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly conservatives.

On contentious “parents’ rights” issues, respondents who identified as Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to support teaching them in school. But political ideology played a bigger role than party. Those who identified as conservative, and especially conservatives who thought schools were closed too long, were more likely than the typical Republican to oppose teaching these topics. Seventy percent of conservatives opposed teaching LGBTQ rights and gender identity, for instance, compared with 84% of conservatives who said schools were closed too long.

The parents’ rights movement in education became a central issue on the right a year ago, with bills on what can be taught in schools passing in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere, and with the surprise victory of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Even as economic issues have recently overtaken social ones in national races, many local elections have been about the push for more parental control in education. Recalls of school board members have tripled since before the pandemic, and political action committees have raised millions to finance races that usually cost a few thousand dollars. The races could energize voters this week, potentially helping Republicans up and down the ballot and weakening support among suburban women for Democrats.

“It seems like there’s an agenda being pushed on our children — a lot of focus on race and sexual orientation instead of teaching reading, writing and math — and parents have caught on to it,” said Amanda Tokos, a conservative school board candidate in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Tokos, a franchise owner and the mother of a middle schooler, had never considered running for office until she began fighting school closures early in the pandemic.

“My focus at the time was just getting the schools back open,” she said. “But while all this was happening, I started having parents reach out to me and share things with me, whether it was an assignment or a book or a conversation. Online school did open up some eyes with parents.”

This was true across political ideologies — liberals who said schools were closed too long were more likely than other liberals to oppose teaching sensitive topics and to want more control over curriculums. But the dissatisfaction is strongest among conservatives — in the survey, 44% of them said schools closed for too long, compared with 13% of liberals.

The conservatives who are most likely to be frustrated with schools are different from the typical respondent in several ways. They are overwhelmingly white, and more than half are men. They’re also more likely than the average respondent to be wealthy, older than 45 and suburbanites.

Perhaps surprisingly, those without school-aged children are more likely to be dissatisfied with their local schools and less likely to say schools are teaching the right amount on divisive topics.

Carl Khay, a software engineer in San Jose, California, does not have children but said education was one of his top issues, alongside the economy and border security. A registered independent, he said he votes on issues rather than party. He considered running for school board and recently started a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative nonprofit for parental rights. The goal at chapter meetings, he said, is “to understand what is involved in the maintenance of the republic,” by making parents aware of what’s happening in schools and learning about the country’s founding documents.

“It’s just something that I really believe strongly, that things in the public education realm have gotten off the rails,” he said.

The movement, he said, is “channeling the Mama bear,” even for nonparents. “When Mama bears get upset, you don’t want to be messing with them.” Debate over what children learn has been a feature of American public education since it began in the 1830s. Schools are a natural place for these debates, historians said, because they’re in every community and because of their role as molding future voters.

The controversies are always about more than the issues at hand, said Jack Schneider, a historian who studies education policy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. The uproar over teaching evolution in the early 1900s tapped into broader anxieties over social change, he said, and politicians used it “as a way of ensuring that their base would be ready to support other issues.”

The new survey found, as have others, that only a minority of Americans are frustrated with schools. About half are satisfied with public K-12 education in their communities, it found, and nearly 80% of parents are satisfied with their own children’s schooling. Even among conservative parents upset about the length of school closures, the majority of respondents said they were satisfied with their own children’s education.

Denise Pérez, a risk analyst for a bank and the mother of a high school student in Grimes, Iowa, said she worries about the issues that have been bubbling up in her district — an effort to ban a book about a transgender girl, a school board candidate denouncing critical race theory.

“It’s confusing to me, because it’s not like parents don’t have a voice and don’t have a choice,” she said. “If you’re talking to your child’s teachers and you’re concerned about something, I can tell them I want them to do another book or activity.” But for the vocal minority, distrust of schools’ COVID-19 policies seems to have led to a desire for more control on a broader range of issues.

“There’s a certain resentment that comes from abrupt closures of schools and all these parents being told, ‘You go deal with it; this is your job to teach your kids,’ and then they open, and one of the main talking points around schools becomes ‘How dare these parents think they have a say in schools?’” said Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela, author of “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture” and a historian at The New School in New York City.

“Parents are still picking up the pieces, but also feeling chastised and excluded,” she said.

The survey results make clear that among the issues under debate in the parents’ rights movement, parents are most uncomfortable with teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity. (Morning Consult and the Times asked the same questions of 4,417 adults in April, and the answers were roughly the same.)

Dale Morvaji, who works in sales in Destin, Florida, and has become a parents’ rights activist, said the Florida law known as “Don’t say gay,” limiting what educators can say about gender and sexuality, spurred his interest in the issue.

“It’s just a matter of teaching young children, and we’re talking 6-, 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds, talking to them about sex in school, and personally it’s way too young for that to occur,” he said. “It’s up to the parent to decide that, not the school system.”

Asked about a related issue — whether children should be required to play on sports teams aligned with their biological sex rather than their gender identity — a majority of respondents said yes. Fathers of school-aged children were significantly more likely than mothers to support this requirement.

Book bans in schools have also been focused on LGBTQ themes or characters, found an analysis by Pen America. In the Morning Consult survey for the Times, just more than one-third of respondents said parents should have more control over what children read in school.

Other recent surveys have reached similar conclusions about the contentiousness of LGBTQ issues. Pew Research Center found that parents were much more likely to oppose instruction about gender diversity than about race. On divisive topics, the University of Southern California found that people were more comfortable with high school instruction on the topics than elementary instruction — but that teaching about gender identity, trans rights, sexual orientation and gay rights had the least support.

Teaching about race and racism, however, had majority support in the Times survey: Six in 10 respondents supported it, including 81% of liberals and 37% of conservatives. One-fourth opposed it, and the rest said they didn’t know. Asked specifically whether they supported instruction on critical race theory, a subject that is generally taught only at universities but has taken on symbolic significance, respondents were still more likely to say yes than no. Four in 10 supported it, driven by Democrats and Black respondents, while one-third did not (the rest didn’t know).

When the same question was asked using a definition of critical race theory instead of the term itself — the ways in which racism is embedded in U.S. institutions and laws — support was 10 points higher.

Respondents were more supportive of teaching about historical racism than about racism today. In interviews, voters drew similar distinctions. “I was taught slavery; I was taught the Jim Crow laws; we were taught all these things, civil rights,” said Jim Desormeaux, a sales representative in Fort Wayne. “But when you look at critical race theory, it’s not that. What CRT has done is taught that you’re oppressed now, today.” He started a podcast with Morvaji, which they describe as “two everyday guys discussing the politics and educational issues of our nation.”

Despite the prominent ideological gap on many topics, several issues received broad bipartisan support.

Florida, Oklahoma, Indiana and elsewhere have sought to restrict the teaching of social-emotional lessons, which focus on teaching children to manage emotions, build relationships and pursue goals. But in the survey, two-thirds of respondents, including majorities from both parties, supported teaching these skills in schools.

Putting students on different tracks based on achievement, such as gifted and talented classes, had the support of 4 in 5 respondents. And on the idea of having some public school admissions be based on merit, just one-fourth were opposed. In New York and San Francisco, high-profile efforts to end these practices were recently reversed.

Overall, when asked about the amount their local schools were teaching on various topics, respondents were less concerned about any of the contentious social issues than about core academics. Forty percent said they didn’t think schools were teaching enough reading, writing, math and science. Results of nationwide tests, released last month, showed the biggest declines in reading and math since the United States began measuring.

Pérez, the mother in Iowa, has been canvassing for Democratic candidates. When she talks about education with voters who disagree with her, she said, they often find common ground.

“They say public education has sucked for years,” she said. “Well, it also hasn’t been funded, and we’ve had a teacher shortage, and they haven’t been paid well. A lot of folks just don’t know.”

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