A raft of legislation in the statehouses taking aim at LGBTQ students this year draws from the newly ascendent discourse about parents’ rights, curriculum transparency, and schools purportedly indoctrinating students via critical race theory and other ideas.
But what is driving it? To get a better sense of the rapidly evolving political landscape and accompanying rhetoric, EdWeek spoke to political scientists, historians, LGBTQ advocates, legal scholars, and the lawmakers themselves.
The picture that emerges is complex. Old fears about gay people are being combined with newer concerns—and newly developed political tools. Parents are largely divided about instructional issues on LGBTQ matters. And the political rhetoric has gotten far more intense, leaving some advocates gaping at its frankness.
“You know, the way it used to be written when they ran bills almost 10 years ago, I guess, was that schools ‘shall not promote any other sexuality other than heterosexuality.’ There was a little bit of indirectness about the language. This is just hitting you in the face,” said Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, a gay-rights group, pointing to a bill in that state that would prohibit materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address” LGBTQ issues. “That signaled to me that we’ve moved beyond the phase of subtlety altogether.”
Here are six insights into this rapidly evolving situation, and what it means for schools.
1. Lawmakers introducing these bills echo older fears about LGBTQ people.
Since March, the political discourse has been dominated by outrage over Florida’s vaguely written bill prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3, which Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in March. But Education Week found many other proposals in the statehouses that would affect LGBTQ students.
About 30 pieces of legislation would variously circumscribe LGBTQ representation in the curriculum, the pronouns that students and teachers can use, and put limits on school clubs, among other things. Those are on top of other proposals seeking to criminalize medical professionals who provide gender-affirming care, or to limit which sports teams transgender players can participate on.
(Gender-affirming care includes a spectrum of services to validate students’ gender identities. It can include counseling, supporting a child’s choice to change names and pronouns, or supporting a child’s choice to alter dress and presentation. For adolescents, it may eventually include the use of drugs to delay puberty or hormones, though these are rarer. Major U.S. and international health organizations do not endorse gender-conforming surgery for minors.)
Education Week reached out to some 10 lawmakers who sponsored versions of these bills, seeking their rationale in introducing them. Most did not return phone calls or emails. Those that did, though, variously say they’re introducing them to guard parents’ rights or prevent indoctrination by teachers, though they were often unclear about what specific impact they expect the laws to have.
Rep. John Kavanagh, in Arizona, was one of the few lawmakers who agreed to speak on the record about the bill he sponsored, which would require parents to give approval for their children to join gay-straight alliances at schools or other such clubs. He said his concern was that these clubs could promote or influence “controversial” lifestyles.
“If it’s LGBTQ club, if the club is presenting a positive view of that, if it’s presenting a belief that it’s normal behavior, or that this is behavior that should be explored, absolutely they’re promoting it,” he said. “Parents need to consent to something like that.”
Asked if he thought that happened routinely, he said: “I have no idea. It’s what we’ll find out once we get these transparency bills through.”
In Rhode Island, lawmaker Patricia Morgan, who introduced a bill that would, among other things, require schools to address students “by their common names and the pronouns associated with their biological gender” unless parents say otherwise, said in an interview that she had heard complaints from constituents that some teachers refused to do so, though she couldn’t name a district that seems to have issued guidelines to that end.
She said repeatedly that “activist teachers” were trying to delve into the “personal and private sexual emotions of children.”
“The school should be informing the parents right away so parents can get professional help for their child,” she said. “A professional [counselor] needs to deal with someone, not an ideologically driven teacher.”
Historians of education say the idea that schools and teachers are indoctrinating students in harmful ideas is a long one that encompasses, for example, fears from the 1930s onward over communism that culminated in teacher loyalty oaths and other such prescriptions. And periodic debates over everything from evolution to sex education have also contained a subtext about what’s age-appropriate for students to learn.
“Some of this is political grandstanding and vote-pandering, but there’s also an authentic anxiety around parents and nonparents alike that America’s children are being Pied-Pipered by these vague and distant threats, they’re invading the community through the schools,” said Adam Laats, a professor of education and history at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
The idea that gay teachers are recruiting students who need to be protected is a particularly vicious theme that recalls the latter half of the 20th century, Laats said, which at that time resulted in the firing of scores of teachers—a process usually spearheaded by state lawmakers, but was also supported by teachers’ unions, cities, and others. Not until 2020 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that employees cannot be fired for being gay.
2. The parents-rights framing has a long history.
Parents’ rights recently became a rallying cry again following a widely publicized gaffe in late 2021 by Virginia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, who when asked about opting students out of lessons on books parents objected to said he didn’t think parents “should be telling schools what they should teach.” Republicans seized on the opening, claiming the banner of the “party of parents” and championing new parents’-rights and curriculum-transparency bills.
The push for “parent’s rights” in schools also has a long history, and variations on this go back to the 1980s and 1990s, when it was a key part of a campaign to legalize home schooling across the states. And it has periodically resurged: in 2009, Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to make it a wedge issue, Politico reported at the time.
Legislative templates on parents’ rights have thus been floating around legislatures for decades. They have been sponsored in federal legislation and as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The text of such measures has now evolved to add new provisions on the teaching of race and on how LGBTQ people can be addressed or portrayed in curriculum.
“These bills are legislative veterans of generations of fights over identity in schools. There is language in there you can trace back to the 1990s, early 2000s, the 2010s,” said Jeremy Young, the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, an anti-censorship group.
Those who support the thrust behind this legislation, though, say the pandemic and remote schooling gave parents a closer look at what students were learning, and many were unhappy with what they saw.
“I think schools have started to deviate from the core mission of educating kids in the basic things they need to exist in society—math and reading and science and history—and the pandemic in particular gave a lot of parents a window into what their kids are being taught and realized a lot of it looks like political indoctrination,” said Luke Berg, an attorney at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative firm focused on individual rights cases.
The organization supports a bill in the state to give parents the final word over students’ name and gender pronouns.
3. The issues may be old, but the political tools are new.
For some observers, the new wave of legislation represents a particularly cynical brand of politics—a way of riding the coattails of the nation’s current frenzy about school indoctrination to pass policies about LGBTQ people, some of which might be unpopular on their own.
It’s old wine in new bottles, they say.
“These are movements that have been around for a while,” said Young of PEN of the proposals. “The critical race theory frame and curriculum-transparency frame are new, and have been wildly successful, in part because they’re smart framing and smart politics. And in part it’s because there’s an incredible amount of national money going to support them, and from their proponents’ view, a degree of success at the ballot box.”
Political scientists, as well as advocates, divide those who are pushing these bills for political purposes from a smaller subset of people that includes many evangelical Christians and others who are opposed on religious grounds or who view LGBTQ people as somehow a threat to traditional nuclear family culture.
“I think there is a pragmatic wing that sees this as an opportunity to get certain types of voters to the polls in the midterms,” said Zein Murib, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York City. “And I think there is a very strong ideological current that really does believe the heart and soul of America is at stake and being threatened by trans people, by gays and lesbians, by undocumented people, that is looking to institutionalize the version of America they want to see.”
Murib’s view was seconded by Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project.
I think there is a very strong ideological current that really does believe the heart and soul of America is at stake and being threatened by trans people.
“What has crystallized it is the Virginia governor’s race. Some of these proposals existed before this, but their power has come in the wake of it, and I think they’re just testing to see whether they will work,” he said. “And it is working in some places, but I don’t think parental rights means the same thing to every set of parents.”
Exit polls in the Virginia contest, for example, found voters about evenly split on which candidate would do the best job on education—though those favoring the contest’s eventual winner, Glenn Youngkin, were more likely to cite parent control over curricula in this context.
And other communities have rejected political bids that have relied heavily on anti-LGBTQ platforms or messaging. That happened, for example, in a recent school board race in Eau Claire, Wis.; all three candidates who raised concerns about the district’s approach to gender identity lost.
4. States have historically not given schools much guidance, and public attitudes about LGBTQ issues in schools are complex.
What makes the surge of legislative interest particularly complicated is that states have historically not provided much guidance on how their schools should address LGBTQ issues.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the height of the HIV epidemic, a number of states passed laws proscribing mention of homosexuality; many, but not all, have since been rolled back. About six states now require LGBTQ history to be taught as part of the curriculum or mandate that LGBTQ people be represented in teaching materials.
But most states do not prescribe much in the way of how LGBTQ issues should be handled—even in sex education, leaving a lot of discretion to the nation’s 13,000 school districts.
That’s probably one reason why, like the discussion over race, so much of the discourse has focused on a handful of local examples: Schools are all over the place in what they teach and what materials they choose.
National polling shows most Americans are comfortable with gay and lesbian teachers and about six in 10 say they are comfortable with an elementary level transgender teacher, according to an analysis by the Survey Center on American Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. But things get dicey with curriculum, its analysts noted: Only about 54 percent were comfortable with LGBTQ figures in elementary reading materials, and the figure was lower among parents.
At least one recent poll, by Public Opinion Strategies, a polling firm begun by three conservative political campaign managers, found that about two-thirds of American voters said it was inappropriate for schools to discuss gender identity with K-3 students, suggesting parents’ concerns may be concentrated in the youngest grades.
(A similar phenomenon has played out in national polls about how race and the institution of slavery is taught in U.S. social studies courses, with support dropping for instruction in the elementary grades compared to secondary levels.)
An Education Week Research Center poll found that about half of teachers said they thought they should teach about LGBTQ topics. Fear about parents’ reactions and a lack of good teaching materials are among the reasons for their hesitation, noted reporter Ileana Najarro.
5. Bills about transgender students are being coupled with aggressive new rhetoric—and are heightening advocates’ concerns.
From bathroom bills in 2017 to the more recent focus on transgender students in sports and gender-affirming care, the issue has shot to the top of cable news coverage and think-tank agendas. Groups like the conservative Heritage Foundation have recently accused schools of promoting “a radical gender ideology;” far-right news sites have picked up and amplified similar language.
The focus on students’ pronouns and who can select them, how schools should interact with trans students, and increasingly on gender-affirming care seems to have boomed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling establishing the right of gay people to marry, said Murib.
“It’s another way to assert what’s really [white evangelicals’] core set of values—men and women make up the nuclear family that is reproductive,” they said.
But what’s at stake is not merely political rhetoric, but an existential threat to transgender people, Murib said.
“At this point it’s bordering on existence. It’s about the existence of LGBTQ people and particularly trans people at this moment,” they said. “This legislation is trying to erase trans youth. It has significant effect on them, and they are there—they are hearing this.”
LGBTQ organizations have raised the alarm in part because some youth aren’t comfortable discussing feelings of gender dysphoria with their parents, fearing abuse or other consequences—and LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in estimates of youth homelessness. (A large proportion of homeless LGBTQ people say they faced stigma or discrimination at home.)
EdWeek asked the lawmakers about these concerns.
Morgan dismissed them. “It may be jarring to a parent in the beginning, but in the end, a parent will always work in the best interest of the child,” she said.
In Arizona, Kavanagh said: “Those parents should be arrested for endangering the welfare of their children, and they should be put into foster care or put into a better environment. Quite frankly, if the parents are like that, maybe the child is better off [elsewhere].”
6. Emergent nonprofit groups are fueling the flames.
Increasingly, the discourse about LGBTQ issues in schools is being echoed and promoted by newly emergent parent-advocacy networks, like Parents Defending Public Education, No Left Turn in Education, and Moms For Liberty.
In 2021, such groups collected purported instances of school-based indoctrination over race; now they are also collecting them over supposed gender-related indoctrination.
Some of these groups grew out of parent frustrations over pandemic-related schooling issues, including masking, and are now evolving to advocate on other topics, according to a new report from FutureEd, a research group at Georgetown University. It is not yet clear whether they are entirely funded by members or whether they are receiving other operating support.
(Both Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education were incorporated as nonprofits in 2021. So far, neither appears to have filed annual required federal financial disclosure forms. Moms for Liberty is in the process of becoming a nonprofit and will file its disclosure form by May, a co-founder of the organization said.)
The language fomented by some of these groups and by politicians has taken a darker turn in recent weeks. DeSantis, widely considered a 2024 presidential candidate, said during the recent bill signing in Florida that it’s a necessary counter to those who embrace “woke gender ideology,” and that his political opponents “support sexualizing kids in kindergarten;” his spokesperson has called the bill an “anti-grooming” measure. (Grooming is when an adult establishes an emotional bond with a child to facilitate sexual abuse.)
Such ideas are now being repeated by influential pundits. Christopher Rufo, who works at the Manhattan Institute, a think-tank, last year fanned the flames of alleged race-based indoctrination in schools; in new Twitter threads, he has cast schools as a major locus for sexual abuse. Analysts at more-moderate think-tanks are now beginning to entertain similar critiques.