Law & Courts

Conservative Parent Group Sues School District Over Curriculum That Discusses Race and Gender

By Sarah Schwartz — July 26, 2022 9 min read
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A Tennessee parent group is suing local and state education leaders over a curriculum it claims violates state law on how schools can teach about race and gender.

The lawsuit, filed in state court, is one of the first to be brought under a slew of state legislation that has restricted how teachers can approach these topics in the classroom, and the case could have broader implications for school districts as they continue to figure out how these mandates will affect their work. It is also marks an escalation for the Williamson County, Tenn., district, which earlier this year largely fended off an attempt to remove certain materials and lessons.

Parents’ Choice Tennessee, an advocacy organization founded in 2021, brought the suit against Williamson County school officials and state department of education leaders earlier this month. The group states its mission as protecting parents and children from “harmful and age-inappropriate content.”

At issue is the Williamson district’s use of Wit & Wisdom, an English/language arts curriculum. The lawsuit alleges that the curriculum is “replete with racial discrimination, age-inappropriate material that causes children guilt, anguish, and other forms of psychological harm, it discusses the United States as an irredeemably racist country, and is overall hyper-focused on racial indoctrination.”

The group is seeking a permanent injunction preventing the district from continuing to use the materials.

In 2021, Tennessee became one of now 17 states to have imposed bans on how teachers can approach discussions of race, gender, or other issues deemed controversial. The state’s law prohibits schools from using materials that portray the United States as “fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist,” or materials that aim to make students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex.

Proponents of this law in Tennessee and similar legislation elsewhere say that these policies are designed to prevent schools from “indoctrinating” students into certain political positions. But critics, including many teachers, argue that the true purpose of the legislation is to quell any discussion of race or gender in the classroom.

“I think the question to ask with a lot of these laws is: Were they really designed in good faith?” said Jenny Cheng, a lecturer in law at Vanderbilt University who studies education and family law.

Education Week has reported on the chilling effect that school districts have already experienced, with some educators removing lessons or texts for fear that they might be in violation of these laws. Publishers are feeling this pressure as well: Heinemann, a educational resources company, recently reviewed some materials pre-publication, requesting changes after focus groups of educators flagged some content as potentially prohibited.

While some companies, schools, and individual teachers have made changes based on what they think could be challenged under these laws, it’s still unclear how a court might interpret their reach. Further complicating the legal landscape are two federal lawsuits in Oklahoma and New Hampshire that seek to overturn those states’ laws, claiming that they place unconstitutional restrictions on classroom speech.

Past decisions on parental rights in curriculum choice have generally found that families don’t have the right to dictate the content of lessons, said Suzanne Eckes, a professor of education law, policy, and practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But with these new laws, she said, “there is a lot of gray area.”

What’s in the Wit & Wisdom curriculum, and why are some parents trying to ban it?

Parents Choice Tennessee alleges that some of the books and lessons included in Wit & Wisdom run afoul of the state’s ban. But the lawsuit also makes two other claims.

First, it contends that the state department of education did not follow the proper process in approving Wit & Wisdom for district use. State law prevents school districts from using curriculum materials that are marketed as aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Wit & Wisdom does publicly note its alignment to the standards, though its parent company Great Minds has also published guidance on how the program aligns to Tennessee state standards.
And second, it alleges that use of the curriculum violates the 14th Amendment, because it interferes with parents’ “constitutional rights … to direct and control the upbringing and education of their children.” That parents’ rights framing has been ascendent in education culture wars for months, especially over policies and curriculum related to LGBTQ students.

The lawsuit includes nearly 100 pages of examples of materials, teacher guidance, and student work in grades K-5 deemed objectionable. A few include:

  • In 1st grade, a book called Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea by Chris Butterworth includes a description of how seahorses reproduce, which reads in part, “Every day at sunrise, Sea Horse swims slowly off to meet his mate. ... Today Sea Horse’s mate is full of ripe eggs. The two of them dance till sunset, and then she puts her eggs into his pouch.” The lawsuit claims that this book is “highly age inappropriate, introducing ideas that attempt to normalize males becoming pregnant, and suggesting gender can be fluid.”
  • A collection of books in 2nd grade cover the Civil Rights Movement. One book, a Ruby Bridges autobiography reads, “[I]n some places, black children and white children could not go to the same schools. This is called segregation. The United States government said: ‘Segregation is wrong.’ People should live where they want. People should eat where they want. Children should go to school where they want.” The suit claims that use of this book and others on Civil Rights constitute “relentless teaching of whites versus people of color under the dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed,” in violation of state law, and that the books “amplify and sow feelings of resentment, shame of one’s skin color, and/or fear; in second grade children.”
  • In 4th grade, students learn about Greek mythology. The plaintiffs object to the myth of Tantalus for depicting cannibalism, an image of the Furies that shows blood dripping from their eyes, and an image of the love goddess Venus naked.
  • Fifth grade lessons about the Civil War include photos of dead soldiers and descriptions of amputated limbs that the plaintiffs argue are “graphic and violent.”

Great Minds, the company that publishes Wit & Wisdom, has maintained that the curriculum is not in violation of state law.

The program builds “knowledge, skills, and character,” and features award-winning books, said Chad Colby, Great Minds’ senior director of communications. “The books, which introduce kids to facts about U.S. history, the arts and sciences, and values including strength, compassion and resilience, are chosen to match ages and grade-levels.” Wit & Wisdom received high marks from EdReports, a nonprofit organization that reviews curriculum.

An escalation in Williamson County

This lawsuit is the latest blow to land in a battle that’s been going on in Williamson County for over a year.

The 40,000-student district outside of Nashville has become a hot spot for curriculum challenges. The community is affluent and leans conservative, said Jennifer Cortez, a co-founder of One WillCo, an organization that advocates for students of color in the school district. The student body population is about 80 percent white.

In summer 2021, just a few months after Tennessee passed its law restricting how teachers could discuss race and gender, the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty filed a grievance with the state department of education. The conservative group claimed that some of the lessons in Wit & Wisdom violated the state’s new policies. The complaint marked one of the first high-profile challenges brought under a law of this kind.

The Williamson school district put together a committee to review the materials and decided to suggest or require modifications to seven texts and to remove one book from the curriculum—Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. Moms for Liberty appealed the decision this past spring, but the Williamson County school board upheld the committee’s original judgment: Wit & Wisdom would stay in the schools.

Trisha Lucente, a plaintiff in the Parents’ Choice Tennessee lawsuit and the founder of the group, said that Moms for Liberty’s activism prompted her to “dive deeper” into Wit & Wisdom. Parents’ Choice Tennessee would prefer a “true English Language Arts curriculum that teaches phonics, classical literature, and is free of any politics or political agenda,” she said in a statement to Education Week.

But Cortez said that Lucente’s pushback doesn’t represent the majority view in the community. Calls for a new program are coming from a “very small, vocal group,” she said. “Most of the people I know and interact with are turned off by [activism against Wit & Wisdom]. They consider all of this very toxic.”

Cortez, who is white and says she has historically voted Republican, supports Wit & Wisdom and rejects claims that it’s causing psychological harm. Her daughter was in 2nd grade in the district this past year.

“My daughter went through these Civil Rights modules and didn’t feel one ounce of white guilt about it. She just felt sad that that happened,” Cortez said. “Meanwhile, our students of color are dealing with actual harassment.”

What implications could this case have?

Vocal minorities of parents can—and have—lobbied district leaders and school boards to make curriculum changes. But winning these changes through legislation is a different matter, said Eckes, the Wisconsin law professor.

She cited Parker v. Hurley, which the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decided in 2008. In that case, a school district in Massachusetts shared books with elementary school students that depicted families with same-sex parents, as well as a fairy tale about two princes falling in love.

Two families in the district sued, claiming that the schools had violated their free exercise of religion. The court found that while parents had the right to decide whether or not to send their kids to public school, they didn’t have control over the public school curriculum.

“That’s always kind of the background in these claims about curriculum. You have the right to exit,” said Cheng, at Vanderbilt. She cited Mozert v. Hawkins, another case in which the court decided that parents’ free exercise rights weren’t violated by school district curriculum that went against their religious beliefs.

But this challenge doesn’t only rest on constitutional claims, Cheng noted.

The court has to decide whether Wit & Wisdom violates the state’s law regarding teaching race and gender. And it also has to decide whether the state or the district violated adoption procedures related to the Common Core.

And while the ruling would only apply to Williamson County, Eckes and Cheng both said that if the court decides in favor of the parents’ group, it could have effects for other schools. If the curriculum or the adoption process is found to be in violation of state law, “the state would surely pull it from the approved list,” Cheng said.

Regardless of the state or national implications, the back-and-forth has already taken a toll on the Williamson County community, said Cortez. She feels like efforts to advocate for students of color can be drowned out by the political drama of the book challenges.

“I sometimes feel like all of the oxygen in the room is taken up by these folks who are so angry, and so misinformed, and so loud,” she said.

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