Teaching Profession

A Hotline for Educators: Advocacy Group Pledges Support in Midst of Ugly Politics

By Madeline Will — March 07, 2023 6 min read
Protesters gather outside the Moms for Liberty National Summit, July 15, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. Republican groups that sought to get hundreds of “parents’ rights” activists elected to local school boards largely fell short in Tuesday’s elections. The push has been boosted by Republican groups including the 1776 Project PAC, but just a third of its roughly 50 candidates won.
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The Campaign for Our Shared Future, a nonpartisan group fighting against “extremist” attacks on education, will soon launch a hotline with a range of support services for educators who find themselves at the center of politically motivated attacks or actions.

The Educator Defense Fund, which was announced Tuesday at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, is expected to launch by the end of the summer with a goal of $1 million raised, said Eliza Byard, the co-founder and senior adviser to COSF. She estimates that between 500 and 1,000 teachers, school librarians, superintendents, and school board members could request assistance between August and the end of the year.

COSF says the need is there: “Schools have become a flashpoint for politicians looking to advance their agendas, and they are using scare tactics to target teachers and school staff who are focused on preparing our students for the future,” said Heather Harding, the executive director of COSF, in a statement.

Since 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, and 22 states have introduced measures restricting education about gender identity and sexual orientation. (Eighteen of those states have implemented restrictions about “divisive topics” like racism, while one state—Florida—has banned classroom discussions in the early grades about LGBTQ topics.)

The statehouse battles are also happening alongside an uptick in negative rhetoric against educators, ranging from derogatory comments to death threats. Last year, Reuters documented 220 recent instances of death threats and harassment against school board members. And the EdWeek Research Center found last fall that 12 percent of teachers said they have experienced negative reactions—including disciplinary action and threats—when they addressed either ethnicity and race or gender and sexuality.

The Educator Defense Fund will provide targeted services that will “run the gamut” from legal support to threat assessments and cybersecurity measures, Byard said.

For instance, a teacher who is the subject of online threats might need to scrub the internet of any personal information to protect themselves. There are services that can do that quickly, but they can cost up to $1,000, Byard said: “That’s money that not every teacher has.”

The Educator Defense Fund could help with that. It could also offer legal counsel to educators whose employment is at risk as a result of state-level restrictions. (Byard said the model will be largely based on pro bono legal assistance, but it “might not always be possible” for those services to be completely free.)

Superintendents could use the fund to prepare against attacks by a newly elected school board chair, Byard said. There was a well-funded nationwide effort from conservatives in 2022 to take over local school boards, which did not materialize in a “red wave” but will continue in future election cycles. Those candidates typically vowed to root out curricula and policies about race, gender, and sexuality.

Professional associations and other advocacy groups already have resources available for educators dealing with political threats, but Byard said there’s a need for a central hub that can serve as a bridge between all the support out there and the educators who are in need.

Some educators have already faced discipline

There have been some high-profile cases of educators facing discipline for teaching about race and gender in the classroom.

Matthew Hawn, a Tennessee social studies teacher, was fired in 2021 after after parents complained about his use of a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, “The First White President,” and his choice to ask his class to dissect a provocative spoken word poem titled “White Privilege” by Kyla Jenée Lacey. His district said he failed to show varying perspectives in his lesson. (Hawn is appealing the decision in chancery court, after the school board’s decision to fire him was upheld by an independent hearing officer.)

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Social studies teacher Matthew Hawn is accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct for sharing Kyla Jenèe Lacey's, 'White Privilege', poem with his Contemporary Issues class. Hawn sits on his couch inside his home on August 17, 2021.
Matthew Hawn is accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct for lessons and materials he used to teach about racism and white privilege in his Contemporary Issues class at Sullivan Central High School in Blountville, Tenn.<br/>
Caitlin Penna for Education Week

And last year, Summer Boismier, a high school English teacher in Oklahoma, resigned after a parent complained that she made political comments in the classroom. Boismier had papered over her classroom bookshelf with the message, “Books the state doesn’t want you to read,” referring to state restrictions on what can be taught in public schools, and posted a QR code from the Brooklyn Public Library that gives students free access to banned books.

At the time, Ryan Walters, the state’s then-secretary of education called on the state board of education to revoke Boismier’s teaching certificate. Now the state superintendent of public instruction, Walters said in January that he ordered his staff to investigate Boismier and another teacher and hold them accountable for “indoctrinating” students. Boismier has left Oklahoma and is now working for the Brooklyn Public Library.

But there’s no national estimate about how many of the nation’s more than three million teachers have faced formal punishment as a result of the state restrictions. For the most part, the consequences are less clear cut.

In 2021, the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union, established a legal fund to protect any member who is penalized for teaching history. In an interview last summer, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the union has had to use the fund “very rarely.”

Instead, she said, the laws are chilling speech in the classroom as teachers rework their curriculum or avoid bringing up certain topics. A recent RAND Corp. survey found that many teachers, even those not teaching social studies, say they feel like they’re walking on eggshells to comply with the law and fear losing their jobs or their licenses.

Byard said the Educator Defense Fund will help stop the chilling effect by offering teachers “advice and counsel to give them courage for what they need to do.” She said a teacher might call and say, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to do, so I want to talk to a lawyer to understand if I’m going to [be in] jeopardy for doing X, Y, or Z.”

“I do expect not every teacher is facing ... imminent termination, but more and more laws are being proposed where a teacher might either face a felony charge if they give a child the wrong book or lose their license if they use the wrong lesson plan,” she said.

Teachers need more support to stay

This type of fund could be a godsend for teachers and, by extension, their vulnerable students, said Willie Carver, the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year who spoke at the SXSW EDU announcement. Carver left the profession last year due to repeated threats, harassment, and the stress of being a gay teacher during a time when anti-LGBTQ legislation is on the rise.

He recounted being the target of online and verbal harassments while teaching, as well as receiving physical threats in the mail, including rainbow-colored swastikas. He didn’t feel supported by his district. His LGBTQ students were also being subject to homophobic attacks from those in the community, he said.

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Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week

Carver said in an interview with Education Week that he felt like the only recourse available to him was to contact a lawyer, but, he added, “I’m also living on a teacher’s budget, so I couldn’t really afford it.”

Having a rapid response team he could have contacted, for free, that would have advised him on what to do to protect himself and his students, or that would have advocated on his behalf to his school district, “would have changed everything,” Carver said.

And the time for a coordinated effort standing up against these attacks is more important than ever, he said. Carver said he’s known many teachers—particularly teachers of color and LGBTQ teachers—who have quit because of the political climate.

“I do see a lot of teachers who are wanting to stay in order to fight back but I see the emotional toll it’s taking on them,” he said.

After all, he said, many of the attacks on educators are coordinated by national conservative organizations like Moms for Liberty, a parents’ right advocacy group that has organized protests and campaigns for school board races.

“The people being attacked are totally blindsided,” he said. “We don’t have large national groups on our side as a general rule.”

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