Published June 23, 2023
Co-authored by Mary Rice Hasson and Theresa Farnan
Another year, another election cycle.
Already Republican candidates and pundits are testing carefully calibrated messages about education. A recent National Affairs article by scholar Robert Pondiscio, for example, sounds the following themes: Yes to school choice, but also yes to more funding for public schools. Yes to curricular transparency, but please no “bans” on teacher-led discussions of “sensitive subjects” (critical race theory and gender ideology). “Compromise” is good, even on “the most ideologically tinged” issues. And, by the way, conservatives ought to “cease fomenting parental discontent with public schools” lest activist teachers respond with retaliatory indoctrination of students. Sure, public schools are failing, but parents must “recommit to strengthening,” not “abandon[ing],” public schools. Why? Because “[i]f conservatives cede public schools to the left, they will effectively abandon the vast majority of America’s future generations to the progressive cause.”
This concern for America’s future generations is laudable — but stunningly out of touch and decades late. A recent report by the Policy Exchange, a prominent UK think tank, on the sweeping harm of gender ideology in UK schools warns that policymakers are “Asleep at the Wheel,” an apt description that applies to far too many conservatives.
Wake up, friends. America’s stubborn commitment to progressive-controlled government education has already abandoned “the vast majority” of our children “to the progressive cause” for well over a decade. The results have been disastrous.
For starters, schools have failed abysmally in their fundamental task — teaching basic academic skills — despite spending staggering sums. In 2019, annual expenditures for K–12 public schools totaled almost $800 billion, but, according to the Nation’s Report Card, barely one-third of public school students were “proficient” in math and reading pre-COVID, a dismal track record that worsened significantly post-COVID. Nationally, just 26 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, with 31 percent proficient in reading. In Detroit, only 3 percent of fourth graders are mathematically proficient, while twenty-three Baltimore public schools reported exactly zero math-proficient students. Government schools, which enroll almost nine out of ten American children, repeatedly fail to deliver on their promises but are rewarded with big budgets and near-monopolistic power.
The most troubling aspect of our government school system, however, is not what it has failed to teach but what it has succeeded in teaching.
As cultural revolutionaries have long known, it is far easier to capture and mold the beliefs of children than to change the minds of adults. The evidence is in: the cultural revolutionaries are winning. A recent Wall Street Journal/NORC poll found disturbing gaps in the values embraced by Americans under thirty compared to those espoused by older adults. While majorities of older Americans say patriotism, religion, and having children are “very important,” shockingly few young people agree. Among Americans under thirty, just 23 percent consider patriotism and having children to be very important, while only 31 percent say the same of religion. The shift in the values and beliefs of younger Americans is dramatic but hardly surprising, as it tracks the leftward swing of our public education — indoctrination — system.
The progressive worldview has permeated nearly all aspects of public education — history, science, literature, and so on. Religion, even the idea of truth itself, has been steadily excised from the classroom, replaced by lessons in secular pseudotolerance and rainbow inclusivity. Public schools condition children in practical atheism, in which God is deemed irrelevant to the important questions of life, and the human thirst for the transcendent goes unacknowledged. Children learn to think, live, speak, and relate to others as if God does not exist, to measure life by material consumption and virtual “likes.” They are taught that there is no human nature, no truth, and no objective good. Morality is relative, reality is “constructed,” and even identity is contingent on desire.
Dramatic declines in religious belief and practice among students testify, unfortunately, to lessons well learned. The rates of religiously unaffiliated youth (including atheists and agnostics) fresh from high school rose from 6.6 percent in 1966 to 29.6 percent in 2015 to 33.6 percent in 2019. On the first day of college, students are already markedly less religious than their parents. And no wonder — churches and synagogues typically offer forty hours per year of youth formation in a religious worldview, no match for the 1,200 hours per year that students spend in public school classrooms being formed in a secular (and often antireligious) worldview. Not surprisingly, declining religiosity goes hand in hand with sharp declines in moral values, according to polls by Gallup.
Into this religious and moral void, government schools have injected the state’s preferred belief system — gender ideology. Its associated symbols (rainbows everywhere!), terminology (“genderqueer,” etc.), and public rituals (“My pronouns are…”) shape the classroom culture and school environment. From kindergarten on, children are introduced to images like the “Genderbread Person” or “Gender Unicorn” and become conversant in the language of gender ideology, using terms such as “gender identity,” “gender expression,” and “sex (gender) assigned at birth.” They are taught to answer the question “Who am I?” with “Whoever I feel myself to be” — regardless of their bodies.
Gender ideology endows children with near-mystical powers to self-define a “gender identity” that transcends the reality of the sexed body. Feelings determine reality, according to this belief system, and thus give individuals a purported “human right” to modify the body as desired to “correct” a feeling-to-body mismatch. But gender ideology affects everyone, not just the child confused about identity. Teachers, staff, and classmates are told to accept, as a matter of “respect,” an individual’s asserted identity as true. Schoolchildren, catechized to “affirm” the false claims of transgender-identified classmates and teachers, learn to distrust their senses and rely on ideology over reason. Religious students and students alarmed at the erosion of sex-based protections for female students self-censor, fearful of being labeled as “bigots.”
Timid politicians ignore public education’s embrace of gender ideology, dismissing it as a “culture war” distraction. This is a tremendous mistake. The stakes could not be higher. Gender ideology is a false anthropology, an erroneous set of beliefs about what it means to be a human person. It makes ideological claims that contradict science, common sense, and human nature and presents them as facts. As evolutionary biologist Colin Wright writes, the fight against gender ideology is “reality’s last stand.”
The hour is late. For over a decade, progressive ideologues have used their control of the public school system to indoctrinate America’s children into the pseudoreligious belief system of gender ideology. Federal promotion of gender ideology in public schools, begun during the Obama years, has reached a fever pitch in the Biden administration. Empowered by the legal bullies at Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union, government-paid educator-activists boldly promote the rainbow orthodoxy to their students, celebrate rites of “gender transitions” and “coming out,” and invoke the pseudosacramental bond of “confidentiality” between students and “trusted adults” to deny parents their rights. In major cities, school districts collaborate with gender clinics to fashion a school-to-gender-clinic pipeline, where “gender specialists” train teachers, and schools refer students to local gender clinics. And parents? Unless they “validate” all things “trans,” they are cut out of the school-initiated process.
Indoctrination works. One in five Gen Z youth self-identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, according to Gallup, which makes them vulnerable to the consequent physical and mental health disparities. A study of Pittsburgh high schoolers reported that 9.2 percent self-identified as “transgender” or, more generally, as “gender diverse,” while a study of rural youth found that 7.2 percent of adolescents identified as “gender diverse,” including 7.7 percent of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. The “happy trans” narrative, however, is confounded with heartbreaking regularity by the tragic testimonies of formerly “trans” teens who have detransitioned.
Republicans who aid the money flow from taxpayers to government schools, or who limit families’ access to school-choice programs, are trapping American children in this toxic system. Public schools may be “where the children are,” but that’s the case only because politicians have refused to give families a financial exit ramp. America’s parents see what’s happening to their children, and they want real choice. In 2018, we wrote Get Out Now: Why You Should Pull Your Child from Public School Before It’s Too Late to warn parents that public education’s academic failures pale in comparison to the harm done by its embrace of a radical pseudoreligion — gender ideology — behind parents’ backs. Back then, most parents recognized the general problem but assumed that their own public schools were good enough.
COVID was a game changer. American parents got a shocking, firsthand look through the digital window at progressive activism at work in their neighborhood schools. Parents cannot “unsee” the truth. From New York to California, parents express outrage at the pornographic “LGBTQ-inclusive” books in school libraries. They vigorously oppose the de facto caste system that results from “critical race theory” in K–12 classrooms. They are appalled that public schools condone hiding students’ “gender transitions” from parents. Parents feel betrayed when school districts arrogantly refuse to let parents opt their children out of objectionable content. And they wonder why school boards, administrators, and teachers — who work for them — disdain their requests for transparency in course materials and curricular objectives.
Politicians cannot continue to fund failing schools that excel at only one thing: minting very confused, child-sized leftists. This moment is about real families. Parents don’t want their children indoctrinated in progressive beliefs and their parental authority undermined. They are keenly aware that time is short. Incremental change, while politically palatable, does nothing to help their children. “Recommitting” to public education does nothing to prevent progressive indoctrination or habits of unbelief from taking hold in their children. Nor will it prevent their confused adolescent from being steered toward “gender transition” by activist teachers or counselors. “Education reform” is a ratchet that has turned in only one direction — toward progressive ideology. Enough.
Parents know what their children need. They overwhelmingly support choice in education. It’s time for politicians to empower parents to “get out now” — to choose the schools that are right for their children.
Mary Rice Hasson, J.D., is the Kate O’Beirne Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where she co-founded and directs the Person and Identity Project, an initiative that educates and equips parents and faith-based institutions to promote the truth about the human person and counter gender ideology.
Theresa Farnan, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center focusing on the challenges of gender ideology as part of EPPC’s Person and Identity Project.
Picture from Unsplash