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School’s Out

The Right Is Winning Its War on Schools

Using bogus scandals and funding crunches, Republicans across the country are decimating public education.

A parents’ rights supporter holds up a sign during the Chino Valley Unified School District board meeting on July 20, 2023.

Lindsey Burke’s job is to do things such as, when testifying before a House Education Committee in April, proclaiming that we should abolish the Department of Education. Burke, an education policy program director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, was responding to a question from Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman, after Burke had spoken in favor of “school choice.” Allowing parents to use public education funds to send their children to private schools—including religious schools—was, she argued, merely a way to enable families to “choose learning environments that are safe, and effective, and reflect their values.”

A bit later, Bowman attempted to cut through the obfuscating rhetoric. The former public school teacher and principal asked, “Do you support the Department of Education?” Burke leaned into her mic and answered without a beat, “No—dissolve it.”

Burke has celebrated defunding public education through “education savings accounts” as a way to “restore parental control” over education, a frame that contains both the typical free-market conservative argument against public education and the Christian right argument against exposing children to the immorality of “government schools.” In the decades-old fight against public education, a figure like Burke represents something of a united front.

The linchpin in that fight is what is now called “parental rights.” In August 2022, at a Heritage event in Washington, Burke introduced a coalition working for what she called a new “values-based case for school choice.” In 2021, Burke co-wrote a paper with a colleague for the American Enterprise Institute that argued for “allowing families an escape hatch from government schools pushing an agenda that runs counter to their values,” like critical race theory and “transgender ideology.”

This “values-based” coalition Burke said she was introducing in 2022 involved “not just education choice groups,” she explained, “but also groups like Moms for Liberty,” who helped force “parental rights” onto the agenda in school board elections while also aligning with the far right, and “partners” such as Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nationalist law project focused on anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion cases, which argued both the Dobbs case and a recent fake same-sex wedding website case. These groups, Burke said, “understand that the school choice movement is the solution to current cultural battles.” Conveniently, these groups also instigated these “battles.”

California has become a testing ground for this coalition. In her election campaign for school board in Chino Valley in the Southern California suburbs, Sonja Shaw pledged her support to Moms for Liberty. She became president of a school board tilted to favor what her political adviser described as “a spiritual battle.” When Shaw recently wanted to scold an opponent who questioned her proposed policy to out trans students without their consent, she accused him of supporting “things that pervert children.”

Shaw is just one player in the larger national effort to demand that educators out trans students in the name of “parental rights.” Nearly 90 bills forcing teachers to monitor students’ gender expression—including dress, pronouns, and names—and report trans and gender-nonconforming students to parents were recently introduced in state legislatures across the country, according to PEN America’s Index of Educational Intimidation Bills. At least five states have adopted these policies into law: North Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina, and Indiana. What we are seeing in places like Chino Valley reflects a coordinated national plan to push laws and policies that would penalize educators who don’t go along—inverting their roles as mandatory reporters of harassment, neglect, and abuse at home.

One model national policy for forced outing, the Given Name Act, was drafted by the Heritage Foundation, and it celebrated when the measure passed in Arkansas in 2023. Elements of the forced outing policy feature in the Heritage-led agenda, Project 2025—the group’s presidential transition plan for the next conservative president. Project 2025 is “systematically preparing to march into office and bring a new army, aligned, trained, and essentially weaponized conservatives ready to do battle against the deep state,” project director Paul Dans has said. Burke herself is the author of Project 2025’s Education Plan. Its directives include statements such as: “Federal lawmakers should not allow public school employees to keep secrets about a child from that child’s parents.” The model policy includes two provisions that forbid school employees from using any name “other than the name listed on a student’s birth certificate” or a pronoun that is “different from that student’s biological sex without the written permission of a student’s parents or guardians.”

As a tool of gender conformity and as a moral panic about the content of public education, these policies hit a sweet spot for the right—which may explain why more established conservative groups are stepping up to promote and defend them.

Rob Bonta, the California attorney general, has challenged the policy in the Chino Valley school district in court. In his complaint, filed in August, Bonta stated that transgender and gender-nonconforming students “are in real fear that the District’s policy will force them to make a choice: either ‘walk back’ their constitutionally and statutorily protected rights to gender identity and gender expression, or face the risk of emotional, physical, and psychological harm from non-affirming or unaccepting parents or guardians.” (In September, a state judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the policy on these grounds.)

The Chino Valley school district turned to Liberty Justice Center to represent it. Liberty Justice Center is a frequent litigation partner of the conservative think tank Illinois Policy Institute, which housed it until 2018—both receive significant funding from the Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein.* Shaw has encouraged other school districts to pass forced outing policies, saying Liberty Justice Center would represent them if they were challenged.

The right’s mission to eradicate public education is in many ways inseparable from their accelerating attacks on LGBTQ rights and racial justice. Perhaps there is no better symbol of that intersection than Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has boasted about writing the playbook: moving from using critical race theory as a rallying cry for white grievance against schools, then similarly promoting accusations that LGBTQ-inclusive schools are “grooming” young people. Rufo revels in “laying siege to the institutions” as strategy, as he said in a 2022 speech at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. “We go in there and we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”

In January, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis installed Rufo as a member of the board of trustees of New College in Sarasota, a public liberal arts college and frequent right-wing scapegoat. Rufo was charged with remaking the school—and making an example of it. In May, DeSantis pointedly chose New College as where he would sign a law that banned the state’s public colleges and universities from using public funds to “advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.” New College lost more than a third of its faculty ahead of the fall semester, thanks to moves by Rufo. DeSantis hailed the “replacement of far-left faculty with new professors aligned with the university’s mission.”

New College is hardly alone. Around the same time, the board of governors of West Virginia University became the symbol for attacks on higher ed pitched as simply remaking the university. The board ultimately voted to cut 28 majors and 10 minors, along with hundreds of faculty and staff positions. The humanities bore the brunt, but students in many other areas of study will lose access to resources as a result. Unsurprisingly, university president E. Gordon Gee attempted to downplay such cuts. He claimed that the university must explore “modern ways of delivering content” to students, like partnering with a for-profit language learning app. But as one undergraduate student who said she came to WVU for its Chinese department commented, “They’re not just destroying education, they’re destroying a community.”

Drafting faculty to police students’ gender and sexuality, cutting humanities departments and libraries, handing university governance over to far-right think tankers are forms of what geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment.” Whether those educators and other staff who have a choice in the matter stay or leave, they are forced into enacting that abandonment. Schools are hollowed out and then held up as symbols of decay. Then the finger is pointed back at the educators: The students are being failed, and it’s their fault.

“Stoking fears about the imperiled parental control of children has been second nature on the American right for more than a century,” observed education scholar Jennifer Berkshire this year in The Nation. She notes that the Heritage Foundation touched down in West Virginia back when Heritage was still new, to whip up parents over alleged textbook “indoctrination.” The group’s members tried to make “parental rights” happen again in the 1990s by pushing amendments to state constitutions. Here they are now—again saying they’re doing something new. History is invisible to them, as they want it to be for the rest of us.  

*This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between the Liberty Justice Center and Illinois Policy Institute.