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Classrooms should not be political battlefields

Samir Shaik
Across the United States, state Congresses have seen an uptick in bills aiming to further particular political ideologies in the classrooms, which raises concerns about the place of political battles within classrooms. In Dec. 2023, Francis Howell School District’s School Board in St. Charles County voted to pull two elective courses centered around Black history from the curriculum, later stating that the courses could possibly return if they adhered to the board’s definition of “politically neutral.” The case of Francis Howell School District and their rescinding of legitimate classes centered around topics of political interest is just another example of thinly-veiled censorship that has become increasingly popular throughout the country within the past half-decade.

Parkway was recently placed in the hot seat when Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey sent a cease and desist accusing the district of religious discrimination. The letter claimed that Parkway prohibited religious clubs, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of Missourians. 

Fifteen days later, the district rebuked the claims in an email, asserting that “Parkway has a long history of supporting faith-based student clubs and recognizing their importance in creating a sense of belonging.” This email cited that all Parkway schools have active FCA clubs as well as other faith-based organizations, like Jewish and Muslim student unions. 

However, Bailey’s issuing hints at a deeper problem; one that is plaguing classrooms and schools across the U.S. First, it is essential to note that Bailey’s case is not founded on facts — he sent a cease and desist without fully observing the truth. It is evident that religious clubs can openly express themselves on Parkway campuses. Given that it is an election year, and Bailey is seeking another term, one must question his motives. His lack of understanding of students’ true experiences gives the impression that he does not seem interested in truly advocating for Missourians. Rather, it is possible his letter could be an attempt to pander to his Christian base, exploiting a sensitive hot-button issue to gain their support. 

Bailey’s letter is just one of a repetitive string of attempts by Missouri officials and legislators to use schools and their students as political bargaining chips. Since 2021, several Missouri Senate bills have been introduced to ban the teaching of critical race theory, an intellectual movement that emphasizes institutional racism in the United States, and the 1619 Project, which redirects a focus to slavery as the center of American history. These legislative attempts to control schools’ curricula based on political agendas undermine students’ right to a well-rounded education as well as the ability to discern and produce critical-thinking skills.

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“School curriculum and funding have always been determined by legislation. As such, there has always been a political element to school curriculums, like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or displaying the American flag in classrooms,” history teacher Mel Trotier said. “That said, the more recent legislation to ban courses or books is censorship that flirts with violating the First Amendment and the right to a fair and equitable education.” 

Outside of Missouri, codified bills restricting teachers from discussing certain topics have long been enforced. Lawmakers have already censored how race and gender can be discussed across 18 states. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin even put into place a tip line for parents and the public to report teachers who condone “inherently divisive practices” like ‘critical race theory’.

“These tip lines have a direct effect on what teachers are willing to teach and what they perceive as a ‘risk’ that may not have been in the past. ‘Will teaching Romeo and Juliet get me in trouble this year?’ Teachers are asking themselves questions like this with increasing frequency,” Trotier said. 

Consequently, tip lines and similar policies pit teachers against the general public that they serve — reporting services like tip lines enable parents to make a charge against teachers for sharing material that they disagree with, which forces teachers to be overly cautious with curricula at the risk of their employment. In other states, more specific courses are banned based on their content; Arkansas and Florida have targeted AP African American Studies, a newly developed class that covers topics from kingdoms in Africa to Jim Crow. 

“In Florida’s banning of the AP African American history course, they are not only removing a valuable class from an AP and college credit standpoint, but they are effectively censoring what history students can learn about. Legislating and approving curriculum is one thing, but manipulating it to control the message or create an agenda is quite another,” Trotier said.

Most importantly, the censoring of relevant social topics deprives students of necessary conversations. While it is true that schools should not force political ideologies on students, this is not the goal of these curricula. Rather, they aim to present an alternative interpretation of an underrepresented history that could potentially explain the modern inequalities students face in contemporary American society. If a student disagrees with these interpretations, courses should give them a chance to voice their opinions and debate with their peers. Censoring history will not erase these inequalities; instead, suppression of our history will prevent students from having productive discussions and debates. 

In addition to restricting ideas and topics they disagree with, many lawmakers seek to go further by inserting their agendas into curricula. HB 1576, filed this year, would specifically require schools to show students the “Meet Baby Olivia” video as part of their human sexuality and development curriculum. The video shows the development of an animated baby in the womb and was created by Live Action, an anti-abortion group that opposes the practice in all cases, including those involving rape or incest.

Critics of the video say that “Meet Baby Olivia” uses a timeline of pregnancy that starts at inception rather than the medical standard of starting at the end of the woman’s last menstrual cycle. Furthermore, the video presents fertilization as “the moment that life begins” and visualizes the fetus as “playing” and exploring its environment,  ideas that are not scientifically supported, but rather pro-life argument points. 

HB 1576 would force teachers to display the video in a required class meant to inform students on a fundamental life subject. It is an evident stab at inserting political ideology into the classroom, presenting the information within the video as fact, though in reality, it is teaching impressionable students to support a specific position. Although there is nothing wrong with showing students both sides of the abortion debate, especially in a social studies class where such debate is encouraged, this bill is motivated by the power struggle of politics rather than a concern for educating students. 

Unlike critical race theory, African American Studies or the 1619 Project, a vast portion of the “Meet Baby Olivia” video is based on opinion rather than sound academic research. The video is specifically manufactured by a pro-life group to advance pro-life ideology, rather than accurately teaching students. If the true goal of HB 1576 was to educate students on human development, there are plenty of other non-politically biased ways to do so. 

Perhaps the most concerning foray of governmental interference in education is HB 2885. The bill, co-sponsored by five Missouri House Republicans, makes it a felony for a teacher or counselor to help a student socially transition. Specifically, school staff could be charged for providing “material, information or other resources” to aid transgender students in adopting the “name, pronouns and gender expression” of their chosen identities. If found guilty, the aider must register as a sex offender.

If passed, the bill would put teachers in a precarious position, possibly landing on the same list as abusers, kidnappers and molesters for simply supporting a student’s ability to express themselves how they wish to be seen.

Furthermore, this bill would put transgender students in danger. With half of transgender and nonbinary youth considering suicide due to bullying and social stigma, the group is already incredibly vulnerable, as emphasized in Oklahoma student Nex Benedict’s tragic case. In February, after Oklahoma passed a bill forcing students to use the bathroom of their birth sex, the nonbinary 16-year-old was violently beaten in a girls’ bathroom. The next day, Benedict died by suicide. 

Benedict’s story reflects the catastrophic cost of policies that make schools more unaccepting: the safety and mental health of marginalized students. For these targeted groups, teachers and counselors are crucial sources of support and reassurance — HB 2885 would take that support away, putting even more youth at risk. Pushing political ideologies that intrinsically threaten school faculty will harm those within our schools more than help, and are completely unsafe to students’ and faculty members’ well-being. 

At the end of the day, lawyers and lawmakers are not sitting next to us at school. They do not experience the process of leading classrooms and standing with students through their struggles and successes. Teachers are the ones who take on the monumental task of educating the next generation, dedicating their lives to our future — shouldn’t we trust them to do their job? 

When lawmakers create laws and policies that seek to censor both students’ access to a diverse, varied-perspective education, as well as student expression, they are putting both a student’s ability to learn and thrive in school at risk. Missouri’s recent attempts at inserting political controversy into classrooms not only rob students of the diversely rich education we deserve but also make schools a less welcoming — and dangerous — place. 

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on March 31, 2024.