Conservatives Want to Destroy Public Schools. Communities are Fighting Back.

“The decision to hate your neighbors and reject your public school isn’t actually the most affordable, practical or preferable path for most people.”

Jennifer Berkshire

High School students in Temecula, California, leave campus on Dec. 16, 2022, in protest of the district’s ban of critical race theory curriculum. Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

TULSA, OKLA. — Ashley Daly still gets angry thinking about the first Oklahoma state board of education meeting she attended. It was August 2022 and the board was preparing to downgrade the accreditation for two school districts, including Tulsa, where Daly’s daughter attends school, over alleged violations of Oklahoma’s new law banning critical race theory. As the board penalized the district for a diversity training that predated the law, the realization struck her: They were punishing a school district of 33,000 kids for political reasons, and I was the only parent from Tulsa in the room.” 

After that, Daly attended every meeting to just show up and ask questions.” 

Conservative firebrand Ryan Walters became Oklahoma’s top education chief in January, waging what he called a spiritual war for the souls of our kids.” He declared the teachers’ union a terrorist organization” and, this summer, threatened a state takeover of Tulsa’s school district, citing low academic performance, woke ideology” and even ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

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But this time, Daly wasn’t alone. An expansive coalition of parents, teachers, community groups, elected officials and business leaders began holding rallies, filling local papers with op-eds and waging a successful campaign to get Oklahoma’s Republican governor, J. Kevin Stitt, to weigh in against the takeover.

The scale of the response seemed to reflect a growing recognition of how vulnerable public education is. The rhetoric I’ve heard Walters using this past year to describe anyone opposed to his agenda — parents, educators, unions, Democrats and LGBTQ people — is dangerous,” says Daly. It dehumanizes us and puts all Oklahoma kids at risk. I think people are waking up to that.”

It’s been a long two years since parental rights” erupted into the mainstream political lexicon, largely thanks to Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. The movement’s standard bearer is Moms for Liberty, the deep-pocketed group targeting school boards and pledging to eradicate Marxism” from the nation’s public education system. 

Yet the response to these conservative-led attacks — the backlash to the backlash — has received little attention.

You’ve got parents, students, educators, policymakers and unions all working together,” says Alex Ames, director of the Partnership for Equity and Education Rights (PEER), a student organizing network of 13 state-level groups fighting censorship laws and school privatization while demanding reinvestment in public education. Not only did these coalitions not exist in 2020 or 2021, but in many of these states, these kinds of coalitions have never existed before.”

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In the summer of 2020, before starting college, Ames began building the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, which formally launched the following year. The daughter of two public school teachers, Ames attended school in Fulton County, Ga., at a time of deep budget cuts, teacher layoffs and swelling class sizes. In 2022, when Georgia lawmakers proposed expanding school vouchers — at the cost of school districts like hers — Ames’ group and a coalition of other education advocates, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Georgia Association of Educators, organized fiercely. They won—and also defeated Georgia’s version of Florida’s Don’t Say Gay” law, which restricts classroom discussions of gender and sexual orientation. 

The movement succeeded, in part, by loudly making the case that lawmakers are stoking the culture war as cover for trying to defund Georgia’s public schools — a position that large majorities of Georgians oppose. 

The decision to hate your neighbors and reject your public school isn’t actually the most affordable, practical or preferable path for most people — especially rural Georgians,” says Ames. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful organizing opportunity.”

“You’ve got parents, students, educators, policymakers and unions all working together. Not only did these coalitions not exist in 2020 or 2021, but in many of these states, these kinds of coalitions have never existed before.”

The analysis that states are intentionally stoking public discontent to undermine public schools has proved potent. North Carolina is among a growing number of states where the GOP has made enacting universal school vouchers” a priority, but Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency for public schools in May. He cited a raft of conservative legislation— including a dramatic expansion of vouchers and bills inject[ing] their culture wars into classrooms” — which he characterized as a concerted Republican strategy to choke the life out of public education.” 

Parents are picking up the message. Isabell Moore, a North Carolinian with a child in third grade, helped start Public School Strong (PSS) this past spring to oppose the diversion of tax dollars away from public schools. I tell other parents that the last time my son was in a classroom with a teaching assistant was kindergarten,” says Moore, calling the Right’s obsessive focus on race and gender manufactured problems.” 

PSS — as part of the growing national and state coalition Honest Education Action & Leadership Together — now counts active members in two-thirds of North Carolina counties. Its parent activists show up at school board meetings to demand education that is honest, accurate and fully funded. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board approved policies to comply with the state’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights in August, PSS parents denounced it as a ruse to take away the rights of other parents.” 

There’s also funding flowing in, which is changing the dynamic,” says Jennifer Doeren, who heads the national PEER network. For example, the Resource Equity Funders Collaborative, a donor coalition that includes several major foundations, is investing in state-level organizing in places like Oklahoma and Tennessee through PEER. These are conservative-majority states where you have grassroots coalitions coming together really quickly to fight back.” 

Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s education chief has ushered in the country’s first publicly funded religious charter school and approved the classroom use of videos from right-wing advocacy group PragerU, and there is growing right-wing sentiment that Oklahoma doesn’t actually need public schools. 

As Colleen McCarty — a volunteer with the PEER-funded Advance Oklahoma Kids, founded last summer — warns: They’re using the education space to test the waters for even scarier government overreach. It really feels like we’re organizing for our very existence.”

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Jennifer C. Berkshire hosts the education podcast Have You Heard. Her forthcoming book is The Education Wars: A Citizen’s Guide and Defense Manual, coauthored with Jack Schneider.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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