In Chester County, Pennsylvania — a suburb of Philadelphia — Ronna Dewey, a mother with a recently graduated son, was alarmed when calls for the removal of certain books started occurring in her district in 2021.
“Two of the books in particular that they were targeting were written by and about people who identify as part of [the LGBTQ] community,” Dewey, whose son is gay, told ABC News. “And so, it felt really personal to me. It felt like a direct attack on my son and my family.”
Shannon Grady, another parent from the district, sees things differently. She said she and some fellow parents are not advocating for the banning of books but for age appropriateness of reading material and of the curriculum.
Grady is chair of the local chapter of the national Moms for Liberty — a conservative organization — and said she got involved with the group because she was worried about the proficiency of student reading and writing abilities, claiming educators instead are bringing “political ideologies” into schools.
“The thing is that the schools are moving away from core education,” Grady told ABC News. “The role of schools isn’t to teach my child the lived experiences of every single…of the 6 billion people on the planet. These kids aren’t even emotionally ready to handle that type of thing.”
The PA Association of School Administrators has a link to resources to help school leaders and educators answer questions about critical race theory (CRT), mainly regarding the intention of the people asking questions about CRT. Grady claims it’s evidence that schools are teaching the subject.
Dewey and Grady are on opposite sides of the so-called “parental rights,” debate, which is a movement around the idea that parents have a right to direct the upbringing and education of their child, extending to directing schools what they should or should not be able to teach or provide access to.
Schools in many parts of the U.S. have become a battleground and parental involvement is one of the topics at the center. Fights in school board meetings, including in Chester County, have erupted over how race, sexual orientation, gender and other topics are brought up, or taught, in the classroom.
Moms for Liberty, in particular, has come under fire over its political ties and its calls to remove material from schools that, critics say, feature LGBTQ+ characters and promote racial inclusivity. The group has responded to this criticism in the past, calling it “laughable” and saying it lacks credibility.
Some parents are arguing their children don’t need to be exposed to certain topics at certain ages while some parents on the other side of the debate say they trust the schools and teachers to determine which topics and materials are age-appropriate for the students.
‘Parental rights’ controversy
Educators say that for many of them, parents are natural allies in their students’ education — and debates attempting to sow a divide between teachers and parents are backed by a small minority.
“When I hear these ‘debates,’ it just doesn’t ring true for me and I know it doesn’t ring true for the vast majority of educators and parents across this country,” Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association labor union, told ABC News. “We all want them to have high-quality education that is inclusive and diverse. So then all of our students see themselves, and they see each other.”
Despite the seemingly contentious discussion about the state of the U.S. education system, a recent Gallup poll found parents are generally satisfied with the quality of their children’s K-12 education.
At least 76% of parents of K-12 students say they are “completely” or “somewhat” satisfied with the quality of the education their oldest child is receiving.
In contrast, only 36% of the American public at large are satisfied, matching a record-low percentage on this survey. This wide gap between the satisfaction of parents and all Americans has been consistent since 1999 when Gallup first began to ask the question yearly.
Still, these conversations have become talking points on the national stage, becoming platforms for politicians across the country and prompting legislation.
One point of contention in the battle over parental involvement in schools has been sex education classes.
Some parents and instructors have argued that comprehensive sex education has been shown to reduce rates of sexual activity, sexual risk behaviors, sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy.
However, lawmakers in certain states have been promoting bills that limit sex education in classrooms, because it is seen as a subject that parents should have control over regarding when and how it is presented to their children.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an education bill stating the health curriculum in schools will include “age-appropriate” material and remove information about AIDS or HPV, which can lead to certain forms of cancer.
Additionally, in June, a bill passed the Ohio House that states any “sexuality content” in schools would be disclosed to parents and parents would have the right to excuse their child and have them take an alternative class.
Moms for America, a conservative organization, strongly advocates against comprehensive sex education as it stands currently. The group claims on its website that these classes increase the sexuality of children and that they feature obscene and pornographic material.
“You know what nobody’s telling kids? No, not everybody is [having sex],” Kimberly Fletcher, founder, president and CEO of Moms for America, told ABC News. “And when you have families who are instilling these values in the hearts and minds of their children throughout their lives, and then you have all these other outside sources that are saying, ‘Oh, you know what, ignore that, don’t worry about that. Here’s your condom, you’re gonna do it anyway,’ then there’s a conflict right there.”
She added, “That’s not teaching biology or science or natural reproduction. They are shoving sexual content on our children at very young ages.”
Race and LGBTQ communities
Backers of “parental rights” say they want more of an influence in what their children have access to at schools — efforting book bans and curriculum restrictions that largely impact content concerning racism, gender, and sexual orientation.
“No one loves our children more than we do and … we’re going to set up the guidelines and the parameters,” Fletcher said. “We’re going to decide what we want them to learn, what values we want them to instill in them. We get to decide that. And if as adults, if they decide that they didn’t like that, then they can go their own way, we’re going to love them.”
She said she doesn’t view this movement as preventing some children from being exposed to certain materials so hers aren’t but rather protecting all children from it.
One of the subjects at the center of this battle is CRT, a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws and how those laws have continued to impact the lives of non-white people. Scholars say it is only taught in law schools and other higher education settings, not in K-12 classrooms.
Still, several states have passed “anti-critical race theory” laws that regulate how educators can talk about racism and race with students.
Supporters of parental involvement say diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and supposed CRT in schools are forcing children to focus too much on race and not traditional school subjects.
“Their goal is a total transformation of the education of America, and it is basically teaching everything through a racial lens,” Grady said. “So, it’s very much focused on race, it’s very much focused on equity, non-merit-based education … and the role of the school is to really stick to teaching the children, reading, writing, math, science, the core subjects.”
Pringle, a former middle school science teacher, said teachers are not moving away from teaching core subjects, but trying to create an inclusive environment for their students.
“Our message [is] making sure that every student has an inclusive, high-quality curriculum, and that students are able to see themselves and others in that curriculum,” she said.
Those against restrictions say removing certain materials take away choices from the families who want to have these lessons in schools and access to these books in schools. They say lessons on race and racism can help students understand the backgrounds of their fellow peers.
“We live in a majority white straight society, where I live … and these kids have difficulties. That’s why the books are so important,” Dewey said. “Because it gives them a chance to see that there are other people just like them, learn the truth about accurate history, whether it be talking about the history of America, or the history of LGBTQ+ rights. I know my son appreciates it and so do I.”
Katie Paris, a mother in Ohio, and the founder of Red, Wine and Blue — a progressive political mobilizing group — said she saw these topics coming under attack during school board meetings.
“Anything that mentioned words like ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ or ‘equity’ those all of a sudden, were becoming kind of lightning bolt controversial phrases,” she told ABC News. “But just this small minority of people who were getting very loud … and I think parents were concerned about the impact that this was going to have on their kids.”
“Our suburban communities are becoming more diverse, and we have a lot of pride actually in the steps for the progress that we’re making together, in terms of better understanding [what it means] to really respect our differences and grow together in these communities and thrive in a diverse environment,” she continued. “For me, as a parent, I know that for my kids to be successful, they need to be exposed to reality, and diverse viewpoints, learning real accurate history.”