The war on schools is on in Maine, as far right-wing groups are forming to interfere with educators trying to prepare students for life in a diverse and pluralistic society.
We saw this last month when the Maine Republican Party passed a platform that calls for abolishing sex education at all levels through high school. At the party convention, anti-school activist Shawn McBreairty referred to “cult-like, government-run K-12 schools,” that are indoctrinating students. He was also a featured speaker a few weeks later when dozens of people gathered at the Believing Baptist Church in Gray, where the assembled were informed that schools were engaged in “the hyper-sexualization of school children” and they need to fight back.
McBreairty and others claim that they are defending children, but it really is something quite different. It’s an aggressive attack on the notion of public education itself, using loud voices and bullying tactics to make a minority religious and cultural views the standard for everyone.
While the culture warriors describe the heavy hand of state government controlling what goes on in the classroom, that’s not what is happening in Maine’s decentralized public schools.
The state provides funding and expertise to school districts, but schools are run by professional administrators who are accountable to school boards. Whether it is mask requirements for COVID, or the availability of advanced courses or extracurricular activities, local people, through their elected representatives, are in charge.
The attack on age-appropriate sex ed follows earlier attacks on what’s described by loosely defined “critical race theory” – a catch-all term that can include everything from American history lessons that discuss the role slavery and segregation played in the country’s development and statements denouncing the police murder of George Floyd, which set off nationwide protests in 2020.
It also takes the form of attacking the books that students are either assigned or encouraged to read. Last summer, Gardiner Area High School administrators scrapped an advanced placement English class summer reading list after parents complained the books on it – which cover topics including mass incarceration, anti-racism and the lynching of Emmett Till – would teach students “critical race theory. ”
The point is not that the teachers always know better than parents – who should just butt out and let the professionals do their work. But parents can’t know whether the lesson is appropriate just by reading a book title. Educators can explain why they are using a book or article and the context really matters. But there’s no room for subtlety in a culture war.
Public education has long been an engine of equal opportunity and a bedrock of a healthy democracy. Everyone has an interest in its success, and we should all question the motives of anyone who proposes tearing it apart.
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