Over the past couple of years, what seems like the entire nation turned its eyes more heavily to public education for reasons one can only speculate. During the pandemic, families were given a front-row seat to their children’s education as they learned remotely. Teachers began abandoning the professor for good citing pay, harsh working conditions, the list goes on. Each of these factors plays a role in America’s heightened state of controversy surrounding public education, but one contributor, in particular, is taking the nation by storm.
In recent months, headlines targeting the “culture wars” in education have been stirring conversation among politicians. In some states, they’re enacting new legislation addressing issues ranging from school safety and teacher satisfaction to critical race theory, or CRT, sexual orientation or gender identity. The latter, however, is one in particular that is raising eyebrows among state leaders.
On Monday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency for public education across the state to “stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation.” During his special address, he pointed to Republican efforts that seek to “choke the life out of public education” in several areas, including school vouchers, teacher shortages and culture wars.
“It’s time to declare a State of Emergency for public education in North Carolina,” he said. “There’s no Executive Order like with a hurricane or the pandemic, but it’s no less important.”
Speaking to legislation that directly targets culture war issues in public education, Cooper said he worries about policies that change curriculum, dictate what teachers can and can’t discuss and negatively impacts LGBTQ+ students.
“Students need an education that prepares them for the workforce and success,” he said. “North Carolina’s families, businesses and economy depend on it. Putting politicians in charge of the classroom is dangerous.”
Cooper’s remarks come off the heels of a commencement speech given by Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, the nation’s only Black governor, at Morehouse College, a historically Black and all-male college in Atlanta, on Sunday. Throughout his speech, he spoke heavily against politicians’ efforts to keep “divisive concepts” out of the classroom through book bans.
“I look around the country and I see book banning,” he said. “I’m looking around the country right now and I’m seeing… teachers being censored. I see [the] curriculum of truth being taken out.”
This was the first of his speeches that directly addressed culture wars in education since being sworn into office this year, Politico reports.
“When politicians ban books and muzzle educators, they say it’s an effort to prevent discomfort guilt—but we know that’s not true,” he said. “This is not about a fear of making people feel bad. It is about a fear of people understanding their power.”
How culture wars impact teachers
These governors’ remarks mirror the thoughts and feelings of educators who say their job is being affected by such legislation. According to a RAND Corporation survey published earlier this year, teachers say they’re “walking on eggshells” as they navigate restrictions to classroom discussion.
Nearly one-fourth of teachers reported that restrictions on race or gender-related topics have influenced their choice of classroom materials or instruction. In addition, they perceived these limitations as negatively impacting their working conditions and cited fears over how they will hinder student learning.
With this in mind, the researchers offer four recommendations for state and district leaders looking for ways to sort through the noise:
- Collaborate with teachers when implementing new policies and include their perspectives to ensure a healthy and diverse workforce.
- Give teachers guidance, resources and support to address controversial topics.
- Engage with families in “productive conversations about race and gender.”
- Tie potentially contentious concepts to concrete learning objectives and communicate their educational benefit.