With active litigation on both coasts embroiling school districts in controversies over gender and sexuality issues, this academic year promises major battles in American public education.
First came a decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviewed a Maryland case in which parents challenged Montgomery County Public Schools’ “Guidelines for Gender Identity.” The guidelines feature a “gender support plan for students,” which includes “affirming” a child’s preferred name, pronouns, and other gender-related preferences, and authorizes schools to “withhold information about the plans from parents if the school deems the parents to be unsupportive.” Under longstanding Supreme Court doctrine that gives parents a constitutional right to raise their children, the parents sued.
The Fourth Circuit’s 2–1 decision in favor of the school board rested on the formality of standing to sue. “The parents have not alleged that their children have gender support plans, are transgender or are even struggling with issues of gender identity,” the panel noted. It rejected the parents’ contention that an injury could result from the worry that, “for all they know, some of their own children could be” among the “students with a gender support plan,” calling it “far too attenuated” to qualify as a concrete harm.
The ruling’s procedural framing obscures the substantive logic behind it. If there were a chance that schools were, for instance, systematically and secretly maiming some students, it is unlikely that a court would find parents’ worries about their children’s safety “too attenuated.” The central question is where secret social transitioning falls on the spectrum of potential harm.
In another lawsuit in Montgomery County, a group of religious parents sued the school board for making highly questionable materials on gender identity, sexual orientation, and sex kinks a mandatory part of the curriculum. The parents, mostly Muslims and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, found out that they would no longer be allowed to opt out their children (some as young as pre-kindergarten) of reading what the county calls “LGBTQ-inclusive texts,” including books with word searches for “drag queen” and “leather.” Once again, the parents lost their legal battle. The court found that including texts presenting certain contestable ideas does not amount to religion-infringing “indoctrination” because students will not be forced to endorse the ideas they encounter.
These cases display one county’s unrelenting effort to train children to see the world through a progressive lens while maintaining plausible deniability. It’s just LGBTQ-inclusive education, the county officials say; no one is telling your kid what to think; and it may not be your kids who are being socially transitioned in secret. For parents unpersuaded by such assurances, litigation has so far proved unavailing.
But even these two cases look quaint compared with a recent development in California. There, Attorney General Rob Bonta has announced that kids in California have a right to keep their school-based social transition secret from their parents. After the Chino Valley School District in Southern California took the opposite stance—mandating that public schools in its jurisdiction disclose social-transitioning plans to parents—Bonta sued, arguing that such a policy violates students’ equal rights under law and subjects them to potential harm at the hands of non-affirming parents. (It remains to be seen whether the courts will find that this potential harm is also “too attenuated” to find standing.) In doing so, Bonta has pitted children against their parents, construing even knowledge of a gender transition as a grievous potential harm, widening beyond all recognition the exception to the principle that parents generally get to speak for their minor children.
If the new view of gender and sexuality continues to gain adherents within the American public school system, it could eventually become as universal as the Pledge of Allegiance once was. The veneer of non-ideological education is vanishing, and K–12 schools are expanding their institutional reach to crowd parents out. Parents who dissent from progressive ideas will increasingly need to pursue other educational options for their kids.
Public schools ostensibly developed to achieve some related goals: acclimate young Americans to a common culture; teach them the basic skills needed to be economically productive; and cultivate good citizens. Increasingly, however, they do the opposite. They advance radical ideas in an attempt to forge a new common culture rather than transmit the existing one. They prioritize individual expression and adventures in self-understanding over preparing young people to be part of institutions larger than themselves: families, the economy, the nation itself.
Public schools have not always existed in their current form, and the American public need not maintain them if they stop serving the public welfare. Indeed, it may be better for our civic health to let American children disperse among a wide array of schools that better represent their families’ values. If voters begin demanding an effective end to tuition-free progressive schools, then those who enabled the gender conflagration to burn through public education will have only themselves to blame.
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