The back-to-school season for many parents comes as something of a relief: It’s quieter around the house, the family slips into a routine schedule, the happy chaos of summer turns to the welcome predictability of the fall.
Yet the U.S. education landscape has in recent years been anything but quiet or predictable. Schools have become intense battlegrounds of bitter cultural fighting. Extremist curricula involving fringe racial theories and explicit sexual ideologies have been forced on grade-school children. Angry parents have turned out in droves to protest, demand change, and in some cases flip school boards in favor of reform-minded candidates.
The rolling controversies are not likely to end soon. And they are of particularly pointed significance for Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that parents have “the first responsibility for the education of their children” (No. 2223). Mothers and fathers, the Catechism says, retain the right to both teach their children the morals imparted by the Church and “to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions” (No. 2229).
For Catholic families in public schools, that can be a daunting proposition. In Virginia, the state government recently instituted new school rules governing parental rights and transgender-related policies, but several school districts have refused to implement them, setting up a showdown between superintendents and the governor’s office. In Maryland in August, a judge ruled that parents do not have the right to opt their children out of LGBT-related book readings. That same month, a school policy protest in California between competing factions of parents turned violent and led to arrests.
Amid this ongoing strife, several Catholic organizations and activist efforts are working to both push back on the extreme ideologies in much of public schooling and help parents access a broad range of choices to ensure their children can be properly educated according to Church teachings.
“On a basic level, the Church teaches that parents have a right to decide where and what their children study,” R. Jared Staudt told CNA. “We see that parents are waking up to the fact that the state acts like it has primary authority over children.”
Staudt, a prolific author on Catholic history and culture including Catholic schools and education, said parents “should know what their children are learning, what they are not learning, and make sure that they are guiding their overall formation, keeping them from what is harmful and giving them what is most important.”
Shawn Peterson, the president of the advocacy group Catholic Education Partners (CEP), told CNA his group has been active in promoting and supporting opportunities for school choice for Catholic parents, including tax vouchers, “scholarship tax credits,” and educational savings accounts that give parents greater freedom to direct their children’s educations.
“As the Church teaches, parents are the primary and first educators of the child,” Peterson said, “and the state has a duty to not only refrain from interfering in that relationship but [also] must actively support that right in several ways, including financial support.”
“Our mission is to support policies and efforts to allow more families to enjoy (which we see as access) a Catholic education if they desire it,” Peterson said.
CEP supports “parental choice initiatives on the state level and also religious liberty and other public policy initiatives that have an effect on Catholic schools and Catholic education generally,” Peterson said. The group works with bishops, superintendents, state Catholic conferences, and other Church leaders to “ensure that laws and regulations support and allow Catholic schools to be fully and faithfully Catholic.”
CEP is pushing forward with numerous initiatives, Peterson said, including “several state-level efforts to pass more expansive and better parental choice legislation” as well as efforts to push back on excessive state control of Catholic school licensure, accreditation, and testing requirements.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, a Catholic education advocacy and training group, told CNA that it is seeing “an increasing number of Catholic parents [desiring] for their children to receive an authentic Catholic education that is in line with Church teaching.”
ICLE promotes classical Catholic education by way of “conferences, teacher development programs, in-service workshops, consultation, and publications.” The group told CNA its member school network has expanded hugely over the past several years, with “currently around 225 schools” participating, up from just four in 2017.
The group’s executive director, Elisabeth Sullivan, said at a USCCB roundtable last year that the post-2020 education landscape is a “great opportunity” for Catholic educators insofar as “parents who might otherwise not have dialed into the fact that secular education is not neutral have seen it loud and clear.”
“We see ourselves as advocating reforms heavily,” the group told CNA, “by providing to pastors, principals, and teachers inspiration, formation, and curricular help that all align with the Holy See’s teaching on Catholic schools. Our work could be considered an on-the-ground, grassroots effort.” ICLE hosts a yearly national conference as well as retreats and “leader forums” for both educators and students.
Even outside of educational systems, some Catholic advocates are working to counteract some of the more pervasive influences of the broader culture. Among them is Family Honor, a South Carolina-based Catholic nonprofit that offers families “a Catholic framework on the truth and meaning of sexuality, love, and family.”
Brenda Cerkez, the executive director of Family Honor, said the effort was launched in 1988 when parents “saw what was going on even back then” and who “wanted something better for their kids other than just a negative approach or a disease-based approach” to sexual education.
Family Honor has seen growing interest in its programs in recent years, she said, particularly regarding the current transgender zeitgeist. Many parents, she said, have expressed regret to her that the program wasn’t around when they were growing into young adulthood.
“Our ideal scenario is you sitting there with your arm around your son or daughter,” Cerkez said, “hearing about chastity, virtue, the theology of the body, male and female being created in God’s image — and not having to worry about all of the mess going on in the culture.”
“It’s not from a negative perspective,” she said. “It’s filled with hope. And joy.”
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Staudt said parents who are unable to remove their children from public school systems should nevertheless “be vigilant.”
“Talk to teachers and administrators, know what is being done for sex ed and any other controversial areas, insist on opting out of problematic elements, talk with other concerned parents, attend school board meetings, and do whatever it takes to protect your children,” Staudt said.
“Provide more robust spiritual formation for your children beyond religious education classes, especially through regular small groups and prayer,” he added. “Pray the rosary as a family every day and consecrate your family to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts.”
Secular groups also push back
In addition to Catholic groups, an organized and determined group of parents is continuing to work diligently to counteract what they say are the deleterious influences of far-left and extremist ideology in public schools across the U.S.
Elana Fishbein has been leading the grassroots effort No Left Turn in Education for just over three years. She founded the group in Pennsylvania in August 2020 amid the bitter cultural battles of the George Floyd movement occurring at the same time. Schools around the country responded by adopting and promoting left-wing curricula on race and racism.
“It’s been a pretty interesting three years,” Fishbein told CNA.
She candidly admitted: “We are not where I thought we would be, with No Left Turn as well as on the national stage.” The left-wing advocates that critics say have seized control of public education are “very well funded,” Fishbein said, with a system that has been built “step by step over the decades.”
No Left Turn on its website says its mission is to revive “the fundamental discipline of objective thinking” in American education and to emphasize “the role of the parent as the primary custodian and authority of their child.”
Fishbein said the group has been focused on “the bigger picture.” She said No Left Turn has “had a lot of gains in terms of advancing legislation, raising awareness.”
“This is a very, very demanding fight,” she said. “It takes a lot.”
Tracy Henderson, the board president and founder of California Parents United, said the group’s mission has evolved. Initially, CPU pushed back against mask mandates during the COVID-19 crisis; its efforts then shifted to attacking “critical race theory” in public schools. Now CPU is taking on LGBT-centric programs and lessons.
Efforts against CRT bore fruit, Henderson told CNA. “Teachers started quitting,” she said. “School boards started banning it.”
Now, she said, California legislators are attempting to “take away parental rights” and “give children the right to consent” to a broad range of behaviors and choices.
Henderson said CPU is making a full-court press on school boards into the coming year.
“We’re the antidote to the teachers unions,” she said with a laugh. “We’re going to pack [school boards]. We endorse, we help promote.”
“If the school boards flip, they can hold the line,” she said.
Fishbein said the overall debate about education and morals should not be framed politically. It’s bigger than that, she said.
“It’s not about conservative or liberal,” she said. “It’s not about right or left. It’s about right and wrong.”