Classroom culture wars ramp up ahead of midterm elections

COLUMBUS, Ohio (NBC) – As voters prepare to head to the polls, education is one issue top of mind.

Schools have become a growing battleground in the culture wars, with Republican state legislators across the country introducing bills to restrict what’s taught in the classroom, especially regarding sexuality and gender identity.

NBC’s Alice Barr took a deep dive into the conservative movement for parents’ rights in education and talk to LGBTQ families about how it’s impacting them.

Inside “Bake Me Happy” bakery in Columbus, Ohio, the Pugh family is making something from scratch.

“We wanted to have a family together,” said Letha Pugh.

Letha and her wife, Wendy, are raising their 11-year-old daughter Avery, running a small business, active in local charities and in school.

Letha said, “And we thought we were okay.”

Now, Republican state lawmakers are introducing a series of bills aimed at restricting what’s taught in the classroom.

The most controversial in Ohio, House Bill 616, which sought to ban concepts like critical race theory along with any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade and limiting it for older grades to what the state deemed “age-appropriate.”

“It’s really a gut-punch,” Wendy said. “Forced not to talk about it makes it seem like something shameful.”

To Aaron Baer with the Center for Christian Virtue, it’s about parents’ rights to choose what their kids are exposed to.

Aaron said, “Parents are the ones who are best positioned to decide the best educational environment for their kids.”

Ohio is not the only state putting this issue front and center.

From Virginia to Florida, parents’ rights in education has become a rallying call for the conservative movement.

The top Republican in the U.S. House even is making it a centerpiece of the party’s new commitment to America.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, “We will pass the Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

Densil Porteous directs the LGBTQ advocacy group Stonewall Columbus and sees schools as a microcosm where society’s most complicated and combative struggles are playing out and being politicized. He’s also a father of a kindergartner.

“My child should be seen when she walks in the classroom,” he said. “She should not be pushed into the closet, she should not be discounted because of who her parents are. We should be creating spaces that make her feel safe to figure out who she is, and to be a part of defining a future that’s inclusive and welcoming and accepting of a wide variety of people.”

On the other side of the debate, Baer believes discussions about sexuality and gender in school have gone too far, launching a powerful backlash.

“Really going to be one of those things that lasts for a long time, in terms of driving passion,” he said.

He’s pushing to make public school dollars follow students to any school of their choice in what’s called a “Backpack Bill.”

Aaron said, “When a parent says, ‘I don’t like what you’re teaching my kid if you don’t stop it, I’m taking them out and you’re losing the money for them.’”

Letha and Wendy Pugh fear that would strip public school funding and cut kids off from learning about different backgrounds.

“They may be different, but they’re still okay,” Wendy said. “They’re still really good people.”

Now with the midterms bearing down and schools a growing battleground, voters are looking for leaders to fight on their side in the culture wars.

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