GRAY — About 50 people gathered in the fluorescent-lit basement of the Bible Believing Baptist Church late last month to hear a series of speakers warn about “the hyper-sexualization of school children” and “the left’s scorched-earth war against sacred sexuality.”

The chairman of the Gray Republican Committee welcomed the attendees, behind him a poster promoting the firing of a southern Maine superintendent and a photo of the event’s keynote speaker, outspoken far-right conservative Shawn McBreairty, standing next to conservative talk-show host Tucker Carlson. Resting on a table near the door was a petition to fire Maine Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin.

“The left is determined to own our children because then they will own them as adults,” Chairman Peter Brown said. School mask mandates were not about protecting kids from COVID, he said. “It’s all about training children to submit to control.”

The nation’s culture wars are being fought in school board meetings and classrooms. And conservative attacks on teachers and lessons about race, gender identity and sexuality have become part of a Republican strategy that’s energizing voters frustrated with COVID protocols and fearful about what their children are being taught in school. Educators and students are caught in the crossfire.

Maine is no exception. Over the course of the school year, educators have faced criticism over reading lists, classroom posters, curriculum materials and discussion topics. And the clashes have intensified since the state Republican Party adopted a platform in April calling for a ban on critical race theory and discussion of gender in public school classrooms.

Last summer, Gardiner Area High School administrators scrapped an advanced placement English class summer reading list after parents complained the books on it – which covered topics including mass incarceration, anti-racism and the lynching of Emmett Till – would teach students critical race theory.


Over the past few weeks, Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry has faced multiple calls to resign over her response to a parent’s request that two educational posters about gender and sexuality be removed from a sixth-grade classroom.

In mid-May, a video intended to help teachers explain LGBT rights and other topics to kindergartners was removed from a Maine Department of Education website after the Republican Party featured it in an attack ad against Gov. Janet Mills.

The speakers at the event in Gray called for banning sex education in K-12 schools and teaching only abstinence, implored parents to immediately pull their children out of public school and claimed a large majority of Maine’s teachers can’t be trusted to do their jobs.

In addition to McBreairty and Brown, other speakers included Republican state Rep. Amy Bradstreet Arata and a representative from the Maine group Save Our Students, whose members say public schools are pushing students to transition to a different gender.

Some states have passed new laws blocking teachers from discussing many of the topics that are being scrutinized in Maine, including race, sexuality and gender and social emotional learning.

A law in Texas forbids teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States.” Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which some opponents have labeled “Don’t Say Gay,” bars the state’s K-3 public school teachers from teaching their students about sexual identity or orientation.


Supporters of such efforts say parents should decide if and when they want to introduce their children to certain topics and that schools should be focused more strictly on academics such as math, science, English and social studies, as well as life skills like managing money and trades that can help them get a good-paying job with or without college.

One attendee of the Gray event in an interview after the meeting said her son felt unprepared when he transitioned from high school in the Gray-New Gloucester school district to the University of Maine in Orono. She said he felt behind in many subject areas despite being in advanced classes in high school.

“If students are getting to college with gaps in their academics, that should be the focus of Maine schools, not social emotional learning,” said Rachel, who declined to share her last name.

Rachel also said she would like parents to at least be notified if their children are going to be assigned books or other material that could be controversial or considered inappropriate. She said she was stunned when her son, as a high school junior, was assigned to read “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami. The acclaimed 2002 fantasy novel is about a boy who runs away from home and a disabled man who can speak to cats, and includes violent scenes of rape, murder and incest.

But others say that teachers should be trusted to do their jobs, assign material and frame it in an appropriate way. They argue that setting students up for success in adulthood also means helping them learn to manage their emotions, respond positively to challenges, navigate social situations, gain confidence and welcome diversity, and that those elements are often important prerequisites to academics.

The pandemic reiterated to teachers, administrators and staff that educating students is more complicated than just teaching them facts and figures, said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association.


“Having students in a place where they are ready to learn math means supporting their mental and emotional health,” said Leavitt, who was also a Spanish teacher in Maine’s public schools for over 40 years. “We need to meet all those needs to support our students.”

The Department of Education declined multiple requests to interview Commissioner Makin about these issues.

While topics such as historical racism and transgender identity are the latest flashpoints, the political battle over public schools is not a new phenomenon.

Public education will always be something of a powder keg,” said Nate Sleeter, a research assistant professor who focuses on education and history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “Schools are charged with teaching young people certain things and that will always invite a lot of scrutiny and controversy over what those things will be.”

When the Civil War ended in 1865, a new fight erupted between Southern and Northern states over how to teach about the conflict. And the civil rights era of the 1960s included famous battles fought on school grounds over integration.

Conflicts over what happens in schools and classrooms have directed activists’ attention toward local-level politics.


In 1996, when the national focus was on sex education, evolution and school prayer, Christian right leader Ralph Reed said: “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members.”

Charles Dorn, a Bowdoin College professor who studies the history and philosophy of education, said what’s taught in schools has always sparked tension and passion because kids are involved. “There is no one we care about more than our children,” he said.

School systems tend to move quietly along without much political attention most of the time, said Dorn, but they get thrust under a microscope during periods of significant transition in the United States, such as the racial reckoning that swept the nation during the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. But Dorn said that something unique about the recent focus on education and especially critical race theory is that it can be tied to a particular speech given by former President Donald Trump a few years ago.

“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory,” Trump said at a White House conference on American history in September 2020. “This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.”

Other notable figures in national conservative politics and news have also stoked fear about critical race theory and encouraged renewed attention on education. In his podcast in May 2021, former senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon said: “The path to save the nation is very simple – it’s going to go through the school boards.”

The movement is bringing partisan politics and big money into once sleepy school board elections.


The 1776 project, a national conservative political action committee launched in 2021, handed out almost $1.4 million between April 2021 and April 2022 to support school board candidates who are against teaching critical race theory. The PAC has endorsed 69 candidates in eight states, including New Jersey, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota and has about an 80 percent success rate, according to the PAC’s website.

While school board races in Portland, Gray-New Gloucester, Falmouth and elsewhere include conservative candidates concerned about such issues as COVID policies, critical race theory and discussions about transgender identity, Maine does not appear to be seeing the spike in campaign financing for local elections that is occurring in other states.

Still, partisan politics’ infiltration into schools has taken a toll on some Maine teachers. For 20-year teaching veteran Jesse Hargrove, this year has been the most challenging of his career, largely because of increased criticism from the public in addition to managing the ebbs and flows of COVID.

“Without a question the hardest,” is how Hargrove described this year teaching social studies at Hermon High School.

Hargrove said increased criticism from the public toward his colleagues and the district has been disheartening and makes it feel like all the good work he and his colleagues do daily is being ignored. 

Leavitt, the head of the state teachers’ union, said other educators feel similarly, and that critiques heard at school board meetings and in the media are especially hard for them to stomach when they don’t hear praise for their work as well.People seem to think teachers are in the classroom and that’s all they do and don’t respect the fact that they’re trained, they have expertise and professional judgment,” she said. 


In Hermon, the district is asking that teachers give administrators a heads-up if they are going to teach anything that could be potentially controversial. Earlier this year Hargrove held a mock court in his Law and Justice class where his students recreated Carson v. Makin, a Maine case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court about whether families can use state aid to send their children to religious schools. Since religion is considered a sensitive topic, he warned his principal before moving forward with the lesson, he said. 

Hermon administrators did not respond to questions about the practice of informing them about lesson plans involving potentially divisive topics,

Hargrove said he now asks himself questions he has never had to before, such as which of his units could lead to public chastisement, criticism and bring negative attention to school. He said this is particularly hard because he wants to make his teaching more inclusive to better represent groups that have been historically neglected. 

“This is the hardest time in the history of my career to do that work,” he said.  

Educators are facing similar challenges around the country. In Tennessee a white teacher was fired for teaching his students about white privilege. In Florida a middle school art teacher was fired after explaining different sexual orientations to students.

Some worry that villainization of educators will further deteriorate the field’s struggling workforce. Others are concerned that limiting social emotional learning, race and gender education will be a disservice to students, especially as they recover from the instability of school during the pandemic.


One Aroostook County middle school teacher said her students seem to need emotional and mental health support now more than ever.

Kim Barnes, an eighth-grade teacher at Caribou Community School, said more of her students than usual have shown signs of anxiety and depression throughout the school year – refusing to engage, failing to complete assignments, laying their heads down on the desk during class – and it’s affecting their schoolwork.

She said it’s important for students to learn how to articulate their feelings so she can figure out how to move ahead with content.

As the political focus on schools increases, educators are working to support and advocate for one another.

“Educate Maine stands with Maine educators and librarians and affirms the responsibility to ensure and protect students’ rights to intellectual freedom,” said the nonprofit, which works to prepare students for college or careers after high school, in a joint statement with nine other groups including the Maine Department of Education, the Maine Education Association and the Maine School Boards Association released in late January. “In fact, it is unrestricted and easy access to literature inclusive of all identities, cultures and religions that will promote the development of empathy and understanding by and for our young people – the future leaders of our communities.”

Executive Director of Educate Maine Jason Judd said that for months the organization has been hearing from educators saying that they are being attacked and questioned about what and how they teach. “Support and trust for Maine’s teachers have begun to erode,” he said.

Judd said he is worried about how this criticism, from what he referred to as a small but vocal minority, will impact the education workforce and public education in the state, especially at a time when teachers are exhausted from years of teaching through the pandemic.

“We are concerned that the Republican platform could make things worse,” he said. “We were concerned before the platform was adopted. Now we are more concerned.”

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