2023 Was a Record Year for Public Schooling Culture War

  • January 3, 2024
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Neal McCluskey

If it felt like people in 2023 were more at each other’s throats over what public schools stock on bookshelves and teach, and how they conduct themselves, than anytime you can remember, it’s probably because they were. According to Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, 2023 was a record year for fighting with 465 conflicts, edging out 2022 with 463.

What were the biggest battlegrounds?

One hundred fourteen fights were about curricula, such as whether schools could use the conservative content of PragerU, or the disputed Advanced Placement African American Studies curriculum.

One hundred and eight fights were about gender equity, including conflicts about bathroom and locker room access for transgender students, and rules about which pronouns and names students and school officials use.

Coming in third, ninety‐​nine were disputes about reading material, in particular challenges to books such as Gender Queer and The Hate U Give, which some view as affirming marginalized groups, but others believe are immoral, politicized, or inappropriate for children.

You should take our year‐​to‐​year comparisons with a bit of salt. We have changed how we find battles over time, and no doubt that has made annual comparisons less than precise. We are also likely to find additional battles for 2023, but also possibly other years, going forward. Still, there is little question that the last few years have been particularly contentious for reasons including COVID-19 frustrations, recent racial reckonings, and more.

That said, it is also true that values and identity‐​based battles are not new to public schooling. By forcing people with diverse values and desires to fund a single system of government schools, public schooling always has fostered divisive conflict, and always will.