The queerness of Gen Z is being used as a wedge issue to promote school privatization. Nebraska is one of only five states to resist charter schools and is consistently one of the highest ranked states for public education. But homophobia and transphobia run rampant here, and the effort to use prejudice to attack public schools is growing.
For those who aren’t actively interested in educational policy and practice, a bit of background: charter schools, voucher programs, and other measures toward privatization are adored by politicians on both sides of the aisle, as they are funded by liberal and conservative billionaires. Generally, proponents of charter schools say that schools will perform better with the competition that the free market creates. In many ways, this is directly at odds with the ideal of education for all, because “markets exist to create inequalities – they thrive by creating winners and losers.” Charter school opponents point specifically to enrollment inequalities: charters are typically given the same per-pupil funding as the state provides to public schools, but they tend to enroll fewer students in special education and others whose needs account for a larger share of that funding. Opponents also point to myriad examples of lack of oversight, falsified enrollment records, and subsequent embezzlement of taxpayer money.
The push for charters in Nebraska comes from wealthy conservatives, as well as religious groups that are looking for taxpayer money to fund their tax-exempt organizations. Pete Ricketts started pushing for school privatization even before becoming governor; he and Mike Groene funded and founded the Platte Institute in 2007, which was labeled a “stink tank” by watchdog groups. The Platte Institute claims to be a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, but is involved in lobbying state legislators for school privatization (despite regulations on the political activity of nonprofits), and is connected to the State Policy Network, ALEC, and the Koch brothers. Even though out-of-state right-wing special interests drive the Platte Institute and there is ample evidence of Nebraskans’ support for their public schools, some local media have bought into Ricketts’s propaganda for charters.
Our mainstream media also has a habit of casually reporting on extremist groups without questioning their actions: Protect Nebraska Children (a fake-grassroots organization that has ties to hate group Family Watch International) has a new political action committee to put more anti-public school extremists, like Kirk Penner, onto public school boards. They are, of course, also aided by funding from the Ricketts family. Protect Nebraska Children has routinely shown a film which claims that “children’s ‘natural’ aversion’ to sex will prevent abuse” to argue against consent being taught in sex education classes. They also oppose anything to do with LGBTQ+ identities being acknowledged in schools, and were integral to spreading the false rumor that “furries” were taking over public schools.
And they are in good company in Nebraska. At the end of August, the archdiocese of Omaha released a new anti-LGBTQ policy for all Catholic schools, requiring “staff to act toward a person according to their biological sex at birth,” and including gendered rules for how students are allowed to “act, dress, and use bathrooms.” Students will also not be allowed to “promote, advocate, or endorse a view contrary to the Catholic Church’s teachings, including on human sexuality” on social media. The archdiocese claims that this decision is “in part, so that parents can make a decision on whether or not to keep their kids in Catholic schools.” But parents’ decision-making for their queer students is complicated, as anti-LGBTQ policy isn’t confined to just private religious schools. The Grand Island Northwest school district* just made national news for shutting down their school newspaper and ending their journalism program after students published writing addressing LGBTQ issues, using their adopted names, rather than their dead names. Administration at Northwest High School in Grand Island offered no formal explanation for their decision, but the Grand Island Independent, which had printed the school newspaper, received an email at the end of May explaining that “the program was cut because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.” These stories are part of a larger national trend in which adults seek to harm the educational rights of LGBTQ students in the name of “parental rights” in public schools (these same adults are also vocal opponents of Critical Race Theory, which is a legal framework that is not taught in K-12 schools, but has become a catch-all term for accurate teaching of history).
There are occasional glimmers of hope for student rights in Nebraska, such as the statement from Kearney Public Schools about their school libraries after attacks from conservative extremists. Recently, the Nebraska GOP put out a tweet, claiming that pornography is in school libraries after hunting for an example of young adult literature that included sexual topics. They shared a page from the graphic novel GenderQueer, in which the narrator describes the awkwardness of a first sexual encounter, compared to the fantasy they had in their mind. The irony of the NEGOP publicly sharing something they consider to be pornography is not lost on us, but that is not the issue at hand. Rather, schools are being attacked for potentially housing a graphic novel in their libraries, which is not taught as part of curriculum and which contains information for LGBTQ students that may otherwise not be accessible. Kearney pushed back on the validity of these accusations, saying, “(KPS) serves a number of students in the LGBTQ community . . . These books can provide a context by which some student readers can identify with someone . . . who has had similar struggles.” They also defend their media specialists and remind families that they have a unique policy in which parents can request that they must give consent before their child is allowed to check out a book.
Nebraska schools as a whole allow parents to opt students out of sex education classes and other educational information they might find “controversial.” But for local hate groups, like the Nebraska Family Alliance, this isn’t enough. They are set on limiting all students’ access to information. It is clear that both private and public schools in Nebraska are ready and willing to discriminate against groups of students, especially under pressure from school boards, parents, and “astroturf” organizations. This discrimination seems likely to grow with the introduction of voucher programs or charters in Nebraska. Earlier this year, a bill to create tax credits for donations to private school scholarship funds was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature. Senator Megan Hunt sponsored an amendment to the bill “prohibiting scholarship funds from going to private schools that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, sexual identity, or disability.” The amendment failed with support from only 17 of our 49 senators. The bill, thankfully, did not pass, but would have resulted in a tax break 14.5 times larger than for donations to public schools, churches, or other charitable organizations. Our legislators are open to tax breaks for the wealthy, lower funding for public schools, and the freedom to discriminate against students in the name of “school choice.”
Nationally, nearly 1 in 6 young people identifies as LGBTQ, and those numbers appear to be growing. Currently, 90% of students in Nebraska attend public schools, and the climate for these students has been largely hostile. GLSEN’s 2019 report on school climate for LGBTQ students in Nebraska shows that 96% of students have heard “gay” used in a negative way. Only 20% of students who reported harassment said that it resulted in adequate staff intervention. 80% of trans students were unable to use a bathroom aligned with their gender. But the report is not fully negative: about one-third of LGBTQ students said that their school administration was “somewhat or very supportive of LGBTQ students.” 96% were able to identify at least one supportive staff member, and 62% could identify six or more supportive staff members. All this is to say that public schools should be scrutinized for the ways we fail students, but our commitment – unlike charters – is to serve all students, and for some LGBTQ students, school is a safer place than home. LGBTQ students are, on average, 1.3 times more likely to report parental physical abuse, and LGBTQ teens who experience parental rejection are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.
Our queer teens are in danger and public schools need to take responsibility. Parental support is vital, but this is not coming from groups arguing for more “parental rights” in the name of exclusionary practices. As a teacher, I do view parents as allies in their child’s education, and I value the concept of parents as a child’s first educator. But in education, parents’ rights do not usurp students’ rights. A teacher’s job is to serve their students, first and foremost. Currently, students are at the forefront of standing up for LGBTQ-inclusive education, and they need the adults in public schools on their side.
*Edit: we initially named Grand Island Public Schools as shutting down the school newspaper. Grand Island actually has two school districts, and Grand Island Northwest is the district in question. Thank you to our readers for catching this error!