How Parents Can Fight Back Against Toxic Agendas in the Schools
An interview with Erika Sanzi of Parents Defending Education
In the past year, we have seen a sharp rise in the public’s awareness of Critical Race Theory (CRT), compelled speech and pronoun reeducation, and other ideological practices in American and European education systems. The creeping influence of progressive thought on the daily experiences of young children in schools is a decades-old story, familiar to many Catholic parents who long ago chose alternatives. Many parents and educators, however, for a variety of reasons, have chosen to stay to try and effect change by defending and promoting civic notions of liberty, freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.
Regardless of a family’s educational choices, every Catholic is responsible for understanding trends in education in order to equip themselves and their own children to live in the world these thought systems are creating. Only by understanding the state of education can we then offer an alternative vision for public life together.
I sat down with Erika Sanzi, the director of outreach at Parents Defending Education and journalist at Sanzi.Substack.com, to discuss ways parents are reclaiming their role in the schools and the importance of educating ourselves about the motives and methods behind progressivism in education.
I’m excited to talk to you about your work with Parents Defending Education, because it brings to light and provides a way to address so many of the anxieties and frustrations many parents have felt with recent changes in both public and private schools. Please introduce our readers to the mission of your organization and its work.
Parents Defending Education is a brand-new organization that grew out of the increasing activism, political indoctrination and fixation on group identity in our K12 schools. Add to that the silencing of dissent, the shift towards compelled speech and the shaming of children based on their immutable traits and it was clear that parents need information and support.
How did you become involved in education? How has being a parent changed your views on education?
I became a high-school teacher in 1998 and worked in high schools in Massachusetts and California until my first son was born in 2005. I took seven years off (and two more sons) and then returned to working in schools as a teacher and a dean of students. My experience includes traditional public schools, charter schools and parochial schools. I also ran for, and won, a seat on my local school committee in 2010 and served one two-year term.
There is no doubt that my parent lens informed my work greatly when I worked in schools and still does now in my role at PDE.
I love the tagline on your Resources page: “sunshine is the best disinfectant!” What would you identify as some of the key agendas currently in play in the American school system? How are they harmful?
There is a massive effort underway to divide people based on their various group identities — we see very young children learning to label their identities (race, gender, religion, sexual orientation) and then see each of those identities through the prism of oppressor vs. oppressed. Not only are schools way outside their lane but they are introducing topics that are developmentally inappropriate.
Social justice, which sounds virtuous on its face, is an umbrella term for the agenda. This phrase is cleverly designed to make radical political views sound non-political and virtuous. You’re not opposed to justice, are you? Because that would make you a supporter of injustice. The phrase itself has no concrete meaning, which is part of why it is so useful. If you hear school officials or teachers advocating “social justice,” it is important to ask them what specifically they mean — and if they believe that anyone who disagrees is an advocate for injustice.
Where do you see this systemic indoctrination? Is it limited to public schools?
We see it almost everywhere. It is extremely prevalent in prestigious private schools (the $50,000 per year kind) and lots of stories have recently broken about that phenomenon. It is also common in charter schools, which are also public but not residentially assigned. Parochial schools seem to have much less of it, but they do have some. It is not in all schools but it is in many schools, regardless of geography, and the speed with which it is spreading is almost hard to believe. It went from creeping in (with warnings being ignored) to coming at us like a freight train.
What signs should parents watch for that these agendas have infected their children’s classrooms or minds?
This agenda often hides behind three words used together: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, also known as DEI. Other words parents should watch out for are antiracism, whiteness, white privilege, white fragility, critical race theory (or critical gender theory), microaggressions, implicit bias and toxic masculinity. Any school or district that hires a director of DEI is well on its way down a road filled with red flags because that is a sign of a major investment. It’s not a guarantee that the school is committed to this pernicious social justice ideology, but it is likely.
What can parents do right now, with the resources they have, to promote true education? What are some of the most effective (and efficient) ways to get involved?
The first thing I advise parents to do is to pin down their school officials on definitions of terms. If a school has committed to “equity” or to becoming an “antiracist school,” parents need to ask, “What exactly does that mean and what will it look like in practice?”
We find that many school district leaders have handed over the keys to DEI consultants or equity directors and can’t actually define the terms that blanket their websites and are being written into policy.
Parents should also begin looking more closely at their children’s schoolwork and asking their children explicit questions about what is happening in their classes. Are they allowed to speak freely about topics like BLM and gender identity? Are dissenting opinions welcomed (or even allowed)? Are students being compelled to share personal information about their various group identities or to declare that they are privileged or an oppressor (or oppressed)? Is the school sorting students into groups based on skin color? Or any other group identity category? Are people being denigrated/shamed based on their race, skin color, religion, etc.?
How does Parents Defending Education help these parents?
So many ways! Sometimes all we do is help them to understand that they aren’t crazy and that their gut is telling them something important. And we play a role in helping them build the confidence to ask tough questions, speak at a school committee meeting, stand up to the intimidation and ugly names that inevitably come their way or learn how to file a FOIA request with their district.
We also talk to parents who are trying to form a group of like-minded individuals in their community who share the same concerns. We invite parents to submit “tips” about what is happening in their kids’ schools — they send us classroom materials, copies of teacher trainings, emails from principals and superintendents, resource lists provided by the district. Once we look into it further and decide that it is an example of activism, political indoctrination, racial division, gender shaming or blatant propaganda, we add it to our IndoctriNation map with a write up that explains what happened (or is happening) and provides documentation.
Many Catholics have chosen to leave what they see as an irretrievably broken system, either by homeschooling or starting their own small schools. You have decided to stay and fight. What influenced that decision for you and do you think American institutional education (public, private and charter) is irredeemable?
Speaking personally, my own children’s schools have not been captured by this toxic ideology. My local district has not gone down this road (at least not yet) and my oldest son is in a parochial high school where I see no evidence of it either. I stay and fight, in part, because I know most families do not feel they have the option to leave the system.
I find it abhorrent that we would compel parents to send their children to schools based on their address and then allow those same schools to teach students that they need to become activists in their own homes and agitate against their parents; schools that would knowingly stoke division and use shame to denigrate children based on their immutable traits; schools that would teach resentment and hopelessness to some students and collective guilt and complicity to others; schools that they would tell other people’s daughters that to be a woman in the U.S. is to be a member of an oppressed class (and tell their sons that they are toxic oppressors.)
There are days when I am very discouraged. I have and will always advocate for parents to have more educational choices for their children, regardless of ZIP code or income. But I have to stay hopeful that this battle is winnable.
Why should homeschooling or private school parents be interested in your work? How does institutionalized education affect us all?
Private-school parents should be interested in our work because we see egregious cases of this ideology in private schools and we do offer support to private-school parents. They don’t have the same rights as public-school parents when it comes to their children’s First Amendment rights and we can’t help them file FOIA requests, but we can advise them on how to ask questions and advocate for their children and we do include private schools on our map. We hear from private school parents often.
Homeschooling parents would gain insight from our work about what is happening in the schools that they’ve chosen to leave — and it’s possible that parents who homeschool could be a resource to parents in their area and beyond who are frustrated with what’s happening in their schools and interested in exploring their options. In addition to using our map to expose incidents, we also use it to share parent groups that already exist in cities and states all over the country.
A homeschooling parent may have an interest in joining to learn about what’s going on in their community and also offer up ideas of how parents can counteract the messages their children are hearing at school. Between COVID schooling and the issues PDE addresses, homeschoolers have become a tremendous resource for other parents.
Are there any current trends in education that Catholic parents in particular should be aware of?
There are definitely some Catholic schools that seem to be dabbling in the DEI idea and parents should be vigilant. Many or most Catholic schools still say social justice to mean exactly that — and that’s good. But all parents should be on the lookout for shifting definitions and not be fooled by words that sound not only benign but virtuous — dig deeper to be sure to understand what they mean to discern whether or not there is a radical agenda hidden beneath the surface.