Heather Harding is the executive director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future.

As educators, we know that our students thrive when parents and teachers work together to provide a high-quality, age-appropriate education for every child. In fact, that kind of collaboration is at the heart of our public schools, where decisions are made by those who know how best to serve students in that community.

In the last few years, politicians and extremists injecting their agendas into our schools have made it much more difficult for parents and teachers to form that bond. Lawmakers in faraway statehouses trying to score political points are enacting censorship laws that create a climate of fear for educators and school leaders. Extremist groups are engaging in fear­mongering in the hopes of driving a wedge between parents and their schools—and it’s working in far too many places.

This year, social media has been full of chilling images of teachers lamenting sparse school bookshelves and boxes full of books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. being removed from schools by state and local lawmakers. Districts that are educating the next generation of America’s leaders and citizens have been forced to gut their curriculum so that it no longer reflects our country’s full and complete history—or our current multiracial democracy.

The numbers are shocking. Last year, 36 states introduced 137 pieces of legislation that restrict access to curriculum, ban books, and make it illegal to teach certain concepts. Despite how overwhelmingly unpopular book bans are (more than 70% of parents oppose bans, and students are standing up in droves against censorship), books being removed from shelves reached a record high last year, and this year promises the same or worse.

Even more concerning, these book bans are being driven by a small group of extremists. The Washington Post found that just 11 people were responsible for the majority of the more than 1,000 challenges to books about LGBTQ people filed in the 2021–22 school year nationwide. Eleven people decided what thousands of children in more than 150 school districts can read.

These bans stir up controversy, and they distract from the very real issues our students face. Instead of tackling learning loss and mental health struggles caused by the pandemic, education leaders and our school boards must combat misinformation and political posturing to protect our students’ ability to read about heroes, including Parks and King.

Promoting Parental Involvement

Teachers, administrators, and school board members didn’t choose to work in education to become pawns in a political game, and we must protect them from the dangerous crosshairs of heightened political rhetoric—rhetoric that has led to serious physical threats to educators and school leaders.

At the Campaign for Our Shared Future (COSF), the common-ground nonprofit where I am executive director, we work with school leaders and educators every day across the country who are dealing with harassment and death threats—as well as those who face losing their livelihoods—because they are trying to do their jobs. That’s why we launched our Educator Defense Fund to provide even more support and resources to teachers, school board members, principals, superintendents, and school librarians being attacked by extremists.

This is something I worry about not just as a nonprofit leader and former teacher, but also as a mother of two public school students. That’s why COSF is focused on promoting parental involvement in schools and keeping political games out of our public education system. Right now, families and students are looking for help, resources, and ways to get involved and take action to stop the increasing political attacks on education—and that’s where you as school leaders come in.

Here’s what we suggest you do:

  • Stay focused on students and learning when you are talking about your work. Help our communities and parents reframe these fraught conversations by talking about the best education rather than politics. Avoid starting a conversation with the controversy associated with the debate. Student success, not politics, should drive our decisions.
  • Do not get stuck arguing about semantics. You will lose that argument every time. It’s not about the clever catchphrases or names used by politicians to divide communities. Parents want to know their child is being taught high-quality, age-appropriate material in a safe, loving environment.
  • Tell stories of how policies impact real students and educators—and encourage students and educators to tell their own stories. Real stories help families connect to schools and understand sometimes complicated policies. We must ensure that families have a chance to make true connections with school staff and overcome any barriers that may stand in the way.
  • Find out what drives parents by asking key questions. What are parents most worried about? What do they think should be taught in their child’s school, and who should decide? What do they believe is most important about school? How can you frame the work of a school in ways that resonate with parents?

Our children are paying the price for these culture wars and witch hunts in education. If we are going to win this war, we must come together across the political spectrum and fight for our children, our schools, and our democracy.

Heather Harding, EdD, is the executive director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future. Learn more at campaignsharedfuture.org. A former middle and high school teacher, she previously served in senior philanthropic leadership roles at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.


American Library Association. (2023). Voters oppose book bans in libraries. ala.org/advocacy/voters-oppose-book-bans-libraries

CBS News Miami. (2021, September 21). South Florida author Brad Meltzer ‘heartbroken’ after Pennsylvania school board banned 2 of his books about MLK & Rosa Parks. cbsnews.com/miami/news/brad-meltzer-books-banned-pennsylvania-school-board

Harding, H. (2023, March 27). Our children are paying the price for the culture wars and witch hunts in public education. The Hechinger Report. hechingerreport.org/opinion-our-children-are-paying-the-price-for-the-culture-wars-and-witch-hunts-in-public-education

Italie, H. (2023, March 23). Book ban attempts reach record high in 2022, American Library Association report says. Associated Press. pbs.org/newshour/arts/book-ban-attempts-reach-record-high-in-2022-american-library-association-report-says

Krug, I. (2023, May 24). Some parents in Mt. Lebanon think they know best. LGBTQ students disagree, and are taking action. Pittsburgh City Paper. pghcitypaper.com/news/meet-the-lgbtq-students-in-mt-lebanon-building-community-in-their-struggle-to-be-heard-23919322

Natanson, H. (2023, June 9). Objection to sexual, LGBTQ content propels spike in book challenges. The Washington Post. washingtonpost.com/education/2023/05/23/lgbtq-book-ban-challengers

Young, J.C., & Friedman, J. (2023). America’s censored classrooms. PEN America. pen.org/report/americas-censored-classrooms