Free to Learn Coalition Wants to Take Politics Out of Classroom

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The Free to Learn Coalition is a nonpartisan organization that wants to take politics out of the classroom. Alleigh Marre, president of the coalition, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” today to discuss how she hopes to do that.

“We started to hear a lot more about how there’s been more of an emphasis on activism, rather than academics,” Marre says.

“And that includes, certainly, critical race theory,” which she says is “extremely prevalent and something that we’re starting to hear more and more about, but it’s not just isolated to that.”

Marre adds: “And the big thing that we are hearing from parents is that, as we start to fall behind in the world, countries like China, Russia, Estonia, Slovenia, Canada, they all outperform us. And that’s something that’s very concerning to parents. We’re all taxpayers, we’re all paying into a public education system, and our students just aren’t prepared for the future.”

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Alleigh Marre, she’s the president of the Free to Learn Coalition. Alleigh, It’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Alleigh Marre: Thanks for having me.

Del Guidice: Well, Alleigh, can you just start off by telling us about what the Free to Learn Coalition is, what you guys do?

Marre: Sure. The Free to Learn Coalition is a nonpartisan coalition aimed at taking the politics out of the classroom.

Over the last two years, 18 months, we’ve seen just an excessive uptick in a focus on activism rather than academic achievement and seeing the classroom from a front-row perspective by parents after a year of virtual learning with COVID I think really helped to open everyone’s eyes to what a problem this is, and that it’s not an isolated incident to a district here and there, but it is really something that’s widespread.

Del Guidice: We’re going to talk about the ad campaign that you all just launched, but before we get there, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what you were hearing, or did you hear anything as we had this whole past year of virtual learning, what are parents saying? Or what have you been hearing them saying about what they’ve observed their kids learning as they’ve been home, maybe hearing parts of lectures, hearing more of what their kids are talking about, about what they’re discussing in school, what was being said? What were parents saying?

Marre: Exactly. I think the year of virtual learning is really what opened everyone’s eyes. There had been anecdotal stories and feedback along the way.

This isn’t a new thing. I think a lot of people have always thought that our education system trended to the left. However, seeing it firsthand, we started to hear a lot more about how there’s been more of a emphasis on activism rather than academics. And that includes, certainly, critical race theory is extremely prevalent and something that we’re starting to hear more and more about, but it’s not just isolated to that.

The big thing that we are hearing from parents is that as we start to fall behind in the world, countries like China, Russia, Estonia, Slovenia, Canada, they all outperform us. And that’s something that’s very concerning to parents. We’re all taxpayers, we’re all paying into a public education system, and our students just aren’t prepared for the future.

Del Guidice: So you all launched an initial seven-figure national ad campaign that’s well over a million dollars advocating for classrooms that are independent from political influence. Can you talk to us about just generally what this ad campaign does?

Marre: Sure. There’s four parts to it. Basically, there is the national ad campaign. In that campaign we touch on three different districts across the country, Grace Church School in New York City, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, and also Peoria, Arizona.

And then there is a more geographically-specific targeted advertisement in each of those three places. So a 30-second ad in Arizona, in Fairfax, and then also in New York City.

What we touch on in each of those is exactly what we just talked about as kids in the United States start to fall behind the rest of the world. There’s this desire instead to focus on activism versus academic achievement.

So we highlight the issues specific to each of those three districts to help raise awareness within those communities and to show parents who may otherwise be apolitical that this isn’t something that they should sit on the sidelines for.

Del Guidice: We’re going to get back to those issue specific ads in those three school districts, but something I wanted to talk about, more of the broader message of this, is that the ads do call on schools to stop using partisan politics to shape students. Can you talk about what you’ve observed, what the organization has observed in terms of how schools are doing this right now?

Marre: Exactly. As we got started, and really we’re taking the temperature to see what kind of a momentum we’d have for this type of a project, we did some initial research. And in our initial research, we learned that 82% of parents across the board—that’s regardless of your political leanings, your socioeconomic background, your race, etc.—82% of the parents who we heard from agreed that there is no place for politics in the classroom.

If you drill a little bit deeper than that, we found that 71% of parents said that they wanted their children exposed to multiple viewpoints. And when you drill down even further from that, 66% of those parents identified as liberal.

So this truly does have the ability to be a broad nonpartisan coalition of parents who are interested in having the focus go back to academics rather than shaping kids into being activists.

Del Guidice: I just find that really interesting because in all of the coverage we’ve seen on mainstream media right now, … I hadn’t heard the number that you mentioned, the 82%. I’m curious what you think, but wouldn’t you think parents, from what we see reported on mainstream news, would be huge proponents of maybe critical race theory or other things that are so left-leaning or specific to one message versus what you’re mentioning, Alleigh, is having a whole multitude of different opinions that students can hear about and learn from?

Marre: Yeah, I think you’re touching on a really important point.

First of all, I think the media is focused on one side of it, but beyond that, I think there are a lot of parents who are really hesitant to speak up and to speak up on behalf of their kids for several reasons. First of all, they don’t want to be alienated or doxed by their friends or their neighbors or their employers.

If you look at Loudoun County, some of the first parents there who spoke up, actually, the subject of their recall petition to their school board is because the individuals on the school board and those affiliated with their physical school were doxing them and initiating a cyber campaign to hack their social media accounts, etc.

So I think there is some very real hesitancy by parents or advocates or community organizations to really push back on this because there are real-world ramifications and repercussions for parents who do so.

So one of the things that our organization aims to help with is to provide resources, but also, again, to build that coalition so that there is strength in numbers. And so that the people who are interested in pushing back on this narrative and this activism that’s taking place in the classrooms have the resources, but beyond just the resources, have the numbers to be able to stand up and say, “Hey, this isn’t right. We want the focus to be here and here’s 50 of us, 100 of us, 150 of us who feel that way.”

Del Guidice: That’s actually one of my next questions, was asking about how your organization mentions that this ad campaign really marks the beginning of an ability to give parents a bigger platform, more of a platform. And I know you mentioned some of the ways you’re hoping to do that.

Is there anything else you want to add to that, or even just address why this is so important, giving parents this voice, this ability to be present, to be involved in ways they really haven’t been before?

Marre: Yes. As we’ve touched on, this is a big and nonpartisan issue. We really believe and have seen in our research as parents are exposed, not just to some of the buzzwords, but what is actually being taught, that it is riling up a much bigger base of support than what might initially be thought to exist.

And then to expand further on that, a lot of parents don’t have a background in politics or activism. You know, Sarah Smith is a doctor, and this person works at Amazon and someone else works at Target. These are people who are parents who send their kids to school, who expect to have their kids come home and study their math books and get good grades on their tests and then graduate and be successful in life. And they haven’t previously had a need or a desire to be involved as activists themselves in their kids’ education.

But the more that we see here and learn about what’s going on there is that desire, but these parents don’t necessarily have the tools. And what we’re seeing now is just showing up at school board meetings and trying to talk to those who are supposed to be representative of the curriculum that occurs in the classroom, the dialogue just doesn’t exist.

A lot of times as parents speak up, they’re either shouted down, they’re held to very, very small windows of time to be able to address the school board, or the school board will pull something where they’ll say, “Oh, this next meeting is virtual,” so that they can shut off microphones, etc.

What we’re really seeing is just this increase of lack of representation of dialogue. And the parents are really being pushed out.

So to your point, in addition from just this initial splash of the ad campaign, we hope to be able to equip parents with tools to be able to make those meaningful conversations and impactful conversations with their schools and their representatives.

Del Guidice: You had mentioned a little bit ago, Alleigh, about the three different ad campaigns you’re doing in Virginia, in Arizona, in New York. Is there any story from either one of those three ad campaigns or any, I don’t know, situation you want to tell listeners about, about the ads themselves and why you decided to pick those three different states? Is there anything you’d like to draw out for people that maybe they can identify with?

Marre: Sure. We chose the three that you mentioned for a couple of different reasons, the first of which to show that this is truly something that is “sweeping the nation.” It’s not unique to New York City. It’s not just happening in Oklahoma. I mean, it’s happening across the country. So New York City; Fairfax, Virginia; Peoria, Arizona, and they also are all very different examples.

One that hasn’t gotten much attention on the national scale is Peoria, Arizona, where we chose to focus. This is a district where we’re talking about truly issues of actual public safety for kids.

Over the course of the last 18 months, two years, there have been cases of assault, sexual assault, and a student who actually went missing and was later found in Iowa with a staff member from the school. And all of that is occurring, meanwhile, the school is implementing this activist-style curriculum.

And when parents show up to school board meetings with questions about it, there’s more of a focus on shutting down the dissent and the debate, or even the requests from parents to see the curriculum than there is on any of those public safety and student safety issues that we just talked about.

So again, it shows this really unfortunate example of where priorities and resources are just misaligned with what we should be providing for our kids in order to make them successful. And that in some cases, unfortunately, like Arizona, it’s not just about academics. It’s also broader than that to include safety.

Del Guidice: As we wrap up Alleigh, I wanted to ask you, for those who might not be as familiar with Free to Learn Coalition, what other things would you like to highlight as ways you all are helping parents and students take on this political activism that we’re seeing?

Marre: A big thing I’d like to point people out to is if you visit our website, FreetoLearn.org, we’re collecting stories about this from across the country. And that’s actually going to help to inform places, that we’re able to provide resources as we move forward. So there’s an opportunity there for you to share your story about your school district.

But beyond that, what we hope to do, as evidenced by our name, is to really truly grow this coalition into a nonpartisan big group of parents that really is a force to be reckoned with, where we’re able to elevate some of these stories and show that while some in the media or in the political class want to dismiss this as a conspiracy, it’s not.

Just in the week or so since we’ve launched, we’ve seen an incredible amount of activity on that “share your story” page on our website. And we’re hopeful that in the next couple days, we’ll be able to share and roll out some of those stories just to help show that this is, unfortunately, something that is pervasive across the country. And it really is something that requires some action.

Del Guidice: On that note, I guess bonus question, since you mentioned the stories, is there one that you want to preview or highlight, or even if you can’t do that, maybe just a common theme of something that you’re seeing in those stories?

Marre: I think the biggest thing that we’re seeing, and we’ve touched on this already, is that parents don’t feel like school boards are being responsive to them.

So while the issues may be slightly different from district to district, when parents are calling either their school administrator or the superintendent, the principal, etc., and saying, “Hey, my son or daughter came home talking about this. Can I see the curriculum or can you tell me more about what this is?”, a lot of times they’re dismissed and brushed off.

And that can be as minor—use air quotes there—as “minor” as just being told, “Oh, forget about it. It’s no big deal. It was just this day of kind of unit thing,” to something like, “Oh, that doesn’t exist. We don’t teach critical race theory here. We aren’t talking about sexuality. We aren’t talking about—you name it.” And just a full-blown denial. Meanwhile, the parent is holding a handout that was given to their child in their seventh-grade math class.

So I think the biggest thing is that there is just this total lack of representation and accountability on the part of schools. And just this desire to sweep it under the rug and make it a part of the curriculum that kids are being taught, versus having any sort of meaningful discussion with parents where there may actually be opportunities for buy-in on certain issues or in the way that they’re presented.

But the way that it’s happening right now with no dialogue and parents being told that none of it is in fact happening, it’s really setting up for just an unfortunate dynamic there, where parents are feeling like they have to be against their school instead of working collaboratively to make sure that their kids are getting a quality education.

Del Guidice: Well, Alleigh, thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you with us. And tell folks where they can follow Free to Learn Coalition if they want to get involved, if they want to share their story.

Marre: Yes. FreetoLearn.org is our website, and I would encourage you to join us there, share your story, and sign up for updates.

Del Guidice: Awesome. Thank you, Alleigh, for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Marre: Thanks for having me.

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