America has legislated itself into competing red and blue versions of education

American states passed a blizzard of education laws and policies over the past six years that aim to reshape how K-12 schools and colleges teach and present issues of race, sex and gender to the majority of the nation’s students — with instruction differing sharply by states’ political leanings, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Three-fourths of the nation’s school-aged students are now educated under state-level measures that either require more teaching on issues like race, racism, history, sex and gender, or which sharply limit or fully forbid such lessons, according to a sweeping Post review of thousands of state laws, gubernatorial directives and state school board policies. The restrictive laws alone affect almost half of all Americans aged 5 to 19.

Since 2017, 38 states have adopted 114 such laws, rules or orders, The Post found. The majority of policies are restrictive in nature: 66% circumscribe or ban lessons and discussions on some of society’s most sensitive topics, while 34% require or expand them. In one example, a 2023 Kentucky law forbids lessons on human sexuality before fifth grade and outlaws all instruction “exploring gender identity.” On the other hand, a 2021 Rhode Island law requires that all students learn “African Heritage and History” before high school graduation.

The Post included in its analysis only measures that could directly affect what students learn. Thus, 100 of the laws in The Post’s database apply only to K-12 campuses, where states have much greater power to shape curriculums. At public institutions of higher education — where courts have held that the First Amendment protects professors’ right to teach what they want — the laws instead target programs like student or faculty trainings or welcome sessions.

The divide is sharply partisan. The vast majority of restrictive laws and policies, close to 90%, were enacted in states that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, The Post found. Meanwhile, almost 80% of expansive laws and policies were enacted in states that voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

The explosion of laws regulating school curriculums is unprecedented in U.S. history for its volume and scope, said Jonathan Zimmerman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies education history and policy. Controversy and debate over classroom lessons is nothing new, Zimmerman said, but states have never before stepped in so aggressively to set rules for local schools. School districts have traditionally had wide latitude to shape their lessons.

He said it remains an open question whether all laws will translate to curriculum changes, predicting some schools and teachers may refuse to alter their pedagogy. Still, a nationally representative study from the Rand Corp. released this year found that 65% of K-12 teachers report they are limiting instruction on “political and social issues.”


“What the laws show is that we have extremely significant differences over how we imagine America,” Zimmerman said. “State legislatures have now used the power of law to try to inscribe one view, and to prevent another. And so we’re deeply divided in America.”

In practice, these divisions mean that what a child learns about, say, the role slavery played in the nation’s founding — or the possibility of a person identifying as nonbinary — may come to depend on whether they live in a red or blue state.

Legislators advancing restrictive education laws argue they are offering a corrective to what they call a recent left-wing takeover of education. They contend that, in the past decade or so, teachers and professors alike began forcing students to adopt liberal viewpoints on topics ranging from police brutality to whether gender is a binary or a spectrum.

Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan, a Republican, who sponsored or co-sponsored several laws in his state that limit or ban instruction and trainings dealing with race, bias, sexual orientation and gender identity on both K-12 and college campuses, said the legislation he helped pass does not restrict education.

“It is restricting indoctrination,” Ragan said. Under his state’s laws, he said, “the information presented is factually accurate and is in fact something worth knowing.”

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Those advancing expansive legislation, by contrast, argue they are fostering conditions in which students from all backgrounds will see themselves reflected in lessons. This will make it easier for every student to learn and be successful, while teaching peers to be tolerant of one another’s differences, said Washington state Sen. Marko Liias, a Democrat.

Liias was the architect of a law his state passed last month that requires schools to adopt “inclusive curricula” featuring the histories, contributions and perspectives of the “historically marginalized,” including “people from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, people with differing learning needs, people with disabilities (and) LGBTQ people.” He was inspired to propose the bill after hearing from educators who wanted to create more welcoming classrooms and by memories of his own experiences as a queer student in the 1980s and 1990s, when, he said, there were no LGBTQ role models taught or accepted in schools.

“When schools are inclusive broadly of all the identities brought to the classroom, then everybody thrives and does better,” Liias said.

To construct its database of education laws, The Post analyzed more than 2,200 bills, policies, gubernatorial directives and state school board rules introduced since 2017. The Post identified regulations for review by examining state legislative databases, education law trackers maintained by national bipartisan nonprofits and the websites of various advocacy groups that monitor curriculum legislation.

Some blue states began enacting expansive education laws in the late 2010s. From 2017 to 2020, 10 states passed legislation or rules that required schools to start teaching about the history of underrepresented groups such as Black Americans, Pacific Islanders or LGBTQ Americans, The Post found.

State and school leaders were drawing on more than a dozen studies published from the 1990s to 2017 that found student performance, attendance and graduate rates rise when children see people like them included in curriculum, said Jennifer Berkshire, a Yale lecturer on education studies.

“They were thinking, ‘You know, our curriculums aren’t representative enough,’” Berkshire said. “The argument was, if we’re going to realize the goal of full rights and civil participation for kids, we need to do things differently.”

Fourteen of these laws, or 36%, came in a rush in 2021, the year after the police killing of George Floyd sparked massive demonstrations and a national reckoning over racism. At the time, activists, teachers, parents and high school students across America were urging schools teach more Black history and feature more Black authors.

Of the expansive laws and policies The Post analyzed, the majority — 69% — require or expand education on race or racial issues, especially on Black history and ethnic studies. About a quarter add or enhance education on both LGBTQ and racial issues. Just 8% focus solely on LGBTQ lives and topics.

But the onslaught of restrictive legislation in red states began in 2021, too, also inspired in many cases by parent concerns over curriculums.

Anxiety first stirred due to coronavirus pandemic-era school shutdowns as some mothers and fathers — granted an unprecedented glimpse into lessons during the era of school-by-laptop — found they did not like or trust what their children were learning.


Soon, some parents were complaining that lessons were biased toward left-leaning views and too focused on what they saw as irrelevant discussions of race, gender and sexuality — laments taken up by conservative pundits and politicians. National groups like Moms for Liberty formed to call out and combat left-leaning teaching in public schools.

Their fears became legislation with speed: Mostly red states passed 26 restrictive education laws and policies in 2021; 19 such laws or policies the next year and 25 more the year after that.

“If you’ve got parents upset at what they’re seeing, they’re going to go to school board meetings and take it up with their legislators,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow studying education at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And legislators will do what they do: pass laws.”

The plurality of restrictive laws, 47%, target both education on race and sex. About a third solely affect education on gender identity and sexuality, while 21% solely affect education on race.

Almost 40% of these laws work by granting parents greater control of the curriculum — stipulating that they must be able to review, object to or remove lesson material, as well as opt out of instruction. Schools have long permitted parents to weigh in on education, often informally; but under many of the new laws, parental input has more weight and is mandatory.

Another almost 40% of the laws forbid schools from teaching a long list of often-vague concepts related to race, sex or gender.

These outlawed concepts usually include the notion that certain merits, values, beliefs, status or privileges are tied to race or sex; or the theory that students should feel ashamed or guilty due to their race, sex or racial past. One such law, passed in Georgia in 2022, forbids teaching that “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race, bears individual responsibility for actions committed in the past by other individuals of the same race.”

At the college level, among the measures passed in recent years is a 2021 Oklahoma law that prohibits institutions of higher education from holding “mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling,” as well as any “orientation or requirement that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping.”


By contrast, a 2023 California measure says state community college faculty must employ “teaching, learning and professional practices” that reflect “anti-racist principles.”

Some experts predicted the politically divergent instruction will lead to a more divided society.

“When children are being taught very different stories of what America is, that will lead to adults who have a harder time talking to each other,” said Rachel Rosenberg, a Hartwick College assistant professor of education.

But Pondiscio said there is always tension in American society between the public interest in education and parents’ interest in determining the values transmitted to their children. The conflict veers from acute to chronic, he said, and currently it’s in an acute phase. “But I don’t find it inappropriate. I think it is a natural part of democratic governance and oversight,” Pondiscio said.

He added, “One man’s ‘chilling effect’ is another man’s appropriate circumspections.”