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In this episode of Speaking Of Kids, co-host Bruce Lesley chats with Mike Hixenbaugh, a senior investigative reporter for NBC News about the ongoing attacks on public schools across the country. They discuss Hixenbaugh’s new book, “They Came for the Schools: One Town’s Fight Over Race and Identity, and the New War for America’s Classrooms,” which documents the culture wars in Southlake and Grapevine, Texas. Hixenbaugh argues that challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory (CRT) stem from resistance to  dealing with racism and repeat previous patterns in our society. Hixenbaugh compares the current attacks on public education by groups such as Moms for Liberty with prior movements, such as efforts to stop the teaching of evolution, opposition to desegregation of public schools, and groups like Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, which waged a campaign to purge classrooms of books and curriculums that they deemed anti-God, anti-American, and anti-family. In the podcast, Hixenbaugh also discusses why he centered the students as the protagonists in his book.

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Selley Looby 0:04
All right, Bruce. So this story begins in South Lake Texas does,

Bruce Lesley 0:08
but it’s really not about South Lake, it’s about something so much bigger. It

Selley Looby 0:13
is, you know, my take is that this issue really centers around control and having control of a narrative. And, you know, really a perception of how that narrative is told.

Bruce Lesley 0:27
Yeah, we talk a lot about how on kids issues so often the adults can help themselves, but they make it all about them. And this, this is what we’re going to be talking about today.

First focus on children. This is speaking of kids, I’m Bruce Lesley.

Selley Looby 0:46
And I’m Messellech Looby speaking of kids is a podcast that puts kids at the center of public policy.

Bruce Lesley 0:58
So today, we’re really happy to have our guest, Mike Hixenbaugh, and he’s got the number one selling book right now on Amazon called, they came for the schools. And he does start this whole conversation about what’s going on in the schools in Texas. But he does take it back much further.

Selley Looby 1:16
I’m very excited for our guest today. And the range of topics that he really brings up throughout the book. And the themes are really evergreen, these are things that we’ve talked about and have been issues in our society for centuries. And what I find fascinating about this topic is just the level of parental engagement and parental activism, as it relates to how some of these societal qualms get played out. And the battles get played out. In public schools. We’ve had

Bruce Lesley 1:51
the school or fights again, and again, and again, and they come in waves. Yeah, and

Selley Looby 1:56
it’s fascinating how these hot button issues and these important issues come up time and time again. And they trigger something right, this is the next generation of children that are growing up with a perception with a narrative of an understanding of what their reality is, of what history is. I mean, that’s a big marker of just public education period is to get a sense of key moments and critical moments over time. And how those critical moments and the reality around them are shaped and portrayed to children is important. And I think for parents, for adults, we take on, in some cases, an overwhelming amount of the need to control this narrative. And I think what happened in Southlake has become a blueprint for people that have woken up and said, hey, you know, we don’t like this narrative that’s being told. And then the power and the ability to try to shift that through book bands, and through, you know, really lathering on personal feelings of something that really should just be factual, right? Yeah,

Bruce Lesley 3:06
absolutely. Well, you know, tell you about going full circle is in our very first episode with our guests, Arnie Fay, he talks a lot about sort of one of the other waves where we had this whole fight, which was after Brown versus Board of Education, and we had the fights over segregation. And so this continues to happen. And then in the 70s 80s, the fights over things like secular humanism. And in all of these waves, it is exactly as you said, a fight over among adults over things having to do with politics, culture, religion. And I think our frustration is is often the kids are sort of Yeah,

Selley Looby 3:44
exactly, exactly. It’s so easy to center these issues and personalize them and get so wrapped up in emotion about them, that it’s hard as an adult sometimes to take a step back and say, Well, what’s just factual? What’s out there? And instead, what you see is this wave. And the interesting factor that played out in this scenario is it became a blueprint. And now we’re seeing this wave across communities across the country. And that’s scary.

Bruce Lesley 4:13
No, I think that’s right. And I think we should just get into it with Mike because I think he does really great job of walking us through how South Lake and also grapevine and for our listeners, he’s got to we’re really fantastic podcast called South Lake in Grapevine on this topic as well. If you’ve listened to our podcasts, you should consider listening to those podcasts because this fight is not just a fight over the schools in North Texas. This is a nationwide conversation that we need to have. And then at some point, I really would hope that we really send our kids in it and we embrace all of their needs. That’s

Selley Looby 4:51
right, Bruce. So for our audience stick around Peabody award winning journalist Mike Hixenbaugh is up in just a second. Mike is a senior investor As a reporter for NBC News, and author of they came for the schools, one town’s fight over race and identity and the new war for America’s classrooms.

Bruce Lesley 6:08
Mike’s coming up right after the break,

Selley Looby 6:10
I cannot wait to hear what you guys talked about.

Leila Nimatallah 6:16
Making the world a better place for all children can seem like an impossibly huge task. Some of you may be thinking, I’m just one person, what could I possibly do to make a difference? I’m Leila Nimatallah, Vice President of advocacy and mobilization at first focus on children. And I’m inviting you to join us and become one of our volunteer advocates, whom we call our ambassadors for children. Ambassadors are our most active child advocates, who raised critical issues with the US Congress, and with the administration related to child policy and funding decisions, both for kids in the US and worldwide. But don’t take my word for it. We asked one of our ambassadors to share her experience.

Speaker 1 7:06
My name is Amy Jo Hutchison. I’m a born and raised West Virginia and who also happens to be an economic justice organizer. And I’m the founder of a grassroots movement here, rattle the windows. What drew me to the ambassador program at first focus on children was my lived experience of poverty as a mother to living in one of the poorest states in the nation, advocating for children in poverty is very personal to me. A lot of people see numbers when they look at data and reports. But when I see new findings and reports on child poverty, I see my kids and I see their friends, our neighbors, and the people who I interact with every day. And I trust first focus on children. I’ve personally stepped into spaces that they’ve created for parents like me to be heard. What would I tell someone thinking about becoming an ambassador with first focus on children? Well, first of all, very few with any huge shifts in the way our country addresses economic justice issues have taken place without grassroot involvement. first focus on children has created an entry point for people like me to get involved with this ambassador program. It’s an easily accessible way for us to become engaged and formed and to turn our pain into power. I really hope you’ll join them.

Leila Nimatallah 8:18
So please join us won’t you? Check out campaign for backslash ambassadors, on how to become a first focus on children ambassador and to link up with our fabulous community.

Bruce Lesley 8:39
First, focus on children is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions.

Selley Looby 8:48
First focus moves beyond individual issues to serve a more important role child advocacy, we educate lawmakers and the American public about the issues facing children.

Bruce Lesley 8:58
To learn more about our work and ways you can become an ambassador. Go to first Coming

Selley Looby 9:04
up on State of Play we have first focuses on Lily Klam, Director of Education Policy and all around gogetter.

Bruce Lesley 9:23
Mike Hixenbaugh is a senior investigative reporter for NBC News and co host of the podcast Southlake in Grapevine he’s the author of a book that is really making waves and exposing the tactics of the far right in the never ending battle for control over what our kids are allowed to learn. His book is they came for the school’s one town’s fight over race and identity and the new war for America’s classrooms. We are so excited to have Mike here today. Hi, Mike.

Unknown Speaker 9:51
Bruce, thank you so much for having me on.

Bruce Lesley 9:53
Yeah, absolutely. Well, we are really excited to have you join us today to talk about your just releasable. Have they came for the schools, one towns fight for over race and identity, the new war for America’s classrooms? I have. And I think some of our listeners have probably followed you very closely in your reporting on the issues going on in Texas public schools, and actually nationwide, but also your outstanding previous podcast called South Lake and grapevine, which I would urge our listeners to check out if they haven’t already done. So. Before we get into all that, I just wanted to ask you, like what even brought you to these issues? Why of focus on kids in the public schools?

Mike Hixenbaugh 10:36
Well, so first of all, I’m a dad, I have four kids. And back in 2020, I was living and raising those kids with my wife in a suburb outside of Houston. You might remember 2020 was kind of a crazy year. So in the midst of the pandemic, and the kind of growing backlash against racial justice protests that summer, I was seeing just intense acrimony, and kind of the ugliness of national politics filtering down into my local suburb, my little subdivision in Cypress, Texas outside of Houston. And when I was coming in, like on the neighborhood Facebook page with, you know, arguments over Black Lives Matter and people talking about gearing up to prepare for the attack by an Tifa, on Timberlake estates. And so I got I started reporting from that vantage point of well with the suburbs have become this and have always been, but really, in 2020 had really become a political battleground, in part because these are diversifying spaces that used to be primarily white, in some ways had been created to wall off suburban communities away from diversity and, you know, urban problems such as crime and poor schools. And in the midst of reporting on on that, I realized those issues were moving beyond neighborhood Facebook pages, and into school board meetings. And so I happen to just at the very beginning wave of what became known as you know, the critical race theory backlash and public schools, I started documenting one of those fights on the kind of the leading edge of that movement in South Lake Texas. And so that, that became the reporting that was the basis for our podcast, South Lake, which is a central thread throughout the book as well, the story of this town, there’s a fluent majority white, but very much more diverse than it used to be community that during the Trump years, had tried to grapple with racism in the classroom, in the hallways, and to deal with something that had been just kind of bubbling under the surface for decades, really. And they came up with a diversity plan. And the backlash to that diversity plan in 2020 became like a model or a cautionary tale for communities all over the country as these really vitriolic campaigns against diversity, equity inclusion swept through school boards all over the country.

Bruce Lesley 13:03
Yeah, I really also love that in the book, you highlighted how these school wars that have been happening now are not anything new. We see this time and time again, throughout history. And just as an aside, when I was editor of our high school newspaper, and we had an incident at the time in Texas, where the gamblers were a East Texas couple who are going around the state trying to push book bands. And actually, we had a situation in our high school where there was a push to ban the Canterbury Tales, and we published in our high school newspaper, and it blew up and but not in this way, obviously. But you know, I would love for you to kind of talk a little bit about these cycles and how they have had very different impetus for starting up a school war, but it has happened and it seems to be periodic. So I

Mike Hixenbaugh 13:54
think this happens frequently, where the moment that you’re living in feels unprecedented, in part because I’m 39 years old. I didn’t really live through the last big wave of this. And so for people my age who weren’t writing a, you know, high school news articles about the gamblers trying to ban the Canterbury Tales, this felt really new. But while researching, yeah, of course, schools are the place where our society grapples with what to teach a new generation, about what’s right and what’s wrong about our history. How do we frame our history? And so yeah, there’s been repeated cycles, whether it’s, you know, the fight over how evolution was taught in the 1920s and 30s, or whether it was school integration, whether it was the fights over forced busing, the backlash wave moment that I kind of zone in on in the book is one that kind of was under the radar to me in the 1970s and 80s. In the aftermath of you know, the civil rights movement, there was this huge campaign against What the conservative Christian Whitehead called secular humanism. And the parallels to today are just so striking secular humanism. If you look back at the article in news reports published back in the 1970s and 80s, about the danger that secular humanism posed to children, and just swapped in the phrase critical race theory for secular humanism, you would not know that these are from the archives, and so largely suburban white Christian parents, with the backing of a huge national network of activist groups like Jerry Falwell is moral majority, and Phyllis Schlafly Eagle Forum, kind of the precursors to moms for liberty of today, they waged an all out campaign to get books and curriculum out of classrooms that they deemed anti American, anti God, anti family, they push hard for a focus on traditional gender roles in classroom lessons. And they were really opposed to lessons that depicted America as having any type of racism in its past, even its recent past, less than 10 years after MLK was assassinated. And yeah, you can see a lot of echoes. And in that case, much like today, a lot of these requests and demands were beat back and defeated at school boards and in state legislatures and state boards of education. But it had incredible impact in leading to self censorship, and creating a culture of fear in classrooms where teachers reported that, you know, I don’t know what secular humanism is, at some point, there was a federal ban even on secular humanism for a brief window, poorly defined, not defined at all, really. And so teachers were just skipping over sections of history that they thought might get them in trouble or leaving books off their shelves that they thought might anger somebody, and it’s the exact same thing we’re seeing today, except the difference today is, there’s been much more success in terms of codifying this, there’s just been a wave of state laws in red states to ban certain perspectives and privilege, a more, you know, patriotic, Christian perspective favored by folks like Ron DeSantis. And those policies have also been replicated at many school boards locally. And so, you know, this, this modern iteration of this has been, I think, probably more effective than what we saw a generation ago,

Bruce Lesley 17:25
I would agree with that I, you know, having gone to school during that previous period, and now, I’m revealing my age, but it was definitely just concerning, and I recall going to college appoints because it was somewhat effective, because I remember, in college, you know, learning about things like Tulsa and things like that, that were big, you know, historical things that were never taught to us. And in Texas, you know, publications, and you talked about that in the book. That

Mike Hixenbaugh 17:54
was my experience growing up in a mostly rural, rural, mostly white town in northeast Ohio. I never heard of Tulsa. I actually hadn’t heard of Tulsa till just a couple of years ago. Honestly, I didn’t even but I didn’t learn much at all about the racism embedded in America’s past, or more even probably even more crucially, how to interact with people of different races and backgrounds and cultures. And it was same deal going off to college, I was unprepared and made a fool of myself at times. But you know, I took some classes, I made some friends who didn’t look like me, including my wife. And I look back on that time, and I was kind of some regret or embarrassment of some of the things that I would say out of ignorance. And so that became a central thing I kept thinking about throughout reporting the book, in communities like South like it was framed as like, you know, they’re trying to force these work ideas, these anti white ideas on our kids and teach white kids to hate themselves. And, you know, I didn’t really see that in what was being proposed. It was, from my perspective, it looked like a diverse group of community members who were saying, it benefits all of our kids who are going to leave this town, the south like bubble, and go out into the world, to reckon now as teenagers with the truth about America’s history, and to have some conversations about how different people experience the world based on their race or appearance or ethnicity or religious background. And then include for white kids, I heard from a white student, south lake or a graduate who same experience I had went off to college and look back and how she treated her black classmates, especially a black friend at South Lake with just utter shame, because, you know, to make jokes to her, like, you’re the smartest black girl I know, which means like, most black people are stupid, but you’re smart. And it took her again going off somewhere else to learn those lessons. And that’s kind of I think what maybe is that at stake here in some of these fights is taking away the opportunity for kids like me to I learned a lesson earlier about how to just interact with kindness in the world.

Bruce Lesley 20:05
They came so close to actually, you know, taking steps to doing this and having a conversation about addressing problems that were inherent in in the school with respect to race and identity. And we’re on the precipice and then pulled away. So can you tell people a little bit about that? Yeah, so

Mike Hixenbaugh 20:26
what I call South Lakes near racial reckoning, started in 2018. Really, when a video of a group of white high school students sophomores at homecoming after party recorded themselves chanting the N word and kind of a call response way, hey, we get to say the N word and laughing. That thing got posted on like, maybe Snapchat, and another classmate sent it to, you know, posted it on Twitter. And so the thing went viral. And it was really embarrassing. But it wasn’t the video, I always like to point this out. It wasn’t a video that sparked the whole process of trying to address racism. The video sparked a lot of black parents and parents of black children to come forward at this kind of, you know, emotional school board meeting in 2018, where they were coming forward and telling stories of just the racist things their kids heard and experienced on kind of a daily or weekly basis as minorities in a mostly white town like South Lake. And it was those stories, and not just black parents, but also parents with LGBTQ kids, they were sharing these experiences. And that’s what triggered the school board to kind of put together a committee to study the climate at the school and to make recommendations. And one things I note in the book is that same kind of pattern was playing out in suburban school districts all over the country. And, you know, we can think, probably, to a large part Donald Trump and his rise to power in his election in 2016, for triggering that, because it became forefront in the national conversation, discussions about this kind of rise of white nationalism, the anti immigrant rhetoric that was part of his campaign, those things were leading to incident more incidents in schools kind of like the south like Edward video where kids were, you know, graffitiing stalls with, you know, make America great again, go back to Africa, keh, keh, keh, Jews will burn kind of language. In a document in the book, there was an increase in these kinds of incidents and an increase in media reports about them. And so you’re seeing the same kind of pattern across the country, schools that grow more diverse in the last 10 or 20 years. They have a triggering incident, like the N word video, an outpouring of comments from parents, and then in the 2018, to 2020 timeframe, an effort to try to address those things. It just so happens in South Lakes case, the pandemic hit, George Floyd happened, Americans were sitting at home watching cable news programs that either framed nationwide protests is kind of like this once in a generation attempt to reckon with America’s past or like, a lawless assault on cities by people who want to destroy America. And so when the south like the Carroll Independent School District in South Lake, the school board released its plan to address racism. Everyone who wasn’t really clued into the plan, saw it through that lens. And the people who believed that these attempts to address racism or anti police was an attempt to destroy institutions and attack White people, man attack America, they got mobilized in a way that made the initial backlash to the racist video look tiny, we start to see that same pattern also across the country.

Bruce Lesley 23:38
You know, we know that children are listening and watching what we do. And I think that your characterization of what happened after the 2016 election and some of the rhetoric and sort of the attacks on certain countries and immigrants from certain countries, and you saw it and you documented in the book, I found some of the stories shilling you know, kids at a school in Illinois who were chanting build the wall, build the wall and leaving the Hispanic kids, you know, crying during lunch hour and stuff like that. Just just really disturbing. And it really does go to show that kids watch, listen, and mimic is a child advocate. One of the things I would say all the time is people will say things like stop acting childish or whatever. When it’s really in this case, it’s been the adults who’ve been acting so poorly. And you saw it and you really highlight a lot of it. Sort of the vitriolic, you know, fights going on to school board meetings and in the community. And some of the really the attacks that people who spoke out were really experiencing let me just read for our listeners one quote came from a student who make sure I pronounce her name right, because it’s a Netta isn’t that an organ Mola? That’s right. Yeah. So after the video came out where the kids were chanting the N word, and you quoted her saying I never knew a single word could reduce me to feeling like gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe like nothing. And I just read that I had to read that like three times and get up and walk away for a period. And I just felt found like that was so powerful to me. And, you know, words hurt.

Mike Hixenbaugh 25:16
That’s one of the things I hope to convey. One thing that my colleague Antonia Hilton and I talked about all the time while recording the podcast, and that I’ve thought about a lot while working on the book is, so much of the coverage of this stuff doesn’t center the voices of kids, and especially black students and LGBTQ students. And I hoped that through the podcast into the book, by sharing those perspectives, letting you hear directly from a teenager or, you know, recent graduate, about what it feels like to move in those spaces. That might be eye opening for some parents who might be, you know, upset by the caricature of what’s being described as critical race theory, this idea that, no, I don’t want the schools to teach my kids that all white people are evil, and that all black people are victims, that if we could show what the actual plan was about what these lessons are about, and then give them the perspective of a student like Anita, or Raven roll, or Nicky ole who’s or a quote in the book and talk about what it feels like when you hear these comments when someone pokes your skin with a pencil, and then jokes about how you can’t feel that because you’re black, because you had a thick black skin, or making jokes about lynchings. And I’ve heard people do this. It’s just words. It’s just a dumb joke. It’s just dumb kids making a video at a party. Yeah, it’s stupid. But it’s not that big of a deal. It’s hard to listen to some of these students and hear their experiences and reach that conclusion that it doesn’t matter. And in fact, there’s studies that show increasing evidence that this idea of of weathering that minority students or just black people in society experience from this kind of constant stream of incidents that some people may say, oh, that’s no big deal with that make a big deal about it, that those incidents add up and actually lead to like physical and mental health struggles. And there’s correlation studies that show the more kids endure those things, the more struggles they’ll have. And so it does matter. And so setting the heated political rhetoric aside, is there a space where there’s a conversation to at least get on the same page that we don’t think kids should experience that, you know, you can debate the policy, and I don’t actually weigh in on like, Oh, this is the they need to have this kind of training, or they need to redeem from x candy or whatever. I don’t know what the solution is. But I know that there’s a lot of people who are trying to dress real issues in good faith, who’ve been painted as radical leftists who want to hurt kids, and it’s just upside down.

Bruce Lesley 27:58
I will say, there’s about 100 reasons why I loved your book. But then also the work you and Antonia Hilton did in the podcast, about really lifting up kids and the voices of kids. I mean, at the end of the day, education is about kids. It’s not about all the adults and so much of what politicians talk about, and what even other media folks do is really focused on the adults. And I think you really captured in a very important way that there’s really sort of different camps. And so there’s teachers and parents who you highlight in the book, who are really focused on the purpose of education is for all the kids, then there’s sort of another set of people that kind of came on the precipice of doing that, and then pulled away and they decided, in some ways that really what’s important is to maintain status quo, maintaining sort of, you know, a position for their children, you know, their white children and wealthy children have their position and status in the schools. And then this sort of this third set of people that you also talked about sort of later in the book, which are really politicizing schools for political purposes and religious purposes and ideological purposes. So the kids whose voices you lift up are really be hit by three different viewpoints. Yeah. How did you sort of pull all those pieces together? I thought you did a remarkable job of it.

Mike Hixenbaugh 29:22
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a great observation, because especially the parents, there are people who have genuine, good faith, concerns that they’re bringing to their school boards. I say good faith. I mean, they believe what they’re saying they’re worried about this emphasis on on race. They come from this idea of like, we should be colorblind, and not acknowledge or think about race, in a practical way. And you can debate with that, but I don’t think most of those folks who I tried to talk to you, who I quote, throughout the book, are doing this as some sort of big like, political maneuver, but there are groups, some of the same folks who were trying to wage this fight in the 80s. These national political organizations and even local and regional political groups that are doing something different. And they saw kind of the outrage building this feedback cycle between parents or at school boards, and FoxNews is amplifying that. And it’s leading to more and more of these conflicts across the country. There are groups that saw that groups that have, for example, spent decades pushing for school privatization, school vouchers, which give school choice. There are groups who openly talked about, there’s a lot of people really mad about pandemic safety measures in schools, school closures, and critical race theory. This is a once in a generation opportunity to finally push through this thing. Like parents are mad at schools, they don’t trust public schools. And it became, you know, as Chris Ruffo said, at one point, you know, to reach a point of universal school choice, you have to operate from a perspective of universal public school distrust. I think he later tried to back away from that exact framing, more denied. That’s what he meant. But that’s what you can see happening. You can also see some some groups on the Christian right who’ve pushed this idea of America was founded as a Christian nation, explicitly Christian nation with laws based on the Bible and schools, and the government are meant to reflect that this is why we got to bring back daily school prayer and get the Bible back in schools, get pastors, chaplains into public schools put the 10 commandments up in every classroom. Because if we don’t, you’re gonna see more transgender kids is really the kind of the message that you heard that movement predates all of this. And maybe it was bubbling at the fringes or out of sight. But what they really did is they saw the wave of attention, and genuine parental anger in some places and kind of hitched their wagon to it. And that’s the third group that you’re talking about is kind of like this political organizing, that is trying to both stir this anger at the grassroots and then capitalize on it for their kind of separate political objectives, pre existing goals.

Bruce Lesley 32:07
Yeah, I think what was also interesting about what you captured in the book is sort of the backlash to the backlash in South Lake, they certainly have had their way in large part with, you know, the assistance of some of these political opportunists and to really pass some of these policies. But you’re seeing, you know, in Grapevine, they’ve definitely done some of that, but there’s forces that are, you know, have organized to protect public schools. And then you also highlighted, for example, in Round Rock, there was actually a pushback, and, you know, a defeat of efforts to impose, you know, book bans and curriculum changes the whitewashing of curriculum and speech codes and things like that, and to really protect the public schools in a different way.

Mike Hixenbaugh 32:54
One of the things that kind of bubbled up from the right after South Lake made national news for kind of beating back against the critical race theory and taking control of their school board. It kind of became this conventional wisdom, you heard it from people like Steve Mann, and again, Chris Ruffo. That, here’s the key to winning back the suburbs for Republicans, this fight this critical race theory fight, and it’s going to bring back all of these, you know, white suburban moms who were uncomfortable with Trump’s whatever, everything that deal with it. And so I don’t think we have strong evidence that that has panned out. And instead, what’s really happened is now that we’ve gone through a couple of cycles of the school board elections and state relay races tied to these fights. And the other side has kind of started to get organized and people understand what’s happening. And what’s really happened is, it’s not that there’s been this huge swing to the right in the suburban school districts. It’s previously nonpartisan local politics, are now completely reflective of the national political divides. And so if you live in a town like South Lake, that was Trump plus 30. In 2020, well, your school board is going to go to these folks by a similar measure. We’ve seen that repeatedly. And but if you live in a suburban school district, like grapevine that was more evenly divided, your town is going to be more evenly divided as these groups pair off and campaign on national political issues at the local level. I think there’s been a lot of reporting lately, like moms for liberties losing their striking out all over the place, and it’s kind of like the line is drawn at the Maga Republican Trump base. And then everybody to the left of that.

Bruce Lesley 34:32
Yeah, couldn’t a like a lot of moderate republican moms. Yeah, exactly. Right.

Mike Hixenbaugh 34:36
They’re definitely having impact and they’re moving the needle in state legislatures that are fully captured by Trump’s megabase. You know, and in towns where Trump is, you know, still the favorite presidential candidate but elsewhere, it’s not the case and it’s really mobilized in places like Round Rock and now grapevine in many other places. These kinds of progressive parents groups We’re playing catch up and to some degree and trying to model the political strategy that conservative groups like South like families PAC pioneered. And they’re finding success in places even with less money, they round rock, you know that the progressive slash moderate Republican group without funded maybe three or four to one but they still won by 10 points. It’s a proxy for the national political scene perspective in that town. And that’s been repeated all over your

Bruce Lesley 35:27
right, I think you’re starting to see like, for example, the moms for Liberty endorsed candidates a lot more lost this last round. And, and I’m wondering what you think about these things happen in cycles? Are we sort of on the the down curve of this cycle? Or do you think it’s going to continue for a while?

Mike Hixenbaugh 35:46
I think it’s worth watching the school board of elections and then the November election? Because they’re certainly people who have kind of built an identity around this, at least for the last couple of years. Yeah, the framing of we’re fighting forces of evil, some people have adopted that perspective, I don’t think that they’re going to those folks are going to suddenly drop it. But whether or not big political money is going to keep flowing into this cause if it’s not generating the results people want? You know, I think that’s a good question. And I do think it’s possible that we’re at a moment where this maybe will plateau and start to die off. But I, you know, I, I don’t know, I’m not going to try to predict the future. You’re asking me this question. As I’m launching a book out into the world about whether or not people still care about this subject. I do think that, you know, from what I’m hearing, there’s still a ton of energy and activism around this in their communities where somehow they’ve avoided having these fights. And now it’s kind of sparking now. Yeah. And so it’s, it’s still, it’s still unfolding still

Bruce Lesley 36:46
happening. Yeah, well, actually, then, you know, in Texas, there’s still the, the fights over school privatization, and the primary fights that happened, and some Republican members who decided to protect the public schools may have lost because or did lose their races for various reasons, and with the governor coming out against them. But on the other hand, in the fall elections, there may be some different election outcomes where some of those people then are defeated in the final race. So it is I agree with you, I think that this is going to continue to play out. And, look, I think it was very apparent that that’s a difficult job to do. And then it actually came at a cost in some respects for you personally, and that, as you were interviewing some of the kids who were, you know, LGBTQ. You know, people attacked you personally, for that, and so, can you talk a little bit about that, and how you, you Antonio, you know, overcame those kinds of attacks, and kept kept up, you know, your your, your goal of centering kids. As a reporter, I’ve

Mike Hixenbaugh 38:00
been doing this for, you know, a decade and a half on going on two decades. And so I’m used to getting nasty emails, and that’s from the very beginning of my reporting career. But some of the backlash we got for this was a little more intense, especially out of South Lake where, you know, kind of right wing agitator made a whole podcast episode about me and Antonia and like, where our families live, and just kind of bizarre, someone made a t shirt. In South Lake with my high school, the tiny town where I grew up in Ohio said go G men go big or go home like that. And his speech that night was about how the town where I grew up was way more racist than South Lake. And I was like, well, probably didn’t know what the point was. But the moment that where I felt like, we’re actually hit and hurt. I had interviewed a 17 year old, Queer Student in Katy, Texas, for a story about how you know, the pivot had started where they were going after books on LGBTQ themes in books that feature descriptions of sex, and the kind of this massive wave of library book challenges. And I interviewed a 17 year old who talked about how her parents were not accepting or opposed LGBTQ identities. And so she’s not out to them. But she wanted me to know that the library because of that was the one place where she felt like she could read books where she saw herself reflected or find answers to questions that she didn’t feel safe, you know, searching on the home Wi Fi. And so I quoted her without naming her in the article. And the next day, I got a wave of messages and phone calls from this group of moms unconnected to this kid but this group of moms and Katie, who told me that me talking to that student in any way about her sexuality, or sexual orientation, was the first step toward sexually grooming a child and they felt like this was grounds to file a police report for soliciting a minor and they were preparing a report for dissenter Katie police. I know that It was nonsense. And that is bogus. And it wouldn’t lead to anything but this whole like, okay, groomer, your child

Bruce Lesley 40:05
predator attack. Right? Right. As a as a father of four, it’s devastating

Mike Hixenbaugh 40:09
now, and I understood maybe understand what teachers and librarians are just a little taste of what they’re experiencing? Absolutely. I feel like I’ve got thick skin, I’m hard against this stuff. But that one hit me I had to sit down, I went and talked to my wife. And I thought about like, how, why do I want to do this? And if that hit me, you know, I can just imagine, I’m a kind of a public figure being in journalism. So I kind of expect some of this. But a librarian, a school librarian, how do you keep going after someone says that you’re trying to sexually groom kids with books that really made all of this hit home? For me,

Bruce Lesley 40:44
I really have found that very disturbing. And it’s sort of like no good deed goes unpunished. Because what you’re doing is really lifting up the voices of people who have been invisible eyes in our country and hits in those schools. They’re the ones you know, like, if we really do care in this country, about educating all of our children, we do need to embrace them and understand their thoughts, feelings, concerns. And I really do I really just want to say again, I really appreciate the work you and Antonia have done about really lifting up those voices so often, they’re just not sadly So my last question for you, which is, this work is hard. And we’ve asked all our podcast guests, is there a song or songs that really inspire you and keep you motivated. And in doing this work on

Mike Hixenbaugh 41:36
the spot, I’m always gonna just go to Jason is bull. My Jason is both fandom is a core part of my identity, my wife will probably tell you, and I don’t if I can point to a specific song. What I love about his music is the way that he makes you feel something, he tells you a story, a character driven story, he does so precisely with so few words, and you’re just kind of knocked off your feet with how he makes you like, immersed in a story. His new album came out in the midst of this and there’s one song on there particular that’s focused on his reaction to the shooting, and you’ve all day that songs really resonated with me, it focused on the kind of shared trauma that we all have picked up based on the constant coverage of incidents of school shootings. I had been down at you all day during the course of reporting on this. And at one point, you know, I remember knocking on the door of a teacher who’d been in the classroom next door to the shooting. And she just talked about how she had had her kids, got them like on the floor and quiet and was like kind of praying over them like that they’d be safe. This was in 2022, right? In a year when teachers were being accused of wanting to hurt kids and indoctrinate them. She was like, No, I just, I love your kids like they’re mine. And I just wanted to keep them safe. And so yeah, that sounds that is in my head. If you haven’t heard it, it’ll, it’ll get you crying as a dad. Yeah,

Bruce Lesley 43:05
that’s awesome. And I love that as a storyteller, you picked a storyteller for your song. So I really I love that. Well, thanks so much again for joining us today, Mike. And, and again, for our listeners, I just I really encourage you all to pick up a copy of his book that came from the school’s one town’s fight over race and identity and the new war for America’s classrooms. And also, if you liked listening to him today, you should go back and listen to the outstanding podcasts that he and his co host. And Tony Hilton did entitled Southlake and grapevine outstanding podcast series. And so again, thanks so much, Mike, for all you do. And for joining us today. I think our listeners will really enjoy it.

Unknown Speaker 43:53
Thank you, Bruce, I really enjoy this.

Bruce Lesley 43:59
On today’s state of play, we welcome Lily clam, who’s our education Guru here at first focus on children. Welcome, Lily,

Lily Klam 44:06
thanks so much for having me to talk about this. Absolutely. So

Bruce Lesley 44:09
just wanted to start off by saying, you know, we talked to Mike Hixenbaugh about his new book, and all that’s going on in Texas, but I wanted to ask you a little bit about the work you’ve been doing. At first focus on children as part of the Alliance for student liberties. Yeah.

Lily Klam 44:25
So as you know, we launched the Alliance for student Liberty last year, which really tries to fight back against the attacks we’re seeing all across the country on public education, the voucher movement, which was hugely successful last year at stripping money from public schools to private schools. The book banning the censorship whitewashing of curriculum across schools have all been really apparent, you know, and while we’ve been seeing some serious indication that voters are not a Bring with this, you know, moms for Liberty was a group that one of the reasons we started the Alliance to read some opposition against some of their policies. And, you know, groups like that we saw some major losses. But what we’re also seeing, unfortunately, is that some of the policies they’re supporting haven’t backed down. While both voters strongly oppose book bans, there were actually more books banned during the first half of the school year than the entire last school year. So you know, we’re just really trying to connect the dots and some of these attacks on public education and let people know that these are connected. One

Bruce Lesley 45:38
of the things Mike talked a lot about in the podcast is that a lot of the efforts have been driven by billionaires in Texas, and in some of the groups affiliated with Betsy DeVos, who is President Trump’s Secretary of Education, who are really fueling a lot of the astroturf groups, by moms for liberty to push on these things. And as you’ve noticed, there has been some wins on their side to impose vouchers. And so tell us a little bit about, for example, what that’s meant in Arizona? Yeah,

Lily Klam 46:11
definitely. A strategy that these billionaires have been using and have been, you know, pushing their candidates to do is to really undermine the importance of public education to destabilize it. So that’s a major strategy that we’ve been seeing. And somebody else really interesting, who came out recently to talk about This is Courtney Gore, who was a former far right school board candidate who was elected who ran on a pro voucher and anti, you know, leftist indoctrination in schools campaign completely. And after she served on the school board, she really came out to say that actually, there’s no leftist indoctrination in our schools. And this voucher movement is just being pushed by billionaires, we’ve been seeing some really concerning results across the country for our vouchers. Like, in Arizona, for example, you know, their budget has been completely overhauled, you know, vouchers are one of the main reasons for that they did not realize how much this would really cost them. You know, and the governor received a lot of criticism for trying to push out a plan that would require students to go to public schools for 100 days, you know, people really did not like that. And we even saw the lack of accountability in the vouchers. Arizona is a great case study of that, you know, you’ll see in other places like Florida, where they’re paying for completely irresponsible things like family trips to Disneyland, for example. So we’re just seeing that the lack of accountability in these vouchers are stripping public schools of their funding to pay for some ridiculous expenses. I mean, like luxury car lessons, like things students absolutely don’t need, and our lowest income students are hurting the most from these policies. You know,

Selley Looby 48:12
you see this really driving disparities across the board. And my sense is always follow the money. And then you’ll see where a lot of this stems and you know, to Bruce’s point, Mike really showcased how this is really taking on a grassroots movement across the country. And so an organization like first focus that is building out, you know, our ambassadors, our listenership is growing week over week. But still, there’s a disconnect between what’s going on as it relates to federal policy and this silent movement that’s brewing and it’s actually really not so silent. How do you tackle something like this? What is the best ways? And what are you seeing in Congress right now, to really counter this?

Lily Klam 48:56
Yeah, I think that that’s a really good question. And I think that a lot of the responses are really trying to reframe the conversation around the importance of public education and supporting our teachers. And really, the evidence for this is within the data, we see that, you know, vouchers do not produce strong results. The House Appropriations released a budget proposal that talked about cutting title one, which is funding to our low income schools by 80%. Last year, you know, and I think that that was really showing that this movement, these attacks on public education, this is not just like a state school board issue. This is showing up over and over again, everywhere, even in our federal government. So that has definitely required our federal lawmakers to step up and advocate against that and something else, you know, unique we’ve been seeing in Texas, things really unlikely alliances are coming together and fighting against these policies like go grandparents for public schools is a group in Texas that’s been very active and very vocal on the issue of housing vouchers. We’ve also seen groups like pastors for Texas Children talking about how these policies actually undermine the importance of separation of church and state, you know, and these are pastors coming together and talking about these issues. So it’s really concerning the trends that we’ve been seeing. But we’ve also been seeing some really major losses from groups like moms for liberty. Even

Bruce Lesley 50:31
here in Montgomery County, where I live in Maryland, there was a candidate who ran sort of on the privatize public schools agenda, she actually ran a very quiet campaign that she was just for kids. But people did expose her and she did not make the runoff. So that was a positive thing. And so just wanted to ask you about some victories for the pro Public Schools community.

Lily Klam 50:56
Yeah, in places like Round Rock, there was a coalition of far right extremist candidates hoping to destabilize public education, called the Round Rock, one family pack, and they failed to win any of the five seats that they were going for, you know, and this is in a state where there were conservative wins all across the state. And although they were backed by billionaires, the parents, and teachers and families really experiencing these harms are the ones that fought back against this and did not stand to let their school boards continue to be run by people who you know, didn’t support the true important things for their students and the families. It’s

Bruce Lesley 51:41
important to note that that was not a left, right, fight. In fact, in Round Rock, it was actually the non Maga conservatives and the more progressive groups came together to defend public schools. And that also happened at the state legislative level in Texas, where many Republicans opposed vouchers in particularly in rural areas. And in coalition with Democrats, they defeated Governor Abbott’s push. Yeah,

Selley Looby 52:09
this is common sense, right. And especially in a post COVID world where parents had a taste of what it was like to have their kids around the clock and get virtual training or to set up a home school like setting the value of public education in the role it serves in society is unmatched. And, you know, we had guests on earlier, Dr. Ki Rabo. Jackson that actually argues we need more investments in public education, especially in the early years. And so my hope is that, you know, to our listeners, and to teachers and educators and these unlikely partners and allies is that we really take a step back and ask the question that we ask all the time at first focus is is this in the best interest of the children? And my hope is that with this particular issue, people can really start to wake up and say, Hey, what’s going on here? This doesn’t make sense. This is not what we signed up for. And more importantly, we don’t want the limited resources that already are allocated for public schooling, to be diverted.

Bruce Lesley 53:08
So, Lily, thanks so much for joining us today. If people wanted to find more information about the lines for student liberty, how can they find that?

Lily Klam 53:17
Yeah, thanks so much for having me too, for this important conversation. But love everyone to subscribe to the Alliance for student liberty to receive a newsletter and be come up to date with what’s going on on these attacks on public education we’re seeing you can find this by going on first focuses substack page and looking at the tab that’s the Alliance for student liberty and we will put the link in the show notes as well

Bruce Lesley 53:42
Lily, thanks for joining us.

Selley Looby 53:43
Thanks, Lily.

Lily Klam 53:44
Thanks for having me.

Bruce Lesley 53:51
This is speaking of kids. Thanks for listening. I’m Bruce Lesley

Selley Looby 53:54
and I’m Messellech Looby special thanks to our guests, Mike Hixenbaugh.

Bruce Lesley 53:58
Speaking of kids as a podcast by first focus on children. Elizabeth Windom

Selley Looby 54:02
is the supervising producer and Julia Windham is the Associate Producer.

Bruce Lesley 54:07
Leila Nimatallah is the advocacy and mobilization producer and the senior producer is Jay Woodward.

Selley Looby 54:13
Our theme music is don’t list twice by Sam

Bruce Lesley 54:15
Marsh. For more information about this week’s episode, go to first You can find all of our links in our show notes.

Selley Looby 54:22
If you have any thoughts, questions or interest in becoming a first focus on children ambassador, email us at speaking of kids at first

Bruce Lesley 54:31
and please follow rate and review on Apple podcasts Spotify or YouTube.

Selley Looby 54:37
Speaking of kids is produced by Windhaven productions and blue J Atlantic