Three western Pennsylvania school districts, along with several teachers and families, are suing the state Department of Education over new guidelines they describe as “woke” and thinly disguised political activism.
Attorneys with the conservative, Chicago-based Thomas More Society filed the lawsuit on April 17 in state Commonwealth Court on behalf of the Laurel School District in Lawrence County, Mars Area School District in Butler County, Penncrest School District in Crawford County, and teachers and parents in the districts.
The lawsuit claims that the Education Department’s Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Education Program Framework Guidelines issued in November 2022 violate state regulatory review law, infringe on the filers’ religious and free speech rights, and usurp the school boards’ authority to determine their own curriculum.
In a statement, Thomas Breth, the More Society’s special counsel, said that former acting Education Secretary Eric Hagarty, who served in the Gov. Tom Wolf administration, “has issued a regulation without legal authority that mandates adherence to the Administration’s ideological tenets.”
With Gov. Josh Shapiro taking office in January, Hagarty has since been replaced by acting Education Secretary Khalid Mumin. A Department of Education spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit citing the pending litigation.
“They are forcing educators to affirm their belief in these ideological tenets and to impose the same upon their students,” Breth said. “It’s a blatant attempt to impose ‘woke’ activism into school curriculum.”
According to the Education Department, the initiative offers “professional development principles for educator training, not students or curriculum, that will enable current and future teachers to better serve students from all walks of life.”
Those students would come from “varying socio-economic backgrounds and those with different abilities,” the department said in a statement to PennLive.
The guidelines represent “an effort to create an inclusive learning environment for all students,” and provide teachers with methods “to handle issues related to mental wellness, trauma informed approaches to instruction, engagement with technological and virtual strategies, and myriad other factors that can inhibit student success in the classroom if unaddressed,” said the department.
Additionally, the department said the guidelines were a result of “bipartisan feedback from state lawmakers, education experts, teachers, and parents.”
Breth, though, said that CRSE guidelines require teachers to rewrite policies and design their teaching approach to “identify and question economic, political and social power structures in the school, community, nation and world,” as well as “honor” cultural influences and accept that students have the right to use the language of their culture.
He also said that teachers must “believe and acknowledge that microaggressions are real and take steps to educate themselves about the subtle and obvious ways in which they are used to harm and invalidate the existence of others,” which Breth said violates the free speech rights of students and teachers.
“The Department of Education seeks to restrict, prohibit and eliminate any speech that is subjectively perceived as not in conformity with the ideological tenets of the Department,” Breth said. “What’s next, loyalty oaths?”
The lawsuit asks the court to void the Department of Education’s guidelines and to require the department to pay court costs.