DALLAS, Texas—Four families left one of the richest and most prestigious school districts in Texas over a curriculum they say was increasingly focused on sex, gender, and race, instead of classical education.
Parents said in an interview with The Epoch Times that the pandemic exposed problems within the Highland Park Independent School District (ISD) in Dallas, considered one of the most prestigious districts in the Lone Star State.
Eventually, the families removed their children from what they see as a diminished public school system. The failure there, they believe, mirrors what's happening to public education nationally and a push for school choice.
"Maybe we're alarmists, but we're sitting here looking at this stuff," parent Nathan Petty told The Epoch Times. "To me, it's as clear as day this is an intentional thing. It's not just incompetence, because you can't be incompetent and do as much damage."
Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times that parents are leaving schools nationwide because they don't want their children taught radical ideologies.
In his book, "Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth," Butcher points out that CRT has hijacked the U.S. education system on every level.
Radical gender theory and CRT are being pushed by teacher unions, colleges of education, superintendents associations, and higher education, in general, he said.
"We see parents really resisting," said Butcher. "We're talking upwards 50, 60 percent—and sometimes more—saying they do not want this stuff taught to children."
He said the surge in parents wanting to remove their children from schools teaching these ideologies is driving the school choice movement.
Currently, 10 states offer school choice through an Educational Savings Account (ESA), Butcher said.
With ESAs, state governments give parents a dollar amount per student to educate their child. The money goes into a private bank account that parents use to buy multiple products and services, such as private school tuition, uniforms, and school supplies, he said.
Arizona just passed an expansion in their ESA program to include students statewide, and West Virginia plans to implement one soon, he added.
"Let's create a school choice program for everybody," he said. "If you want to be inclusive, give every child the chance to choose and succeed."
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has called for state lawmakers to look at school choice during the 2023 legislative session.
Petty, a product of Highland Park schools, moved back to the district so his children could get the same quality education.
"When I was there, it was rigorous," he said.
Petty remembers doing average work while attending Highland Park school. He didn't realize how well it prepared him until he went to the University of Arkansas. There, he was able to test out of college-level English.
But he started seeing signs as early as 2016 that things at the district had changed. When his daughter was in first grade, he realized the school was no longer teaching phonics as the basis for reading.
When he married his wife, Janey, three years ago, he was concerned Highland Park schools would be academically challenging for her children, even though they had high grade-point averages at Fort Worth ISD.
But when they moved Janey's daughter into Highland Park High School during her sophomore year in 2019, counselors told them she'd advanced beyond the sophomore grade level. She was classified as a junior because of her credits.
During the pandemic, he saw his daughter's Texas history book teaching that the Texas revolution was based on slavery—definitely not the Texas history he remembered. His recollection was Mexico's Antonio López de Santa Anna tore up the Constitution of 1824 leading Texas along with several other Mexican states to rebel.
In 2021, he saw an online assignment based on a slide titled "Christopher Columbus: Hero or Villain."
Petty said the article titled "Challenging Columbus" painted Columbus negatively.
So Petty wrote his daughter a letter, telling her to question what articles, books, and people say.
"There are people who want to believe that Columbus was a bad person, because they don't like the Constitution of the United States," he wrote. "So these people sometimes write stories that are not supported in the historical writings of any person or group of people."
To his surprise, the teacher read the letter in his daughter's journal and responded with her own note in the journal saying she completely agreed with Petty's letter to his daughter.
He realized that some teachers are boxed into an educational system they don't necessarily believe is right. And he realized the rigor of his education while attending Highland Park schools had eroded over the years.
His daughter now attends Cambridge School, a private school in Dallas.
Aimee Urista told The Epoch Times she realized something was wrong at Highland Park schools during the pandemic in 2020.
She remembers her 6-year-old son asked a question during a break in online classes.
"I was in the kitchen," Urista said. "He just looked at me and said, 'Mom, what's divorce?'"
That made her do a double-take. She began looking through her son's computer and discovered the topic had come from a school app called BrainPop.
"So I started looking through that app, and it showed, you know, Black Lives Matter, George Floyd stuff, LGBTQ Pride Week, like everything you can imagine," she said.
Urista said her concerns about the content fell on deaf ears when she emailed Highland Park ISD school board members. They assured her those types of lessons in BrainPop weren't required, she said.
From then on, she began to monitor her son's education closely and found that issues concerning race were even in a sports book her son brought home from a Scholastic Book Fair.
She said other books that were displayed prominently at the book fair talked about shootings and race.
"I mean, it just was not age-appropriate," Urista said. "Nothing was where little kids couldn't see it. It was all on display."
It also concerned her when she couldn't find out what her son was being taught.
When Urista questioned the school about what her son was learning on the Measures of Academic Progress Assessments, known as MAPS, the principal said neither she nor the teacher had access to the questions.
"That's when we started looking for schools and trying to figure out our plan," she said, adding she moved her two boys to Providence Christian School.
Laura Siino said her disenchantment with the school district also came to a head during the pandemic. Her son was a freshman in high school and attended school both in person and online in 2020.
She remembers her husband, Spencer, helping her son, a freshman at the time, with his language arts homework that consisted of word association prompts.
One of the prompts was for a fill-in-the-blank exercise: Wouldn't it be great if things were shared....
At the end of the exercise, the program revealed the missing word as "communally," she said.
Siino felt the activity was to guide students into a group-think socialist mindset.
She said there seemed to be an increase in the use of technology and a decrease in activities such as reading. Seventh graders read only one book as a class, she said.
"The technology they are using is taking away from traditional learning," she said. "They're not learning how to think; they're being told what to think."
Seeking something better, the Siinos enrolled their three children in Cambridge School of Dallas in 2021, just as others had.
Tim Hutchins pulled his daughter out of Highland Park last year, sending her to Cambridge, as well.
Hutchins was concerned over the sexualized nature of the material presented while his daughter attended sixth grade at Highland Park schools.
Hutchins said a teacher assigned the class to read "First French Kiss," which prompted him to see what else they were teaching.
As Hutchins dug deeper into the curriculum, he noticed that progressive material was inserted into language arts, social studies, and health. He went to the school board with what he'd found. But it seemed everyone wanted to pass the buck, he said.
In the health curriculum, he found slides titled: "Support for LGBTQ Teens," "Influences on my Decision to be Sexually Active," and "Being Sexually Active."
The content discussed masturbation and attraction between partners that could lead to touching, kissing, and sexual activity. It also discussed abstinence.
Hutchins said he and his wife left California to escape the sexual agenda in schools there, never dreaming it would show up again in a conservative state like Texas. He said the only difference is that it's more subtle in Texas.
Tammy Kuykendal, acting director of communications for the Highland Park School ISD, told The Epoch Times that the district consistently outperforms others in the state regarding quality and college readiness.
"We are considered a premiere school district in the state of Texas and across the country, and our students outperform state and national peers in a number of categories and areas," she said.
She pointed out that the curriculum at Highland Park follows Texas Education Agency rules. As for apps like BrainPop, she said not all content on the app is used by schools.
"Of course, we're not incorporating anything that's not in alignment with the Texas Education Agency, scope, and sequence," she said.
Highland Park ISD is also one of the wealthiest school districts in the nation, ranking fifth in a Forbes 2018 article. Median household income is $192,981, the article said.
But the parents who left say the rankings are a facade. They contend that a once-excellent school system has been compromised by a political agenda that has lowered standards.
"I think it's a kind of an illusion," Petty said. "It's like we're in a better bad school."
Hutchins feels schools have betrayed the trust parents gave them.
"Unfortunately, parents have trusted a system that never really had their kids' best interests in mind," he said.