Inside the audacious new scheme to erase LGBTQ people from Michigan schools
A newly-formed conservative group is launching a brazen plan to remake Michigan public schools — using aggressive legal action to effectively mandate the erasure of LGBTQ people.
The effort, organized by the Great Schools Initiative (GSI), seeks to exploit a Michigan statute that allows parents to opt their children out of sex education. Michigan law allows schools to offer courses in sex education. The nature of this instruction is quite traditional, and by law must "stress that abstinence from sex is a responsible and effective method of preventing unplanned or out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and is a positive lifestyle for unmarried young people."
Nevertheless, the law also allows students or parents to request to be excused from sex education classes. Schools must grant any such request "without penalty or loss of academic credit."
GSI, however, has created its own opt-out form. In addition to sex education classes, the GSI form demands students are exempted from "OTHER Sex Education Not Approved by the district Board of Education," which the group calls "rogue sex ed." Under the guise of "rogue sex ed," the GSI form targets anything during the school day that acknowledges the existence of LGBTQ people.
Among other things, parents who sign the GSI form, demand their children are not exposed to:
Teachers, staff, or administrators, displaying or distributing sexuality/gender paraphernalia like LGBTQ+ flags, or gay pride stickers
Teaching, lessons, or discussions in gender/sexuality social justice or gender/sexuality activism
Use, instruction, discussion, or teaching of gender-neutral bathrooms
Access to books/materials in the classroom libraries with references to non-biological gender identities or storylines containing any type of non-heterosexual relationships, and/or explicit sexual activities of any kind
Schoolwide activities that teach, discuss, or promote concepts about gender or sexual identities, gender or sexual expression, or other gender concepts such as LGBTQ+ Pride Week
In other words, GSI is redefining "sex education" to include a teacher wearing a rainbow pin, teaching about the women's suffrage movement, the availability of a gender-neutral bathroom, any book with LGBTQ characters, and any acknowledgment of LGBTQ pride week.
Notably, for many of these items, it is impossible for a school to exclude individual students. Either the school acknowledges LGBTQ pride week, or it does not. The school either has a gender-neutral bathroom, or it does not. The intent is not for parents to exercise control over their children. It is to align the entire school with a reactionary political agenda.
GSI is explicit about its goals. During a January 19 Zoom meeting, Nathan Pawl, one of GSI's co-founders, said the group aimed to have "20, 30, 50, or 100 parents per school" start "dropping off the opt-out forms" in the month of February. According to Paul, this strategy will "be too much for [schools] to handle." It won't be possible to "pick on one kid any longer." To comply with GSI's opt-out form, Pawl says, the only option would be "to transform our schools.”
GSI, however, does not expect Michigan schools to immediately comply with its demands. Unlike other states, Michigan voters have rejected efforts to ban or limit the acknowledgment of LGBTQ people in public schools. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon ran on a pledge to bring a Florida-style "Don't Say Gay" law to Michigan; she lost by a wide margin. Most right-wing school board candidates in Michigan also lost.
So GSI, with legal support from the far-right Thomas More Society, plans to overwhelm Michigan schools with litigation. During an October 26, 2022, meeting at Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield, Michigan, the Thomas More Society's Erick Kaardal said they would pursue "asymmetrical lawfare" to overwhelm public schools. According to Pawl, the Thomas More Society is funding the planned litigation.
The Thomas More Society also aggressively challenged the 2020 presidential election. Kaardal, on behalf of various fringe groups, sued former Vice President Mike Pence, the United States Senate, and dozens of other entities, demanding that the results of the election be thrown so Donald Trump could be installed for a second term. The frivolous lawsuit was quickly dismissed and earned Kaardal a stinging rebuke from the judge.
According to Kaardal, the Thomas More Society considered executing the "opt-out" strategy in numerous states. The group, however, determined that Michigan "was the best place to do this." Under Michigan law, if a parent believes a school did not abide by the sexual education opt-out, the parent can file "a complaint with the superintendent… of the district… in which the pupil is enrolled." Within 30 days of receiving the complaint, the district must "provide a written report of his or her findings to the parent or legal guardian who filed the complaint." If any violations are found, the district is required to take "corrective action" within 30 days after the report is issued.
Kaardal noted that these administrative complaints "are cheap" and don't require "a lot of legal resources." In addition to burdening the schools with a flood of litigation, each complaint is a "messaging" vehicle and provides "a platform for us to discuss the issues."
Notably, this legal process is intended for parents who opted out of sexual education classes, not "rogue sex ed," a concept invented by GSI and the Thomas More Society. (During his presentation, Kaardal described the GSI opt-out form as pertaining to "LGBTQ and perhaps other curriculum.") So it's very possible that school districts will reject the GSI opt-out forms as irrelevant to Michigan law. But the administrative complaint is just the beginning.
If a parent is not satisfied with the decision of the school district, the complaint can be appealed to the "intermediate district in which the district is located." (In Michigan, an intermediate school district helps manage multiple local school districts.) Once the appeal is filed, the intermediate district must file another report within 30 days. If that isn't satisfactory, a parent can appeal to the state Department of Education, which has 90 days to issue a report. In addition to corrective action, the Department of Education is empowered to withhold up to 1% of a school district's state funding. And if the Department of Education doesn't side with the parent, the complaint can be appealed to Michigan courts.
During the October 26 meeting, Reverend Brian Kassa endorsed GSI's strategy and told the audience that the enemy was not "the public school system" but "the devil."
GSI's website features testimonials, allegedly from Michigan parents who praise GSI and its opt-out forms. They claim the opt-out process designed by GSI is simple and effective.
None of the parents, however, are named. And the photos are not real Michigan parents. They are all stock photos that can be purchased online.
GSI has been given access to the LET THEM BE Facebook group, which has over 55,000 members. The group was created in August 2020 and was once called "Let Michigan High School Football Play!!" The group gives GSI immediate access to tens of thousands of people who may be sympathetic to their agenda.
Who is funding the scheme?
While GSI's plan could upend public education in Michigan, almost nothing is known about its funding. GSI was founded in September 2022 by three Michiganders: Pawl, the CEO of a network security company, Matthew Nelson, an attorney, and Monica Yatooma, a director at a medical waste company. Since GSI was only recently created, it has not been required to disclose any financial information to the IRS. Those disclosures, even once they become available, will still not include donor information.
Despite its public focus on Michigan, GSI is incorporated in Chicago, the same city where the Thomas More Society is headquartered. GSI, in its planning meetings, has already acknowledged the Thomas More Society is committing “significant” resources to support anticipated litigation. It is unclear if the Thomas More Society is funding other aspects of GSI’s operations.
The Thomas More Society brought in over $17 million in 2020, the more recent financial information available. The largest disclosed donor is the Leo J Dreiling & Albina Dreiling Charitable Trust, a small family foundation that donated $250,000 in 2021. Most of the Thomas More Society's donors, however, remain secret.
GSI and the Thomas More Society did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ideas was, is and always will be to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy. The scary thing is that these religious groups have figured out that the way to win their long game is to start at the grass roots level. As a Jewish person, this is pretty scary to me.
Thank you for alerting us to another instance of the religious right's war on public schools via the courts of law and public opinion. What organizations are defending our public education institutions so that they don't get overwhelmed, which is the point of the "lawfare" attack? If reasonable and responsible citizens, including parents know how to resist reactionary assaults, we can frustrate their efforts.
BTW, I expect that any big money behind this is trying to privilege private, religious schools with public funding -- and at the same time elect far right bigots to public office.