UPDATE: Michigan fights back
Last week, Popular Information revealed that a newly-formed conservative group, the Great Schools Initiative (GSI), had launched a brazen plan to impose their ideology on Michigan public schools. The scheme, dubbed "Operation Opt-Out," seeks to exploit a Michigan statute that allows parents to opt their children out of sex education to force schools to erase LGBTQ people. GSI created its own opt-out form by which parents would opt students out of both sex education classes and "rogue sex ed" — a concept GSI invented.
Under the guise of "rogue sex ed," the GSI form targets anything during the school day that acknowledges the existence of LGBTQ people. This includes a teacher wearing a rainbow pin, any book with LGBTQ characters, and any acknowledgment of LGBTQ pride month. In a January 19 Zoom meeting obtained by Popular Information, one GSI's co-founders, Nathan Pawl, said the purpose of the opt-out forms is "to transform our schools.”
GSI has partnered with the Thomas More Society, a far-right legal organization, to enforce the GSI opt-out forms with aggressive legal action. In October 2022, Erick Kaardal, one of the Thomas More Society's lead attorneys, said it would employ a strategy of "asymmetrical lawfare," essentially overwhelming schools with dozens or hundreds of complaints.
Four days after Popular Information published its report, the Michigan Department of Education began pushing back against GSI's plot. In a February 2 memo, the Department wrote that parents are not legally entitled to opt children out of "programs, practices, and resources" outside of sexual education.
Sometimes a parent or legal guardian requests to excuse their child from district programs, practices, and resources outside of the instructional program (e.g., those that pertain to facilities, communications, library holdings, surveys, after-school programs, and student-led non-curricular clubs). These programs, practices, and resources are also not part of formal instruction detailed in MCL 380.1507 and would not be subject to the sex education excusal provisions specified in statute. Decisions regarding excusal from these programs, practices, and resources are governed by other federal and state statutes (e.g., civil rights laws, privacy laws) as well as local policies and practices. How districts handle these parent requests would also be determined locally, within the context of those statutes.
The memo is important because it provides school districts with an explicit legal justification to disregard GSI's opt-out form. According to the Detroit Free Press, two Michigan school districts — Rochester and Troy — have already said they will not accept GSI's form. Lori Grein, spokesperson for Rochester Community Schools, said that parents who submit GSI's form "are respectfully informed of the already-established district processes."
While the memo is a significant development, the organizers of Operation Opt-Out are not ready to give up. Kaardal told the Detroit Free Press that the memo signals that Operation Opt-Out is "going to be a real battle." Kaardal blamed the "totalitarian left" for the controversy and said that GSI's form is "something the school district needs to deal with." GSI's website says that, if schools disregard the form, "attorneys will be selecting specific cases" to challenge that can "have the greatest state-wide impact."
In another potential roadblock for GSI, a Michigan Senate committee has begun considering "legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the state's anti-discrimination law."
GSI did not respond to a request for comment.