The “Great Schools Initiative” is using one new trick—plus a few old standbys—in a bid to control your public schools. Here’s what you need to know.
MICHIGAN—There’s another right-wing extremist group trying to pressure Michigan’s public schools and parents. Their goal is to bully districts into giving up control over funding and resources, and they’re exploiting a parental-control option in the state’s sex education system to do it. Here are 4 quick facts to know.
Short answer: A nonprofit group called the “Great Schools Initiative” (GSI). It was started by three Michigan residents in collaboration with the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based law firm that provides pro-bono legal services to right-wing causes, and the PAC “Walled Lake Citizens for Parental Rights.”
It now has the additional legal help of David Kallman, a Lansing attorney who formerly worked with the Trump campaign and was most recently hired as Ottawa County’s new attorney following a right-wing takeover on the County Commission. Kallman has also served as the legal representation for various school boards across the state—including most recently in Allendale.
More info: The three Michigan residents are:
- Nathan Pawl, whose PAC, Walled Lake Citizens for Parental Rights, bankrolled three school board candidates’ winning campaigns—all of whom ran on extremist principles. In a September 2022 speech to a conservative group dedicated to “renewing the American spirit” in Oakland County, Pawl claimed without evidence that children as young as first grade were being exposed to “just straight-up pornography” in the classroom.
- Monica Yatooma, a failed Oakland County Commissioner candidate
- Matthew Nelson, a Walled Lake parent
Officials at GSI declined our interview request, and didn’t respond to a subsequent emailed request for comment. But some Michigan parents are familiar—and concerned—with the groups’ bigoted tactics.
“We have seen the same people go from one issue to another issue to another issue,” said Nicole Kessler, a Birmingham mom who’s active in the pushback against GSI. “We see that there’s ties to people in the political community.”
Moms for Liberty, an ultra-conservative group tied to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, had a local representative speak at a recent GSI meeting. The conservative Facebook group Let Them Be, which focuses on book-banning in Michigan high schools, has also been involved with promoting GSI’s “Operation Opt-Out” in Michigan schools.
Thomas Morgan, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association—the state’s largest teacher’s union—told The ‘Gander that part of GSI’s strategy is to masquerade as a local, grassroots movement while simultaneously receiving hefty amounts of national support from much larger organizations.
“[National right-wing figures] form these little groups, make it look like it’s grassroots, feed people this information and try to cause chaos,” Morgan said. “It’s important to be aware of what they’re doing, while at the same time, not allowing them to dictate the terms of the conversation and to dictate the agenda.”
Short answer: Trying to use Michigan’s sex education system to gain control of local school districts, plus shut down any mention of LGBTQ+ and gender identity. They’re doing it using an “opt-out” form (see below).
The group’s ultimate goal appears to be to create situations where parents try to use the GSI opt-out form and are told they can’t. Then, the group would threaten to sue the school district, bullying their way into controlling those districts that can’t afford to face GSI’s legal team in court.
More info: Since 1976, state law has allowed Michigan parents to choose whether or not their kids participate in sex ed courses. They do that through their school district’s “opt-out” or “opt-in” process.
GSI’s strategy is to claim that a litany of hand-picked topics, which organizers have broadly defined as “rogue sex ed,” should qualify as being part of the sex education curriculum. They’re saying that any time those topics come up—even in a history lesson, for example—the situation should be immediately considered “sex ed.” Therefore, parents should be able to opt their kids out of that situation.
GSI’s main product is an “opt-out” form that they want schools to use to replace the existing sex education permission process.
Like many of these same players tried to do with book bans, members of GSI are asking parents to pressure their local districts into accepting their form. If districts were to accept the form, it would effectively put kids in charge of policing their schools by reporting “violations” to their parents.
In a training video, GSI told parents to expect their form requests to be denied by schools. If that happens, parents are expected to report this denial to GSI, who would then launch the “violation process” by sending a demand letter to the school or district on behalf of parents. From there, GSI says they may appeal responses all the way up through the courts, where the Thomas More Society would step in to defend them, free of charge.
“The demand letter is how far it’s gone, and we’ll sue them is how far we’re willing to take it,” Yatooma said at a live-streamed meeting from Clinton Valley Township on Jan. 30.
“The object is to push,” Pawl said on a training video.
On February 4, the state Department of Education issued a memo advising school districts that parents are unable to simply opt their children out of whatever they consider to be “rogue sex ed.” However, four days later GSI brushed this off, sending out a mass email kicking off “Operation Opt-Out,” in which they called on supporters to flood schools with as many “rogue sex ed” opt out forms as possible during throughout month of February.
Jay Kaplan, a civil rights attorney for the ACLU of Michigan said he doesn’t think a GSI lawsuit would have merit. But he added that the chilling effect of the initiative could make some schools choose to approve the opt-out forms just to avoid pricey litigation.
Additionally, any school districts using GSI’s form may be in violation of existing state and federal law, Kaplan added. The Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act states that all Michiganders have the right to “full and equal utilization of… educational facilities.” Kaplan also said the requests run afoul of First Amendment and Title IX rights.
“The law is very, very strong on that issue,” Kaplan said.
Still the group is pressing forward. Since its inception, much of their strategy has involved seeding and sharing its illegitimate opt-out form in popular Michigan parenting groups on Facebook, including by Walled Lake parent Kindsey Nelson—who is reportedly a member of Pawl’s PAC in Walled Lake.
If you see social media “reports” or posts about this topic, don’t buy what’s being sold there—seek out facts from credible sources, like the MEA.
Katie MacFarland, the leader of Moms For Liberty’s chapter in Oakland County, was one of the first parents to submit one of GSI’s-sponsored opt-out forms to a school district in Michigan, according to a now-deleted forum post on the GSI website. In the post, she claimed that Larson Middle School in Troy accepted the form—even though district officials have stated that third-party forms aren’t accepted.
Short answer: “[GSI] is trying to do an end-around to achieve what’s happened in Florida,” Kaplan told The ‘Gander, referencing the state’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.
More info: Several parents with the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe School told The ‘Gander that this latest right-wing scheme effectively scapegoats LGBTQ students and teachers as a means to take away funding and educational resources from public classrooms—and that it represents one of the GOP’s most extreme attacks on public education to-date.
“We are taking away opportunities for children to feel that social connection, to feel safe at school, and we’re creating less safe school environments,” said Jennifer Hart, an Oxford mom of three who’s opposed to GSI.
It’s worth noting that Pawl’s PAC supported the winning campaigns of three school board candidates in 2022—all of whom shared his extremist position—and that GSI could continue Pawl’s pattern of funding candidates invested in their cause.
This attack is particularly aimed at LGBTQ+ students.
In Michigan, at least 61,000 students identify as LGBTQ. According to a 2019 report from the anti-discrimination advocacy group GLSEN, two-thirds of those students experience discrimination at school.
Policies like “Don’t Say Gay” bills, which prohibit discussion of LGBTQ issues in school, only make this problem worse, according to the Trevor Project.
Parents of LGBTQ students are also worried that continued attacks on students could make Michigan schools more inhospitable for their kids. According to the Trevor Project, 45% of LGBTQ youth in Michigan contemplated committing suicide in 2022—and 15% attempted suicide. Those numbers hovered far above the nationwide average of 20% of LGBTQ young people contemplating suicide.
“It’s not an easy path if you identify as LGBTQIA,” said Peri Stone-Palmquist, the executive director of the Student Advocacy Center, which provides non-legal aid for students and parents from vulnerable populations. “It’s hard. It can feel socially isolating. That, to me, means that we need to do everything we can to help them feel safe and loved and cherished—and not othered … I think there’s unintended consequences [of these forms] perhaps, or maybe they’re very much intended.”
Among the items that the Great Schools Initiative is currently targeting:
- “Teaching, discussion, or lessons where pronouns are defined different than biology, or using his/her alternate pronouns as a meaning of redefining gender apart from biology;”
- “Use of pronouns for my student that does not match the student’s biological sex as listed in the enrollment documents”
- Teachers, staff, or administrators, displaying or distributing sexuality / gender paraphernalia like LGBTQ+ flags, trans flags, or gay pride stickers;”
- “School wide 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 or Transexual Week”
On Feb. 6, after receiving backlash due to increased media attention, GSI issued a blog post in an apparent attempt to clarify that they were not intending to jeopardize the health and safety of any students. The post said the group is committed to “making safety and privacy of all students, both Straight and LGBTQ, paramount.”
Kaplan feels otherwise.
“For all the progress that has been made on LGBTQ+ rights, this is definitely part of the pushback that we’re seeing,” he said. “And it’s very disheartening because of who is being harmed by this, and that is LGBTQ+ kids.”