'Not a partisan issue': As classroom culture wars rage, a stark warning about learning loss

"It's not a matter of banning a book if they can't read it."

In the four years since schools were shuttered in an effort to protect students from the onset of COVID-19, public education has been placed under a microscope and turned into a major political talking point.

Conservatives, led by political figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and groups like Moms for Liberty, have embraced a mantle of parental rights and claimed -- in part because of the window that remote schooling opened into the classroom -- that public school instruction has been hijacked by inappropriate curricula on LGBTQ+ topics, race and discrimination and more.

Opponents like the progressive group Red, Wine and Blue and leaders like California Gov. Gavin Newsom have pushed back on what they call efforts to de-emphasize focus on minority groups and social issues through controversial changes like Florida teaching middle-schoolers that slaves sometimes learned beneficial skills, as well as bans on books and more.

The classroom culture wars still rage in various states, but educational and parental advocates across the ideological spectrum who spoke with ABC News for this story worry that a pivot is needed away from those battles, some of which these groups were involved in, and back to education.

"Parents want to see our children read. It's not a matter of banning a book if they can't read it," parent Jay Artis-Wright, a critic of what she called Republican-led culture wars and a former leader of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, told ABC News.

The slogans and school board shouting have exaggerated and overshadowed more pressing issues, according to Artis-Wright and other activists on both sides of the issue.

"Teaching kids to read in school should not be a political issue," said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which has become widely recognized and polarizing. "It is not a partisan issue and I actually think it's the greatest national security risk that we have as Americans: a nation of people that are illiterate."

Moms for Liberty, founded in 2021, broadly says its mission is about "educating and empowering parents" and it includes numerous chapters that describe themselves as school board "watchdogs." But the group has also come under fire, with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) saying they spread "hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community," which Moms for Liberty leaders previously maintained to ABC News was "nonsense."

Beyond politics, fears for students' education are well-founded, according to national data and recent expert analysis.

More than a third of the nation's fourth-grade students were below proficient readers in 2022, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as the "nation's report card."

NAEP's math, history and civics scores all sunk in 2022, too. Fourth- and eighth-grade students saw their largest declines ever in math and eighth-grade students received the lowest history scores since 1994, when the history assessment was first administered.

In February, Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research Faculty Director Tom Kane issued a stark warning for parents.

Despite Kane's Education Recovery Scorecard outlining one-year gains last school year, the study, based on state-level and NAEP results, found that the average district is still "one more year away from catching up in math" and "two more years from catching up in reading."

"If we allow these achievement losses to become permanent, students will be paying for the pandemic for the rest of their lives, like in the form of lower college-going [and] lower earnings once they get out of college," Kane, who co-authored the scorecard in collaboration with the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, told ABC News.

Liberal leaders say they are tired of the culture war critics who sometimes focus less on interrupted instruction and zero-in on discussions of race and gender ideology. A new Pew Research Center study found most of the American public believes parents should be able to opt their children out of learning about LGBTQ+ issues if the way these topics are taught conflicts with the parents' personal views or beliefs, but only about a third believe parents should be able to opt their children out of similar discussions on race.

Pew also found nearly 70% of teachers said the topics of sexual orientation and gender ideology rarely or never came up in the classroom last school year.

National Parents Union (NPU) President Keri Rodrigues said the conversation should instead emphasize America's illiteracy problem.

"Every child in America deserves the right to read proficiently by third grade," Rodrigues told ABC News, adding, "if we can solve that, there are a whole host of things that will fall in line."

Justice, with Moms for Liberty, said there's no doubt that learning loss has affected "every student" and it's a topic that is a "concern for the future of the kids."

Artis-Wright also said schools must focus on issues beyond culture war topics, such as book banning and other flashpoint issues that a vocal group of advocates and parents have been pushing since the start of the pandemic.

"There needs to be this overall look of how we reimagine what school looks like coming out of the pandemic -- from every perspective," she said.

Republican Rep. Lisa McClain, who chaired a congressional hearing on K-12 education oversight at the start of the year, said this should not be a partisan topic. Parents like Rep. McClain and Artis-Wright hope to shift the focus to kids catching up in school, particularly in math and reading.

"Unfortunately, K-12 education headlines this year likely will fixate on laughable book ban claims or semi-hysterical mass layoff assertions due to the long scheduled end of federal … funding," the director of parental rights group Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women's Forum, Ginny Gentles, said during McClain's Healthcare and Financial Services Subcommittee hearing in January.

"Choose instead to focus on students' academic recovery needs," Gentles added.

NPU's Rodrigues was more blunt.

"We've been yelling and screaming about it [learning loss] now for years," she told ABC News. "If we do not start to address these things with urgency by having radical transparency around where our kids are, where we're trying to get them so that we can all be all-hands-on-deck to get them there, then we're just going to continue to see more of the same."

Struggling students should utilize summer programming, tutoring and after school contracts, according to Kane. He said it's imperative for school districts to use the remaining Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) dollars in the American Rescue Plan before it's too late. (The deadline for districts to tap this funding is September)

"We've got to make sure parents are well informed about just whether or not their child is below grade level," Kane said, adding, "They can't wait for the state tests to come back to tell them. Schools need to tell them this spring so they can sign up for the summer."

Rep. McClain, a conservative mother of four, said America's public schools could do "a lot better" as the issues persist nationwide.

"As parents we must advocate for our children," she said, adding, "We must take these issues seriously: Our nation's children -- or the so-called 'pandemic cohort' -- do not deserve to be left behind."

Both sides, despite cultural differences, say they agree on this.

"Parents really are looking for, you know, quality educational options," Progressive Policy Institute's Reinventing America's Schools Project Co-Director Curtis Valentine told ABC News.

"All parents want good schools, good teachers and good options."