The pandemic tested the willingness of Americans to engage in “prosocial” behavior — actions that benefit others or society as a whole. It didn’t help that ideas about the “right” things to do shifted as the public sector worked in real time to understand a pandemic.
School closures and inconsistent approaches to reopening were too much for many parents to bear, increasing their resentments about other aspects of public education they viewed as “government intrusion.” Encouraged by political and religious activists, a number decided to “take back” education and run for positions on local school boards.
Tina Descovich is the co-founder of the Moms for Liberty, a social welfare nonprofit that lobbies in support of a mission of “unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” The group endorsed more than 270 candidates running for school board seats in 15 states.
A mother of five, Descovich served on the Brevard County, Fla., school board for several years. Parents were disturbed by what they saw in 2020, she says. “They saw the power the teachers’ unions had to keep schools closed when parents wanted schools open; we saw them put themselves first over children and educating children.”
Descovich hopes to see about half the candidates Moms for Liberty endorsed succeed, but it’s too early to know if that will come to pass. She cites several school boards in South Carolina that were “flipped” to a majority of parental rights members as an encouraging sign of what may come. (A spokesperson for Moms for Liberty says the webpage listing the endorsees will be updated with results.)
Members of Moms for Liberty are most consistently concerned about the ways sex education, gender ideology, and critical race theory are being addressed in classrooms, says Descovich. They support the inclusion of curriculum on these topics if they are age appropriate and parents know what teachers are saying to their children, she says.
But if schools teach things that conflict what students are taught at home regarding values or a “moral compass,” grade level is beside the point, according to Descovich. Parents deserve to have their voices heard and their children “protected from what’s being taught in the school,” she says.
Support and Backlash
Educators consider parental involvement to be critical and necessary, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). The majority of parents are supportive of their local schools, he says, but interestingly, they have more reservations about school policy and curriculum at the national or district level.
Many working parents have a more urgent need for the child-care functions of public schools than the education they offer. “A lot of parents got upset because their kids were home and they couldn’t go to work,” says Domenech. “Then came the vaccines, and parents were upset if schools recommended that their kids be vaccinated if they were going to come to school in person.”
The backlash intensified when politics came into the mix. Controversy didn’t just affect gender curriculum or critical race theory (a term that Domenech asserts was unfamiliar to most actually involved in K-12 education) but also around suspicions that programs intended to address achievement gaps would divert an unfair share of school dollars to minority students.
The social and emotional needs of students have gone “through the roof” as a result of the pandemic, says Domenech. Limiting the ability of teachers to talk to students about their lives, whatever that might include, serves no one. “Kids are more likely to want to talk to and get support from their teacher than from their parents or other people.”
If parents want to take positions on school boards, they are welcome, he says. But school districts are often the biggest employers and the largest enterprises in a community. A board position is a big job, much more than a place to express an opinion. Moreover, while new members may have gained a high profile forum for sharing their views, majority rules.
Andrew Wilkes, chief policy and advocacy officer for Generation Citizen, a nonprofit that helps schools implement civics education programs, says the most unfortunate outcome of controversies between legislators, parents and educators is that students become the casualties.
Making teachers fear discipline or even job loss if they help students make connections between social studies, current events, historical trends and their own lives isn’t just bad for education, Wilkes believes. It undermines the best traditions of both public education and democracy.
Stifling such conversations also muddies the path away from divisiveness outside the classroom. “Prohibiting classroom discussion about difficult history in the schoolhouse makes it difficult to have bridge-building discussions at the statehouse,” says Wilkes.
Public dialogue about instructional guidelines, involving groups of parents and educators, is more to the point than fundraising, outreach or media campaigns engineered to provoke parental outrage. Rather than intimidating schools and teachers, Wilkes says, parental concerns about curriculum could be the basis for “teachable moments.”
Prohibiting classroom discussion about difficult history in the schoolhouse makes it difficult to have bridge-building discussions at the statehouse. — Andrew Wilkes, Generation Citizen
Politics With a Capital “P”
School boards are a unique feature of American education, says Joshua L. Glazer, an associate professor of education policy at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
“In many cases, school boards have an enormous amount of authority,” he says. “The nature of our system is far more localized than in pretty much any other country in the world.”
Glazer spoke to Governing about the political currents encroaching on school boards and what he’d hope to see result from them.
Governing: What trends have you seen in recent years?
Joshua Glazer: The Virginia gubernatorial election a couple years ago caught my attention. The notion of returning schools and curriculum to parents became a winning issue for [Glenn] Youngkin in Virginia. That’s gotten caught up with political issues around race theory and gender in the broader context of so-called culture wars.
As the Republican party digests the implications of the current election, it will be interesting to see if they think politicization of this set of issues will continue to be a winning strategy. This is quite plausible.
Governing: What’s at stake?
Joshua Glazer: School boards have important educational work to do. They hire the superintendent. The superintendent has enormous influence over educational issues — pedagogy, curriculum, hiring, leadership, professional development. Almost all that is determined locally.
Some of these people may find that they spend more time than they would care to dealing with the busing contract, teachers’ health insurance policies, running a search for the superintendent and all the other things in the job description. It’s not just dealing with the hot button issues that grab all the headlines.
If people are serving on school boards to deal with a subset of issues that are more cultural than educational, I’m concerned we’re going to divert attention and focus and resources from the educational work that has to be done.
Governing: How might the combative attitudes seen in campaigns affect school boards?
Joshua Glazer: When we’re politically divided and in competing camps around educational issues, it has a negative impact on schools and school systems. All the energy goes to fighting, to defending turf, to pressing political agendas.
Teachers and other school professionals can become cynical if they think the discourse around their schools is irrelevant to their day-to-day work, or undermining it. They can feel attacked. Kids in the schools are not sealed off from this divisiveness.
This isn’t just people arguing with each other in front of C-SPAN. It works its way into schools and has negative consequences for the educational work that goes on in them.
Governing: How does all this relate to post-COVID challenges?
Joshua Glazer: We all know how devastating COVID was educationally, and how much it exacerbated educational inequality. There’s important work to be done now and in the years ahead.
What schools need is stability, consistency and some degree of consensus, a sort of “all hands on deck” approach. The educational work that schools have is hard under any circumstances. Post COVID, in a society with economic and social inequality, divisive, polarized discourse is unproductive.
Governing: How would you hope to see school boards operate?
Joshua Glazer: One would really hope there is common ground around the idea that we are devoted to public education, that we’re here to try to make public education work for everyone, not to dismantle it. If people with diverse and divergent ideas can share a common commitment to supporting and improving public education and to understanding the importance of the role it plays in our society and our economy, that would be one thing.
When school boards are effective, they’re not necessarily effective because everyone’s entirely like-minded and on the same page from day one. But based on a shared interest in the common good, there is a spirit of debate, negotiation, compromise and ultimately consensus.
That doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it can be enormously powerful and positive. There’s no institution that represents local democracy more than the school board.
Governing: How do members who ran campaigns attacking current school practices fit in this vision?
Joshua Glazer: School boards are supposed to be places where educational issues are debated, and there should be healthy public debate around these issues. Where school boards have gone off the rails is when the dynamic is not about trying to reach consensus around challenging issues but about pursuing political or ideological agendas that are not motivated by trying to figure out the best ways to run our school systems.
School boards have been vulnerable to that long before the present day, long before issues of race, gender, sexuality and so forth were the topics of the day. It’s a vulnerability that is not historically limited to the right or the left. It is a vulnerability of the school board system, and it can be absolutely destructive.
It is hard to run any system productively and efficiently, at any level of competence, when your governing body is totally dysfunctional.
Governing: Do you see any potential for good in the current moment?
Joshua Glazer: There’s the grand version of politics, the capital “P” version, where people come together in a public place to figure out differences and come to some understanding about how we’re all going to live together. That’s what politics is — how we negotiate differences in a world of interdependence.
We’re all connected to each other. We don’t live in two Americas. We live in one, and we’ve got to figure out how to live together. That’s what politics is in the best sense. It doesn’t have to be a bad word. It can be a good word.
It would be nice to think that maybe we’ll see a few examples where that happens. I think that would be inspiring.
Governing: The Future of States and Localities takes on the question of what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Governing is a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who are looking for smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change.