Local Schools as Political Battlefields

How school boards have become a nexus of the culture wars

In recent years, school boards have become one more battlefield in the culture wars polarizing the country. The reasons include the influence of outside money and interest groups as well as national media coverage that fans the flames, according to three experts recently brought together by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life for a March 16 panel discussion entitled “What’s Going on With School Boards?” Jen McAndrew, Tisch College’s director of communications, strategy, and planning and a school committee member in Melrose, Massachusetts, moderated the event, which featured education and political science experts.

Here are a few takeaways:

Local educational issues hitting the national stage is not a new phenomenon and outside money plays a leading role.

Controversy over masking mandates, the teaching of critical race theory, and sexual orientation and gender identity curricula in schools may be the issues of the day, but there is a long history of local educational concerns rising to national prominence. Michigan State political science professor Sarah Reckhow, who co-authored a book entitled Outside Money in School Board Elections, saw the same pattern when she followed races in five school districts across the country a decade ago.

“The driving issue in those elections was predominantly charter schools … especially in districts associated with large growth and outside money,” she said. Donors to candidates involved in the charter school fight included former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, according to Reckhow. Brian Reagan, the superintendent of Waltham, Massachusetts public schools, said that on the ballot of his city’s recent school committee election was a formerly unknown conservative candidate later discovered to have been funded by an “outside group.”

Some of the controversial issues school committees are dealing with, like Michigan’s curriculum transparency bill, seem to be more about providing state and national politicians with talking points than about the needs of local students.

Reckhow spoke about a bill that would require Michigan educators to post curricula, lesson plans, and other teaching content online. It provided plenty of fodder for political sloganeering. “We're coming up on election season with a lot of important state races and these sorts of issues are galvanizing, certainly on the conservative side,” she said. “Labels like ‘parental rights’ or ‘transparency’ get attached to the bills that may not deal with the nuances of the local districts and the issues on the ground.”

While conservatives have been blamed for much of the lack of civility at school board meetings, the left can also be divisive and inflammatory in its response.

The media have given a lot of coverage to conservatives disrupting school board meetings and threatening members, but the lack of civility is not limited to one side, said Gerard Robinson, vice president for education at the Advanced Studies in Culture Foundation and formerly Virginia and Florida’s top education official. For example, in a recent letter decrying the growing threats of violence at school board meetings across the country, the National School Boards Association used what Robinson considered incendiary language, comparing the behavior to domestic terrorism and asking the White House for federal law enforcement intervention. Robinson conceded that some of the conduct has been reprehensible, “but the idea that you can use the term ‘domestic terrorism!’” Fourteen attorneys general have now submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for more information about the letter and the administration’s response, and all of them are Republicans. “Are we saying that this is not an important issue to the Democrats?” asked Robinson.

When the national media swoops in to cover local school boards, polarization intensifies.

The consolidation of the media industry has resulted in the loss or contraction of many local outlets. Often, when school boards are covered, it’s by the national press drawn to the most contentious issues “at the expense of the more specific substantive local issues that might be unique to the district and really important to the students and families in that community,” said Reckhow. Another effect of this “nationalization” is that local school board candidates feel like they have to pick a side when it comes to controversial issues, at the expense of thoughtful, less black-and-white positions, she added.

School boards might be less vulnerable to outside influences if they had broader representation.

Often the composition of school boards does not reflect the demographics of the students and communities they serve, Reagan said, including his district in eastern Massachusetts, where 44% of the population is Latino. Yet students have shown a willingness to participate. A recent controversy over the presence of two LGBTQ+ -themed books in the high school library resulted in a packed school committee meeting at which students spoke eloquently in favor of keeping the books. “We need to find ways to get them to be more of a voice on the school committee as well,” he said.

Contributing to the homogeneity, Reckhow said, is that few people vote in school board elections and those who do are often older and not people of color.

“There is an interesting interplay between the idealistic things we say about school boards being grassroots and participatory institutions,” she said, “and the reality.”

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