I don’t recall much about the first local school board meeting that I ever covered, long, long ago, except the overflow crowd of local citizens who made it hard to get inside.
“What’s going on?,” I asked the seasoned education-beat reporter who was mentoring me that evening.
“Nothing special,” he instructed. “But, anywhere you work, you’ll find that nothing gets people fired up like the local school board meetings.”
Who knew? I soon learned that he was right. People might talk a lot about City Hall, taxes and all. But everybody feels like an expert on how the schools should be run.
That evening often comes back to mind as the latest national battleground for conservative culture wars turns out to be — wait for it — school board meetings.
As you probably have seen in the news, angry protests by parents and people claiming to be parents, further whipped up by conservative politicians and pundits, have disrupted various school board meetings and threatened school officials across the nation.
A September letter from the National School Boards Association to President Joe Biden cites more than a dozen disrupted meetings in Illinois, Michigan, California, Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The list includes downstate Mendon, Illinois, where a 30-year-old man was arrested and charged last month with aggravated battery and disorderly conduct, reportedly for punching a school official at a local school board meeting, according to the Adams County sheriff’s office.
In Birmingham, Michigan, a man was investigated for flashing a Nazi salute and chanting “Heil Hitler” during a raucous board meeting discussion of mask mandates for students, as other unruly anti-maskers booed and shouted insults at anyone who spoke in favor of face coverings.
NSBA officials asked for help from law enforcement, including the Justice, Education and Homeland Security departments as well as the FBI, saying: “These heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Indeed, disruptions of orderly government operations certainly have been more than a merely academic question since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Yet Attorney General Merrick Garland had to face unhappy Republicans at a House committee hearing Thursday regarding his Oct. 4 directive. It ordered the FBI to help local leaders address what he called “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threat of violence” against teachers and staffs over hot-button issues.
But, as much as Garland viewed the rising threats with alarm, the Grand Old Party’s members of Congress and other conservatives expressed even more alarm about Garland.
Conservative media razzed him for treating parents like “domestic terrorists.” Rep. Jim Jordan, a prominent Ohio Republican, lambasted Garland’s offer of “dedicated lines of communication” for reporting threats as a “snitch line.” That made me wonder whose side Jordan was on: law-and-order or outlaws-and-disorder?
“Now the FBI is trying to silence parents,” says a campaign ad for Glenn Youngkin, GOP nominee for Virginia governor in a tight race against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “That’s wrong.”
So is the rap against Garland, in my view. But, alas, that’s politics — and that’s too bad.
Politics explains why mask mandates and the right’s current fixation, “critical race theory,” appear to be the biggest issues driving the protests. Fortunately, vaccination rates and mask wearing rates have grown as people become better informed. CRT is another matter.
Public schools don’t even teach the real CRT, which is a controversial university-level study of systemic racism and its impacts. But the CRT label has been repurposed by some in this political moment to muzzle any classroom discussion of race that, as one protesting parent put it, might “make white students feel badly about being white.”
We Americans could talk intelligently about those fears, beginning with the question of what critical race theory really isn’t. Instead, a half-dozen states already have passed anti-CRT bills and a long list of others are considering them. The result is more confusion about what can be safely taught or discussed in class. The only losers, in my humble opinion, are the students.
At a time when schools should be teaching in an age-appropriate way about our country’s complex racial history, too many people are afraid to go near it. Which is just what some people want, if it gets them more votes — just like the old days.