School boards become ground zero for country's culture wars

School board meetings across the country have become ground zero for the country’s culture wars, often resulting in combative and confrontational forums as students prepare to head back to school in the fall.

In Tennessee, health care workers faced threats from angry crowds after a Williamson County School Board meeting, while a school board meeting in Clarkstown, N.Y., was called off after attendees refused to wear masks.

The recent incidents come roughly two months after protests erupted in Loudoun County, Virginia, over the rights of transgender students. That school board recently voted 7-2 to expand the rights of transgender students.

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Mask mandates in schools have become the latest point of contention at meetings. 

Earlier this month, the Virginia Beach School Board voted 7-4 to mandate masks in public schools, while in Chesterfield County, Virginia, the school board voted unanimously to approve the mask mandate. In Hanover County, meanwhile, the school board voted 4-3 against requiring students or staff to wear masks during the upcoming school year.

Roughly 30 speakers weighed in on the mask debate in Chesterfield, while almost 70 people spoke at the Virginia Beach meeting, which went past 1 a.m., according to The Virginian-Pilot.

Conservatives say the confrontational meetings are the result of what they call a disconnect between school boards and parents. They say parents’ anger at school boards has resulted in a growing grassroots movement.

“It does really come down to a lack of trust,” said Ian Prior, the executive director of Fight For Schools, a conservative PAC that is leading the effort to recall the school board members.

“What you’re seeing is dozens, if not hundreds, of parents showing up at school board meetings in really overwhelming numbers of parents that are opposed to what the school board is doing vis-a-vis the parents that are supporting it, and they just don’t seem to listen,” he added.

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Fight For Schools raised more than $134,000 from April through June of this year from 1,545 donations. The group’s cash on hand totals over $106,000.

“There’s no question there is real, organic, grassroots energy bubbling up not unlike what we saw in the early days of the Tea Party in 2009,” said Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association and former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) campaign manager, referring to the movement of disgruntled parents. 

Organizers of groups pushing back on school boards insist the movement was not born out of politics — yet political candidates have also gotten involved in the fight.

Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin unveiled his education plan at a campaign event in front of the Loudoun Public Schools Administration Building in June, taking aim at critical race theory and speaking about the importance of empowering parents.

“Loudoun County is ground zero for the fight to return our schools to a curriculum that prepares students for the future,” Youngkin said. “The classroom is not a place for a political agenda.”

“I think we need to listen to parents and gather all the data, which they haven’t done a good job of. I would encourage school boards across Virginia to make sure that they have listened to families,” he said.

Loudoun County has become the epicenter of the fight between parents and school boards.

The county’s school board has hosted at times emotional meetings and has garnered national attention, with parents speaking out about hot-button topics like transgender issues and critical race theory. The latter, a legal theory arguing racism is rooted in the nation’s founding and that systemic racism continues to have a negative impact on the opportunities and treatment of people of color at all levels of society today, has become a hotly debated issue in particular.

“Part of this is really due to peeling back the curtain on what kids are learning and how they’re being taught in school and parents were able to do that during the pandemic,” Prior said, adding that parents were already frustrated over school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Experts say schools and school boards have been the stage for a number of debates over social and cultural changes in recent history, including prayer in schools and integrated busing.

“People care very deeply about the public school system, the impact that it has on their children and therefore many of the contentious culture war issues are played out in local politics, primarily through school boards more so than in national politics,” said Mark Rozell, the dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“People perceive that this can be where they can make a difference in the everyday lives of their children, their families, their communities,” he added.

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Others argue that school boards are an easily accessible forum for parents to be a part of and have an impact.

“If one can control anything in terms of the political and the cultural, that control takes place on the local level,” said the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, an Episcopal priest who has been vocal on issues of race, including the reaction to critical race theory.

School board proponents argue that their agendas are not based in political bias.

“Our topical agendas, literally and figuratively, are about providing services to kids,” said Atoosa Reaser, vice chair of Loudoun County Public Schools. “Anything else that comes our way, the General Assembly mandates some kind of curricular teaching or policies having to do with the rights of students, then we implement what the General Assembly dictates we should implement.”

Reaser said the extra involvement in school board meetings from parents and community members was the result of wanting to advocate for what students needed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was helpful to have that feedback,” Reaser said.

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“Unfortunately, what I saw in our June meeting was organized political operatives shouting on tables,” she added, referring to a raucous school board meeting last June.

The meeting resulted in two people being detained after a heated debate over critical race theory and policies on transgender students.

“You’re starting off the meeting knowing people wanted to throw things at you,” Reaser said. “They came in there with the intent to be violent.”

Community leaders say the impact of the violence at the more contentious meetings could have generational consequences.

“We have to recognize that we are shaping not just our country and who we are as a people, who we are for the present, we’re shaping who we are for the future and we’re shaping a generation,” Douglas said.