The Memo

The Memo: Culture war intensifies over school boards

School boards have become a new front in the nation's culture wars - and hostilities are only getting more intense.

On Monday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was taking a number of steps to address threats of violence against school board members at the state and local level.

Garland instructed the FBI and U.S. attorneys around the country to make contact with local law enforcement to discuss how to deal with "this disturbing trend." A task force is also expected to be set up.

To supporters of Garland's position, this was an overdue action, given that school board members and teachers - and, in some cases, students - have faced verbal attacks and aggressive behavior, primarily over mask mandates and the controversy over critical race theory in recent months.

But the DOJ move incited fierce criticism from the right, with conservatives charging that the actions could have chilling effects on dissent and First Amendment principles.

The debate demonstrates, yet again, just how alienated from each other competing political tribes have become in America. Biden administration officials heralded the DOJ action as a commonsense safety measure. Republicans cast it as a nefarious attack on liberty.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, just days before Garland's announcement, said, "We take the security of public servants and elected officials across the country very seriously. And obviously these threats to school board members [are] horrible. They're doing their jobs."

But when Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, she faced hostile questioning on the topic from Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), both of whom are possible 2024 presidential contenders.

Conservatives had already been outraged by a letter sent to the Biden administration by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) last week that described public schools and educators as "under an immediate threat" and suggested that some actions school board members faced were "equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism."

"Is it domestic extremism for a parent to advocate for their child's best interests?" Cotton asked Monaco during the Senate hearing.

Hawley demanded that Monaco should "tell me where the line is with parents expressing their concerns" and also cast the FBI as interfering in school board meetings.

Responding to the second point, Monaco insisted, "That is not going on."

Schools have increasingly become the focus of the tensions wrenching at the broader civic fabric of the United States. The trend is intertwined with the stresses and political polarization around the coronavirus pandemic, with some parents demanding mask mandates and others equally fervent in resisting them.

Meanwhile, the debate over critical race theory has become a proxy for the larger discussion of racial justice, as liberals see it, and excessive "wokeness," from conservatives' perspective.

That has fueled an atmosphere in which local school boards are increasingly dragged into national politics - and affected by the passions that still swirl around former President Trump.

"The path to save the nation is very simple - it's going to go through the school boards," Stephen Bannon, the former Trump aide predicted on his podcast in May.

The NSBA letter to Biden outlined numerous instances of trouble erupting at school board meetings.

The association noted that one person had been arrested in Illinois for aggravated battery during a school board meeting. Another example came in Virginia, where, according to the NSBA, "an individual was arrested, another man was ticketed for trespassing and a third person was hurt during a school board meeting discussing distinguishing current curricula from critical race theory."

Facing those kinds of threats, school board members are adamant that action is needed.

Monica Peloso, president of the Cheyenne Mountain School District Board of Education in Colorado, told this column that she welcomed the DOJ's moves and was "thrilled" that the national board had "reached out to let them know what is going on. It's ludicrous."

Peloso has previously recounted to The Hill intimidating behavior experienced by her board. On Wednesday, she said that another school board district in Colorado had felt the need to have a large police presence, including SWAT teams, for one of its meetings.

But a completely different view is put forth by Sue Zoldak, a GOP strategist and founder of a parents group in Fairfax County, Va., called Do Better FCPS.

To Zoldak, the DOJ's actions are "a clear exaggeration and overreaction to what has happened in the last 18 months."

Zoldak argued that the pandemic has opened parents' eyes to how much power school boards wield. She said that her group was focused on getting accountability and transparency regarding how her county, in the D.C.-adjacent northern suburbs of Virginia, operates.

Asked whether she felt some other parents groups had gone too far in their actions, Zoldak demurred.

"We wouldn't be at this point where parents were that upset if school board members were accountable to their constituents and they were listening," she said. "What we have found is that school board members consider themselves to be politicians as opposed to school administrators."

She added: "They have put their political opinions above the educational progress of the students and the families they are supposed to be taking care of. Parents are frustrated."

Right now, just about everyone in the debate is frustrated. And there are no signs of those passions cooling off.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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