School board takeovers are a symptom of a deeper divide

by Mick Rhodes |

“The conservative takeover of school boards and their stealthy attempt to rewrite our history, present a real threat to the future of public education.”

Thus concludes an alarming and effective USA Today opinion piece by Amanda Marcotte.

Morcotte argues that school boards in conservative states across the country are being infiltrated by ideologues bent on rewriting history to suit their Judeo Christian view of the world, indoctrinating (yes, there’s that word) public schoolchildren along the way to believe the teachings of the Christian Bible had a major role in the creation of the United States’ founding documents.

This, of course, is ludicrous.

The United States was created in part as a refuge for the free exercise of various religious beliefs, or none at all. The First Amendment gets to it straightaway: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The founders were clear: religion has no place in our government.

Yet here we are in 2023 seeing more and more school boards (and water boards, and city councils) infiltrated by those who would restrict students’ freedom — often, ironically, in the name of “religious freedom” — to learn about slavery, racism, and LGBTQ+ Americans. And these restrictions aren’t just happening in conservative bastions like Texas or Florida. Increasingly, they’re creeping into California and even nipping at the city limits of Claremont.

The radical end of the Republican Party has co-opted the phrase, “don’t tread on me.” But it sure treads on a lot of truth. For instance, gay, trans, and non-binary people exist, and have since the beginning of time. Why so afraid? None of the strands of the LGBTQ+ rainbow are contagious. They’re not “taught”; you’re thinking of racism and homophobia.

Ideologue lawmakers, school boards, and activist groups are moving increasingly to constrain science and history curriculums, even limiting what current events can be discussed in high schools.

For instance, Florida’s State Academic Standards for Social Studies, 2023, section SS.68.AA.2.3, includes this: “Examine the various duties and trades performed by slaves (e.g., agricultural work, painting, carpentry, tailoring, domestic service, blacksmithing, transportation). Benchmark Clarifications: Clarification 1: Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Florida is saying there were two sides to slavery, that slaves — when they weren’t being raped, murdered, brutalized, dehumanized, or otherwise worked to death — were actually in trade school. Fascinating!

Vice President Kamala Harris, whose father was a Black Jamaican immigrant, remarked at the July 20 Delta Sigma Theta Sorority national convention: “Just yesterday, in the state of Florida, they decided middle school students will be taught that enslaved people benefited from slavery. They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not stand for it — we who share a collective experience in knowing we must honor history and our duty in the context of legacy.”

The LGBTQ+ community is also under attack by conservatives, nationally and locally.

On July 20, Sonja Shaw, president of the nearby Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, accused California’s Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond of “proposing things that pervert children” for voicing his opposition to a proposal to force schools to inform parents if their child identifies as transgender. Then, as the crowd heckled Thurmond, Shaw instructed security to forcibly remove him from the meeting.

Chino USD’s proposal mirrored state Assembly Bill 1314, which is currently in committee and is highly unlikely to become law in California’s progressive, Democratic dominated legislature.

The Chino USD board passed the measure, 4-1, after Thurmond was ejected.

“I don’t mind being thrown out of a board meeting by extremists, I can take the heat, it’s part of the job,” Thurmond told KTVU. “What I can’t accept is the mistreatment of vulnerable students whose privacy is being taken away.”

Meanwhile, Temecula’s conservative majority school board president Joseph Komrosky recently referred to the late Harvey Milk, the LGBTQ+ icon who was assassinated in 1978 and was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a “pedophile.” All this before bowing to pressure from Governor Gavin Newsom — which included threats of a $1.5 million fine if the board continued to flout state law — to adopt a curriculum that included LGBTQ+ history, which it did by a 3-2 vote on July 21.

You may recall the Temecula school board voted in December 2022 to ban teaching the full story of Black history in America, which some refer to, mostly derisively, as “critical race theory.” That stunt will soon land Temecula USD in court, as the Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law project announced Wednesday it is suing the Temecula school board, and that one of its partners in the civil lawsuit is Temecula’s teachers union.

That conservative majority school boards, and others across the country, are using the culture wars to stoke fear among disenfranchised white suburbanites is understandable: white America is receding; non-white America is surging, and will continue to do so. That reality — that white people are losing their grip on the levers of power — is a key component in what is driving white conservatives to such extremes.

Why are white parents so afraid of their children learning about slavery, lynchings, redlining, economic and educational discrimination, and other shameful facts of American history? I’m no sociologist, but common sense and life experience tells me when someone is scared of losing their grip on power, they lash out. Conservative white America is lashing out right now.

We’re seeing more and more red states constricting the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Many of these regressive attacks are couched in religious dogma. Make no mistake: this a smokescreen for returning America to a “simpler time,” aka, when white political and economic power was unchallenged. The cracked, listing foundation upon which this dominance was built is made up of racism, voter intimidation, gerrymandering, redlining, and all other manner of oppression and discrimination. Yes, hard work certainly played a part, but the playing field has been tilted in white Christian men’s favor since 1776.

But demographics are like science: they’re just facts. It’s a matter of time until white America’s longstanding choke hold on power is eroded to the point where real progress, and real equality, can occur. And the shrinking Republican base has been trained to be terrified of that fact.

And by the way, that USA Today opinion piece about the creep of radical conservatism on school boards across the country? It was published in 2014.


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