Suddenly, but unsurprisingly, the U.S. Justice Department is interested in parents protesting local school board meetings. Because of course it is.
In America in 2021, citizens’ loud but nonviolent demonstrations before elected officials are tantamount to domestic terrorism and “hate speech,” while the Black Lives Matter and Antifa insurrectionary violence of 2020—which resulted in at least 30 deaths, over $1 billion in property damage, and the brief rise of lawless “autonomous zones” in Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, and Richmond, Virginia—is “fiery but mostly peaceful protest.”
The danger is clear and present—it simply depends upon who is protesting. As one wag put it on Twitter, “The DOJ used to go after MS13. Now you want them to go after Moms of 13-year-olds?”
Parents don’t like what they see coming out of their local schools. But government officials would prefer to do their work unencumbered by public input. This is old news, with an arrogant new twist. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe summed up the current conventional wisdom nicely at a debate with his Republican opponent the other week: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
That depends on what the schools are teaching, doesn’t it?
Parents have two grievances, broadly speaking. First, they oppose COVID-19-related mask mandates for their children. They note that the European countries we’re so often asked to emulate do not have mask (or COVID vaccine) mandates for schools. Sweden, where school is compulsory through the age of 16, actively discourages kids from wearing masks. And yet that country’s transmission rates have gone down population-wide.
The second grievance is also COVID-related, in as much as the lockdowns compelled more parents to notice what their kids are—and are not—learning. Many parents, including many black and Latino parents, do not want their children to be taught that America is a systemically racist nation and that its institutions (capitalism often gets mentioned here) are irredeemable
Parents across the country have shown up to normally staid school board meetings to demand that critical race theory be removed from the curriculum. Defenders of the race-based curriculum like to point out that “critical race theory” is not actually being taught in schools. But that’s just a semantic sleight of hand. No, kids aren’t reading Derrick Bell. Instead, they’re getting “social studies” (since American public schools don’t really teach history anymore) heavily informed by critical race theory and Marxist-tinged critical theory.
Parents are on to the scheme and they’re unhappy about it. The National School Boards Association on September 29 asked Joe Biden to intervene, alleging “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat.” The group says its members have “received death threats and have been subjected to threats and harassment, both online and in person.”
Making a terrorist threat is a crime not protected by the First Amendment. But it’s unclear why such threats could not be investigated by state and local law enforcement, rather than the feds. Well, the NSBA has an answer for that, too, although the rationale is paper-thin: “NSBA believes immediate assistance is required to protect our students, school board members, and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence affecting interstate commerce because of threats to their districts, families, and personal safety.” (Emphasis added.)
Interstate commerce? The NSBA knows that the federal government can do just about anything under the auspices of “interstate commerce,” even if the commerce never crosses state lines. The NSBA’s letter mentions “interstate commerce” three times, even though it never bothers to explain how parents protesting in Loudoun County, Virginia or Coeur d’Alene, Idaho affect the free movement of goods and services among the several states.
While the NSBA notes that some of its members have received threatening letters, and several meetings have been ended early because of crowds “inciting chaos,” it strains to document any actual violence. The NSBA leans on a “fact sheet” published in July by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which only documents an increase in demonstrations and notes the presence in some instances of “militias and other militant right-wing actors” whose mere presence is supposed to be seen as intimidating.
(It’s unclear whether any school board members have been followed into bathrooms by irate demonstrators, as Arizona’s Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema was last week. Would that make a difference? As Joe Biden said the other day, such harassment is “part of the process.”)
The Tedious Work of Politics Redux
Obviously, it’s no fun for a school board member to be shouted at by a throng of 200 angry parents. But the First Amendment for the most part protects what parents are doing. Harsh speech is still protected speech.
That doesn’t mean federal authorities can’t make our lives miserable and chill legitimate speech. During the 1990s, attorney Hans Bader reminds, civil rights lawyers with the Clinton Administration “investigated citizens for ‘harassment’ and ‘intimidation’ merely because those citizens spoke out against housing projects for recovering substance abusers or other classes of people protected by the Fair Housing Act.” Those investigations ended after a federal appeals court ruled they violated the First Amendment. But how much did those people lose in time and money battling the federal government before they won?
And just because the courts ruled one way 20 years ago, doesn’t mean a different set of judges ruling on a similar set of facts wouldn’t go the other way today. Bader notes that in 2017, a federal judge “allowed bloggers to be sued for intimidation for angry blog posts that allegedly created a ‘hostile housing environment.’”
Here, once again, the tedious work of politics becomes unavoidable.
Parents might take a leaf from the literal playbook of a Los Angeles-based group called Parent Revolution. About 10 years ago, Parent Revolution was involved heavily with organizing parents at failing public schools to use a (now largely toothless) state law called the Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the “parent trigger.”
Parent Revolution’s insight was to teach parents to use labor-union organizing tactics. They produced a hardcover book, small enough to fit into a pocket, called The Parent Power Handbook. It detailed, simply and directly, how parents could use the law to organize and transform their children’s schools.
Most importantly, anyone could follow the model Parent Revolution laid out in the handbook. “Step 1: Build Your Base,” “Step 2: Establish Your Chapter,” “Step 3: Pick Your Focus,” “Step 4: Launch Your Campaign.”
Every step involves practical organization advice. Schedule one-on-one conversations. Host house meetings with people you already know. Ask questions like, “What would an ideal school look like?” Try to identify parents who show an extra level of interest. Form a leadership committee. Decide on a focus—in this instance, removing noxious race-based curricula from schools. And then get people excited about it.
California’s parent trigger law had some limited success. It showed that motivated parents could make substantive changes. It also showed that the education establishment would fight viciously to stop them. (Almost every parent-trigger effort ended up in court.)
But if parents cannot get a receptive audience with their elected school board officials, they may need to resort to a tried-and-true, red-white-and-blue act of civil disobedience: the boycott.
When well organized, boycotts can be a highly effective form of political action. In 1968, Chicano activists in east Los Angeles organized a mass boycott of local schools to demand bilingual education. They got it.
Twenty years later, a smaller group of Latino parents organized a boycott of their own—this time, to insist that their kids learn English. They believed, correctly, that their children were being ghettoized in Spanish-only classes and receiving a second-class education. As one mother of a seven-year-old told the Los Angeles Times, “We want our children to be taught in English . . . that’s why we came to the United States. If not, better to keep her in my country. There she can learn in Spanish.” They won. And in 1998, Californians passed Proposition 227, which eliminated bilingual education statewide.
The boycotts succeeded for at least two reasons. First, schools are funded based on the number of pupils in attendance. In other words, the schools were losing money. Second, the parents avoided running afoul of truancy laws by enrolling their kids in free alternative schools for the duration of the boycott. Eventually, the authorities had to accept the parents’ demands.
If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Unseat ’Em
Every few years or so, parents recognize that what goes on at those otherwise boring school board meetings is pretty important to their kids’ wellbeing and educations. Local school boards may not have as much power as they once did—the number of U.S. public school districts has shrunk from more than 117,000 in 1940 to around 13,000 today—but they’re still important. In states with term limits (such as California), one party recognized decades ago that those seemingly insignificant local boards are ideal proving grounds for future candidates for statewide office.
Parents’ impassioned denunciations of noxious critical race theories and their offshoots make for great viral videos and may help shape future policies. Ultimately, however, they’re little more than political theater.
Unless and until these parents are in a position to persuade board members to change their votes, the only other option is to replace the board.
To that end, it isn’t enough to show up once to lodge a complaint. Attend every board meeting, not necessarily to speak, though sometimes to speak to put certain thoughts on the record. Mainly, be there to watch and listen. Pay close attention to the structure of the meeting. Scrutinize the agenda and the minutes, which usually appear online in advance. Take note of who else addresses the board during public comment. Get ahold of the budget and break it down line by line. Study state and local education codes.
Oh, and don’t forget to read the contract with the local teachers’ union.
A decent understanding of the system as it exists is the basis for a campaign to reform the system.
Any failed candidate for office will tell you that shoe leather and knocking on doors is essential but also not nearly enough. Doreen Diaz was a Parent Revolution organizer and mother of two who successfully campaigned to convert her children’s failing Southern California elementary school into an independent charter under the state’s parent trigger law. (The new charter school, however, ran into fatal troubles of its own within a few years.) Diaz in 2014 decided to run for school board in her city of Adelanto. She had a very good reform platform born of her experience organizing parents at her kids’ school. But she was also one of 13 candidates and had no money. She couldn’t even afford a short ballot statement.
The lesson? A campaign cannot consist of a candidate alone. The best ideas in the world are worthless without the means of sharing them widely and effectively with voters. Would-be reform candidates need stamina, sure, but also money and organization. Money buys messaging and alliances. Grassroots campaigns can succeed, but not without discipline—especially in the face of a highly organized, highly disciplined opposition from the teachers’ unions.
The teachers’ unions will put up money to fight any reformer they deem to be a threat. And the unions have everything the would-be reformer needs: resources, volunteers, money. They will lie and they will slander. They will use subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) intimidation tactics. And even if the reform candidate wins, the opposition will not let up.
It’s for those reasons that parents may be reluctant to enter the arena. But enter they must, because shouting for a few minutes during a public comment period won’t amount to much, except perhaps for a visit from the FBI. For parents to win this fight, they need to organize, educate, and learn to beat the education establishment at its own game.