By Adam Laats / Special To The Washington Post
It seemed to come out of nowhere. In June, a school-board meeting in Loudon County, Va., devolved into a shouting match, with conservative protesters eventually cleared from the hall by police. Similar conflicts roiled school-board meetings across the country, over a range of hot-button issues: masks, vaccines, policies for trans athletes, Critical Race Theory. The conflicts moved past yelling, to lawsuits and demands for recalls; and not just of individual members, but entire boards. Over and over again, local school-board meetings have turned from staid discussions of budgets and staffing to heated ideological forums, hosting a go-nowhere series of fights that have little to do with the actual needs of the local schools.
Conservative pundits have talked up these confrontations as part of a larger political strategy. Ian Prior, an activist who has claimed credit for what he’s called “Loudoun awakening,” boasts that his “army of moms,” fired up by school board protests, will sweep Democrats out of national office in next year’s elections. The Heritage Foundation declared July “National Attend Your School Board Meeting Month” and celebrated the “Great Parent Revolt of 2021,” which includes the founding of hundreds of new parent activist groups that might thwart “the radical tide of educators, nonprofits and federal education bureaucrats.”
Blaming public schools: Seen in the long view of our country’s culture wars, these outbursts are better understood as a politics of petulance. At moments when American culture has taken some progressive turn, conservatives have consistently blamed a single culprit for indoctrinating vulnerable youth with radical ideas: public schools. Local school board meetings offer an attractively close-to-hand target; a place to vent frustrations and feel some measure of control, instead of admitting defeat. Whenever activists and parents have feared for the souls of their children, they have engaged in the kind of disruption that we’re seeing today, wreaking significant havoc on the short-term functioning of public schools.
A hundred years ago, for example, it seemed to many Americans that the “flaming youth” were pushing the country in a dangerous direction. Young people were conspicuously flouting Prohibition; young women were challenging strict gender roles by smoking in public and cutting their hair short; white children were dancing to jazz music (a threatening development, in the eyes of white supremacists). The leader of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, Hiram Evans, minced no words about the alleged problem. For the past decade, Evans complained in 1926, the “traditional moral values” of white Protestants of the old “pioneer stock” had eroded; and worst of all, the “right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us.”
Then three major Klan efforts to take over education were all thwarted. Evans proposed creating a federal Department of Education, but white Southerners squelched the idea. In Oregon, the Klan helped pass a law banning Catholic schools, only to have the Supreme Court toss it. Klan members backed the publication of a new heroic American history textbook, one that might save schoolchildren from troubling questions about the nation’s epic past. In the end, the textbook’s sponsors in the American Legion yanked it off shelves for its low quality and rank bigotry.
The Klan’s attention goes local: The Ku Klux Klan thus turned to school board politics. In cities across the nation, from Indianapolis to La Grande, Ore., local groups ran for school board; they disrupted meetings with solemn processions of robed and hooded Klansmen; and they agitated to have progressive teachers — and Catholic teachers — fired. The Klan couldn’t achieve its grandest ambitions on a state or national scale. But it did force many local school boards to discuss the dangers of Catholicism and race-mixing instead of budgets and buses.
Fast forward to the turbulent 1960s, when the pattern continued. Alarmed by the images of young people agitating for change, conservatives immediately blamed schools. In Kanawha County, W.Va., for example, conservative activist Alice Moore was outraged by the behavior of children in her local community. As she told me years later, she was shocked at the way teenagers smoked, publicly kissed and generally disrespected their elders. Frustrated, Moore ran for a seat on her local school board. Once she was elected, she used her platform to disrupt the adoption of new textbooks that she claimed were anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-white. She rallied like-minded parents to protect their children from these new books.
The resulting 1974 boycott turned angry, and violent. Activists from around the country flocked to West Virginia to support the protest. Journalists flocked to cover it. The school board building was attacked with dynamite. Elementary school classrooms were firebombed. School buses were riddled with bullets. When the violence died down, though, the boycott petered out. The textbooks returned to the schools and so did the students.
National pundits tried to salvage an appearance of victory from this defeat, and to rally their disheartened supporters. The fledgling Heritage Foundation rushed to West Virginia to defend the doomed conservative boycott in court. The organization’s publications warned that public schools were actively teaching students to “embrace racism, fascism, or any other ‘ism,’ including cannibalism.” Conservative parents “must stop trusting public education,” one Heritage Foundation writer demanded in 1978, and they must attack and disrupt their local school boards in any way they could.
A youth-backed movement: Today, conservative anger is resurgent. One Missouri parent went so far as to denounce their school’s curriculums as “psychological child abuse.” But schools are not forcing ideas on unsuspecting children; young people themselves are pushing for faster progressive change. In Pennsylvania, students organized protests against bans on anti-racist teaching materials. In Wisconsin, white students demanded that their public schools do a better job of confronting and teaching concepts such as White privilege. In 2020, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, one Tufts University survey found that over a quarter of respondents aged 18 to 24 said they had attended a march or demonstration. In 2016, that number was only 1 in 20. It’s not true in every case, of course, but polls suggest that young people hold more progressive views about race and LGBTQ issues than their parents.
In the face of these changes, conservative parents and activists are doing the only thing they can: disrupting their local school board meetings to make their anger felt. Activists in districts across the country are spreading rumors and threats on Facebook that their local public-school administrators are anti-white racists. They are storming into and derailing school-board meetings. They are conducting mask-burning ceremonies.
A local focus for rage: Why have school boards become ground zero for these aggressive ideological skirmishes? Quite simply: They are accessible. Most meetings are open to the public, in local town halls or school-district offices; their members are local volunteers, who usually have no campaign war chests or partisan election support. School boards are viewed as winnable battlegrounds that activists can turn into islands of the “real” America, in a rising sea of cultural change. Conservatives may be claiming resurgent power, or boasting about seeing three moves ahead to the midterm elections; but when activists and frightened parents stymie the day-to-day function of their local school boards, it is more akin to flipping over the chess board when check is called.
This does not mean they can be blithely dismissed. Today as in the past, no amount of conservative angst can turn back the clock, but enough anger at a local meeting can ruin the chances of meaningful deliberation.
If the board has been flipped, it’s impossible to keep playing. And if school-board meetings are disrupted, members recalled, teachers threatened, students intimidated, it is that much harder for schools to function and children to learn.
Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of “Fundamentalist U.” and “The Other School Reformers.”