The media pile-on atop Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) for his comments Wednesday characterizing mock Nazi salutes at school board meetings as First Amendment–protected speech is not, unfortunately, an aberrational event when it comes to news coverage this fall of parents publicly registering their discontent with various contentious K-12 policies.
Not a day goes by without the media comparing raucous school board meetings to the January 6 Capitol Hill riots, attributing the increase in parental outrage to racism and/or manipulation by cynical puppet masters, conducting laughably one-sided fact-checks, using the phrase “Republicans seize” unironically, and taking at face value education-establishment claims that all curricular and organizational changes made in the name of racial equity are merely about being more accurate in the teaching of history.
Sometimes all, or most of the boxes can be ticked in one broadcast segment or article. CNN, for example. Anderson Cooper 360Wednesday night saw Cooper give a long, painful lecture about “facts” and then Jeffrey Toobin (CNN legal analyst) offered this tendentious explanation of why school board politics are so heated. It will change how the Virginia gubernatorial elections unfold next week.
Toobin claimed that school boards are being discussed because they’re about white supremacy and the Republican Party’s rise in this area. School boards are controversial because some have taught that civil rights and African American rights in this country haven’t been as great over time, just like slavery and Jim Crow. And that has so outraged the Republican Party—telling the truth about race in America—that they feel the way to win elections and to win the governorship in Virginia, is to demonize these school boards for daring to tell the truth about race in America. This is the real core of all this.
Zaid Jilani is a progressive journalist who lives and works part-time in Virginia. The Fifth ColumnPodcast Wednesday: Toobin’s vision did not resemble what he had seen on the ground.
Jilani explained that those debates had been going on for months and were not merely a new national phenomenon. “There were debates about some of the selective high schools, and…should they use testing to get people in, should it be a holistic process. There was debate about curriculum. Also, debates over COVID masking and curriculum. I didn’t see any white supremacists at all during these debates. “I didn’t find anyone wearing a Klan Hood.”
There is something revealingly incongruous about a news organization that in one breath conducts hair-splitting fact-checks deferring to the government’s of view (“In fact, there’s no mention of ‘parents’…at all in the memo, none,” Cooper said triumphantly Wednesday, about the controversial October 4 Justice Department directive to have federal agents be on the lookout for anti–school board violence), then in the next being content to nod along when a colleague accuses citizen participants in democracy and a major political party of being primarily motivated by white supremacy.
The issue of this matter isn’t going away soon, especially since Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor, may be a factor. upsetsVirginia’s power pol Terry McAuliffe is running for governor next week. It’s worthwhile to be on the lookout in order to spot recurrent media framing tools that can distort an important set of debats. Don’t forget that K-12 education accounts for about 20% of state and local government expenditures. My admittedly eccentric school policy preferences are not the point. The goal is to learn how to recognize patterns and become a better consumer of news.
These are just two examples of how the media manipulates school board politics.
1) Inflating the frequency of violence
Minnesota Public Radio published this disturbing assertion on October 22nd, in an article that was widely read and also adapted from the Associated Press: “Violent School Board Meetings and Threats Toward School Board Members” [in Minnesota]Many board directors have been forced to resign over these matters. Please note that serial pluralization is used.
Did there actually appear to be multiple acts of violence and threats that caused board members to resign in an area known for its politeness, even though they were numerous. It was not clear that any were mentioned in the 757-word article. However, there was a link to a June piece which stated that “someone had threatened on a local Facebook page to rush for the podium at one meeting”. But no such threat came true.
From late September I found one incident that involved violence in Minnesota. This was when two individuals who stood on different sides of the school’s policy regarding masking were involved in a short scuffle which was ended by a cop.
It seems that more than citizens-on-official violent acts or credible threats to them, there is an underlying reaction of confusion on the part (often volunteer!) school board members face-to-face with vein-throbbing parent outrage, and perhaps some. pretty bizarro vox-populi rantsThis is what it looks like. Some board members feel spooked. Others don’t think it is worth the effort. Other, such as Jodi, Minnesota School Board Chair, believe that the best way to get out of this mess is to declare “this meeting does not belong to the public” and require citizens to enter their name and address in a microphone.
This summer and autumn, there were acts of violence against individuals and intimidation at school board meetings. However, how many did they commit?
The National School Board Association (NSBA), which requested federal law enforcement assistance immediately “to safeguard our students, school boards members and educators susceptible to violence acts”, sent a notorious, but still effective letter on September 29, asking for “immediate” federal help. It linked to 20 incidents and used summative language like “attacks against educators and school board members” and “acts violence, malice and threats to public school officials.
Is it possible that 20 of those incidents were a physical altercation. Most of the incidents (13) involved a physical altercation. The NSBA letter had two mentions of people getting into fights. One was a man in Illinois who punched the school official who was escorting the boy out. And the other, which is still disputed, was the case from Loudon County in Virginia where the father who sexually assaulted a young girl in a school restroom went crazy after hearing the superintendent state that “To my knowledge we don’t have any records of assaults taking place in our bathrooms.”
Loudon County’s arrest is a case in point. It has provoked outrage across the country, from state and local levels to national, as well as all of its wild-eyed lies. (The NSBA letter misportrayed the incident as being tied to discussion of “critical race theory and…equity issues”; conservatives have since inaccurately blamed the attack on the school’s transgender bathroom policies.) Loudon officials were the target of personal vitriol that was particularly offensive and warrants increased law enforcement scrutiny. However, the violent reaction of a father to his daughter’s brutal attack is not a good fit for a national story.
There have been other acts of violence not listed in the NSBA letter—there were reportedly multiple fights in a Missouri parking lot after a September meeting on masking, for example. We are still counting, maybe on two hands, how many times school board members in Missouri have thrown their arms after a September meeting about masking. This suggests that the context of these conflicts is far less complex than the one we saw in the press.
This week’s headline was “GOP demands Justice Department back off threat to protect school board members from violent mobs,” Above and Beyond the Law. This lopsided hyperbole and disregard for large swathes of the population has, along with blue-state education COVID-19 restrictions, driven at least half a dozen school-opening supporters I follow on twitter away from a Democratic Party that they have spent their entire lives supporting. This may push Democratic Virginians to vote Republican for governor.
2) Claiming parental outrage to be a conjured, unattached “culture war”, without real-world considerations
“Fox News can’t get enough of these congressional hearings in which GOP lawmakers bash AG Merrick Garland Over manufactured controversies”, wrote Oliver Darcy from CNN this week, in the Sources of reliabilitySubscribe to our newsletter
According to Fox News, “Fox News contributed to a disturbance at the school board meetings several month ago,” Washington PostColumnist Philip Bump was last week. “Over the summer, this had the (intended) effect of establishing a tea-party-like movement from the base up—one that, like the tea party a decade ago, was carefully cultivated and tended….It’s an issue that was formed from the sheer energy of the culture war more than anything else.”
Fox’s influence in New York City or San Francisco is not something I remember. Yet both cosmopolitan capitals have been the site of intense school board politics—not for months, but for years. This February’s recall vote will be held for the San Francisco Unified school District board members. According to Ballotpedia, backers are frustrated that 44 schools were closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also feel that the board has spent too much time voting on renaming the buildings instead of focusing their efforts to open schools.
From 2009–2020, Ballotpedia counted between 18 and 38 school board recalls per year, targeting between 46 and 91 members. In 2021 those numbers have more than doubled—84 recalls aiming at 215 officials. Close your eyes, and ask yourself: OtherThere are other motivations that recallers might have than the pleasure of answering “How high?” When Fox News shouts, “Jump!”What is the answer?
“The combination of extended Covid-related school closures; mask mandates; an increasingly extreme race- and gender-focused curriculum; and the removal of tests, honors classes and merit-based admissions has created a bumper crop of engaged—and, in many cases, enraged—parents rightfully concerned about what is happening in their children’s schools,” wrote Manhattan-based school activist and City Council candidate Maud Maron, a “lifelong liberal,” over at Bari Weiss’ Substack on October 11.
The United States has been an outlier in the world, especially since 2020’s fall, when it came to closing schools, hiding children and keeping them safe for the 19+ month COVID-19 pandemic. mandating vaccines for 5-year-olds. This is a relatively extreme policy, driven in large part by the power of teachers unions in certain parts of America’s centralized schooling system. It has prompted some parents to be more involved in decision-making.
And one of the things that they discover there is that the education establishment, particularly but not only in big cities, has only accelerated recent trends of junking Gifted & Talented programs, removing selective entrance exams, constructing “controlled choice” admission systems, and centering curricula around “anti-racist” themes, all in the name of “equity.” This is a divisive choice in the best of times. A pandemic, however, will not be.
“We should call this controversy what it is—a scare campaign cooked up by G.O.P. Randi Weingarten of American Federation of Teachers stated that “operatives” were attempting to “limit our student’s education and understanding of historical or current events. The New York TimesThis week.
It’s not true. No. These radical changes, combined with COVID-19 limitations, are fueling an exodus from K-12.
These topics are sometimes covered by media outlets with depth and nuance. They may spend a great deal of time fact-checking differences in academic terminology. Critique of race theoryConservative activists have co-opted the term as part of a negative branding exercise. (A branding exercise, to be sure, that has led to bad policy results, such as a Texas Republican lawmaker this week compiling a list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”)
My grisly experience has shown me that there is no shortage of kooks present at any public gathering. People who are motivated by Tucker Carlson’s apocalyptic visions are more likely to feel insane. It is a mistake to say that most school board members are driven by the national media. These politics and these relationships are local.
When former President Barack Obama says, “We don’t have the time to waste on these fake trumped up culture wars and this fake outrage,” which he said by McAuliffe’s side, that’s insulting to everyone who’s been dragged to school meetings because they care about the policies that affect our children.