Education

Is The Current School Board Culture War Really That Different From The Past, Or Are We Just Paying More Attention?

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Kendall Tietz Education Reporter
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  • Parents across the U.S. have spoken out against ideology and curricula they don’t agree with, often in viral moments caught on video criticizing school boards’ decisions on masks, COVID-19 vaccine mandates, reopening and critical race theory.
  • “When something happens where people feel like they can no longer control what’s going on in their schools, they get upset, and they start being much more active,” such as voting in school board elections and running for office, said Andy Smarick, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
  • Despite the recent uproar in school board meetings around the country the trend isn’t unusual historically, and it isn’t clear whether the issues causing a culture war in America’s schools are more salient than those of the past, multiple experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation. 

Despite the recent uproar in school board meetings around the country the trend isn’t unusual historically, and it isn’t clear whether the issues causing a culture war in America’s schools are more salient than those of the past, multiple experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation. 

In recent months, parents across the U.S. have spoken out against ideology and curricula they don’t agree with, often in viral moments caught on video criticizing school boards’ decisions on masks, COVID-19 vaccine mandates, reopening and critical race theory (CRT).

People generally feel like they are familiar with their school board system and that they can trust what it does, according to Andy Smarick, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He said it’s important to learn from the past when looking at the current uproar from parents on both sides of the political spectrum and consider what is sparking increased turnout at local school board meetings.

“When something happens where people feel like they can no longer control what’s going on in their schools, they get upset, and they start being much more active,” such as voting in school board elections and running for office, Smarick said.

One mother went viral for her rant against CRT at a Loudoun County Public Schools school board meeting, which has been the site of many viral moments featuring indignant parents. She called on the district to ban CRT, which she said was “abusive” to children because it discriminates “against one’s color” and warned the school board to “think twice before you indoctrinate such racist theories.”

CRT holds that America is fundamentally racist, yet it teaches people to view every social interaction and person in terms of race. Its adherents pursue “antiracism” through the end of merit, objective truth and the adoption of race-based policies.

At a school board meeting in June, Loudoun County garnered national attention when parents protesting CRT were arrested for trespassing after they refused to leave when the school board ended public comment because the meeting became too unruly.

At another school board meeting in the district, teacher and activist Lilit Vanetsyan told parents to speak out for their kids or risk “them rooting for socialism by the time they get to middle school.”

Smarick said the piqued interest over school issues “is not unusual historically” and that it happens “every decade or so.”

He said the same theme was prevalent with the rise of the Common Core movement, where the federal government attempted to enact a standard approach for all districts in a way that some local communities didn’t like.

Supporters of a mask mandate and anti-mask mandate speak during public comments at the Hillsborough County Schools Board meeting held at the district office on July 27, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended those who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors including students returning to school. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Supporters of a mask mandate and anti-mask mandate speak during public comments at the Hillsborough County Schools Board meeting held at the district office on July 27, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended those who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors including students returning to school. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Launched in 2009, Common Core is a set of academic standards and learning goals for K-12 public schools that outline what knowledge and skills a student should have at the end of each grade. The standards aim to ensure success upon graduation regardless of where a student may live in the U.S.

At least 41 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards.

Critics of Common Core argued it is a “one-size fits all,” bureaucratic, top-down approach by the federal government that isn’t sufficient for all students across the U.S., according to the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. Others argued it was an infringement by the federal government on the local authority of schools, which benefitted corporate actors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who gave over $200 million dollars in support of the Common Core movement, according to Harvard Ed. Magazine and The Washington Post.

The media has picked up the interest from parents to get involved with local school boards, giving it national attention, which is reflected in news headlines, said Jonathan Butcher, education fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He said virtual learning as a result of the pandemic, which gave parents a front row seat to what kids were being taught, has been a factor in the intensified attention to curricula.

“Public schools, they are places where we should care about the intersection of culture and policy,” Butcher said. “We’re recognizing it now with critical race theory in schools, as though it’s something new.”

Butcher also compared the current climate to the Common Core movement, when parents went to local school boards to express their discontent with what their kids were being taught.

In the case of CRT, Butcher said corporate media framed at the pushback from parents as a “unique” occurrence when it really isn’t. Instead, he said parents have always cared and been interested, but since CRT is an issue dealing with race, it gets more attention that “makes for a headline.”

In the current political climate people seem to mobilize on cultural, partisan issues, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “that people are more engaged in school politics,” said Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and professor at the University of Washington Bothell. “It’s just more that people are more engaged in politics, and schools are one place they do it.”

People talk before the start of a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. "Are you ready to take back our schools?" Republican activist Patti Menders shouted at a rally opposing anti-racism teaching that critics like her say trains white children to see themselves as "oppressors." "Yes!", answered in unison the hundreds of demonstrators gathered this weekend near Washington to fight against "critical race theory," the latest battleground of America's ongoing culture wars. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

People talk before the start of a rally against “critical race theory” (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. “Are you ready to take back our schools?” Republican activist Patti Menders shouted at a rally opposing anti-racism teaching that critics like her say trains white children to see themselves as “oppressors.” “Yes!”, answered in unison the hundreds of demonstrators gathered this weekend near Washington to fight against “critical race theory,” the latest battleground of America’s ongoing culture wars. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The current debates happening in school boards across the country might be the exception if the issues are “salient enough,” according to Vladimir Kogan, Ohio State University political science professor. But he argues this is likely “the latest iteration … of a broader trend we’ve seen in the last couple of decades, which is growing nationalization of local elections.”

Past debates in education also include abstinence-only sex education, the 2006 controversy over evolution and intelligent design, and prayer in schools, which the Supreme Court ruled against in 1962, arguing it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

When high profile, national figures weigh in on school issues it leads to polarization among the electorate, Kogan said. It happened 10 years ago when President Barack Obama came out in support of Common Core and “suddenly everybody cared about it. Republicans were against it, Democrats were for it,” he said.

The same thing is playing out now as a result of former President Donald Trump’s strong stance on school issues during the pandemic, which had the effect of polarizing people along party lines, Kogan added.

“President Trump was very vocal about masks, very vocal about school reopening, very vocal about critical race theory, so that had I think this downstream effect,” Kogan said. The phenomena is a facet of American politics in recent decades, where there is a “follow the leader, partisan cheerleading” type of notion, he said. (RELATED: OPINION: Study Finds Declining Student Achievement, Increased Harm To School Choice Since Common Core)

In the past, school boards typically haven’t debated issues with national relevance. But that has changed with the debate surrounding CRT and COVID-19 related protocols in schools, said Jonathan Collins, assistant professor of education and political science at Brown University

“All of these kinds of public health, COVID related educational policy issues are becoming sort of national mainstream and that relevance, that salience is creating a particularly high attentive level to what’s happening with school boards and school districts,” Collins said.

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