Governance & Education Policy: Where Have All the Grown-ups Gone?
“It’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mind-set coming from the governor on down to ban conversation and to segment communities and to erase life experiences from classroom discussion”(Hedy Weinberg, director, ACLU Tennessee)
The sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical schisms in the U.S. which we observe daily on the national front cannot avoid being reflected at the local level. And one local governance body which has been especially vulnerable to spillover conflict is the school district.
School districts are representative government at its best (and worst): members are elected for set terms, and, at least traditionally, have tended to be individuals with children who were or had studied in the district schools, former teachers or other district employees, or civic-minded individuals inclined to involvement in les affaires educatives.
Boards set general policies for their districts (remember: there are 13,000 districts across the nation; Illinois alone has 859 – a fact that deserves a post of its own), and the degree to which individual boards become involved in the day to day running of schools varies from extremely hands-off to way too hands-on; Superintendents (who are hired by the Board and answer, ultimately, to them) are de officio members of the Board, although they may not be voting members.
The “Great Unraveling” of civility and civic-mindedness has not occurred in all 13,000 districts, of course. One of the most strife-ridden districts, Loudoun County, is next-door to another district in Alexandria which has experienced a conflict-free pandemic.
Most media reporting contends that the civil war that’s erupted in many school districts was caused by the pandemic. In contrast, we believe that the pandemic simply hastened a process of “unraveling” that had been underway for decades. The initial triggering event was, understandably, school closings (March 2020) and the almost-overnight shift to online/virtual instruction, for which many districts were, also understandably, unprepared.
Parents suddenly found themselves in the role of tutors-in-chief, or overseers of their children’s educational curriculum and day-to-day learning experiences, and there were not a few parents who didn’t like what they were seeing and hearing onscreen, whether it was how math was being taught (or not), or what books their children were reading, or how crucial racial issues in American history were being presented and discussed.
The early weeks and months of the pandemic have practically retreated to the status of ancient history two years on, but from March to September 2020, chaos reigned throughout the country. Schools, which in industrial and post-industrial societies serve in loco parentis for seven or eight (or more) hours each weekday so that children may be under adult supervision (i.e. “cared for”) during adult working hours, were unable to fulfill their twin role as community institutions of learning and looking after children before and after school. For those parents able to switch to working from home – by and large, middle and upper-middle class office workers – this situation was stressful. When both parents were working from home and trying to supervise / mentor two or three school-age children simultaneously, patience waned and tempers flared. But where were parents to direct their anger and frustration?
In late May 2020, George Floyd’s murder was captured by cell phone and the country erupted in horror. Protests and demonstrations continued for weeks, and millions of Americans began, perhaps for the first time, to awaken to the harsh reality of systemic (structural) racism in the nation’s justice system. Much of the background and some of the foreground of the School District Wars has been played out over What to Teach about Our Nation’s Racist History, and is currently before state legislatures (states have a major role in funding and dictating state educational policy, as a result of our diverse, non-federal system of public education) in the form of bills that would, for example, forbid schools to teach subject matter that might make students feel “uncomfortable.” Clearly, some state legislatures do not fully grasp the purpose of education itself: if you’re not feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably not learning.
Below we examine, in chronological order of their emergence, the issues which have made governing local school districts so difficult during the pandemic:
School Closures (March 2020)
When school districts across the U.S. began shutting down in March 2020, mostly within about two-three weeks, what ensued can only be described as chaotic. Among the issues children and their guardians confronted when schools shifted to virtual (online) platforms: (1) many families (poor urban, rural populations) could not afford or did not have access to high-speed broadband required for synchronous online learning; (2) Public schools offer meals to children of eligible families (those earning below 130% of the poverty level, or who are on TANF or SNAP), and emergency accommodations had to be made for meal preparation / pick-up / delivery so that children wouldn’t go hungry during the first few months of the pandemic; (3) Public schools, for want of a more flattering description, offer childcare services (aka “babysitting”) during the normal workday (8-4/ 9-5), and when schools closed suddenly, parents/guardians were left scrambling to make alternative care arrangements. At every socioeconomic level, knotty problems emerged.
There were two-parent, two-income families living in cramped urban apartments trying to work full-time from home while simultaneously supervising their children’s online learning – a “first-world” problem, but a problem nonetheless which drove thousands of professionals to seek somewhat cheaper and more spacious dwellings in the suburbs, and this problem, for which those with the financial means found a solution, is going to have knock-on effects on public school enrollments and thus, finances for years to come.
There were children of essential workers whose parents’ jobs couldn’t be performed from home; who was to look after the youngest of these, and who was to supervise the coursework of their older siblings? There were no adults at home, so inevitably, older siblings looked after younger ones, often to the detriment of their own learning. Families which had relied on older relatives (grandparents / great-aunts) for childcare when their children missed school due to illness could not responsibly expose elderly caregivers (many of whom were not comfortable using a laptop or iPad) to COVID-19. Of course, in multi-generational households, such exposure was unavoidable.
Parents of children under five who were in daycare or preschool programs had nowhere to leave them during the first months of the pandemic as daycare centers too were shut down (many, apparently, permanently). As a solution of last resort, some engaged friends/neighbors to look after the under-5s during the first several months, but we should remember that COVID-19 was running rampant in densely-populated urban neighborhoods, particularly those inhabited by POC. Everyone was fearful, and rightfully so.
It is understandable that many parents – often those parents who were financially able to confront the crisis in school closures – became upset and later, angry. They began writing emails to school boards, attending meetings via Zoom, and posting on closed Facebook groups, lobbying to re-open schools. Those most likely to become the object of anger were local school boards, populated by their friends, neighbors, fellow church-members – people they knew or knew of, people they might even have voted for in local elections.
This anger was expressed despite the fact that school closures were not the fault of school boards or districts; members / administrators were, however, a lot more accessible and vulnerable to attacks than the federal government, whose refusal to issue clear guidelines / explanations through the CDC will ultimately be seen as responsible for a pandemic whose end is not yet in sight. The CDC’s policies, while helpful after some months had elapsed (although by then it was too late), never clearly identified the coronavirus as aerosol, even though this was clear from the earliest superspreader events in Washington State and Boston.
Why did the virus’s airborne transmission matter? Well, it turns out it mattered more than just about any other characteristic feature of the virus, particularly in regard to transmission in congregate settings like public schools.
What’s the problem with our public schools? By and large, they’re old, and they haven’t been properly maintained and retrofitted during the past 30-40 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) most recently graded the U.S. public school infrastructure (2021) with a D+. Many urban schools in older industrial cities whose schools were built between 1900 and 1950 have outdated, malfunctioning ventilation systems and/or windows that hadn’t been opened in years. With aerosol viruses, ventilation is the key to successful mitigation; when the air in a school (both central areas like cafeterias and classrooms) can be changed every 10 minutes, the virus’s spread is significantly lessened. Air purifying systems producers made millions from contracts with school districts in 2020-2021, but many of these systems actually did not meet the requisite standard of air replacement classrooms required to be considered (relatively) safe.
Today there’s a DIY means for ventilating classroom-size spaces called the Corsi/Rosenthal box. It’s cheap (around $100 for all materials), and can be assembled by amateurs. And it works very well, even in spaces that are otherwise poorly-ventilated. Every classroom should have one.
In short: parents/guardians were right to be angry that schools were closed by the force majeure imposed by COVID-19, but their anger was misdirected. School boards and administrations could as a practical matter do little to ameliorate the virus’s spread in old, poorly-ventilated, over-crowded and under-staffed buildings. Furthermore, districts didn’t possess reliable information about the virus’s airborne spread.
The George Floyd killing (May 25, 2020)
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer in late May, which was recorded on a cell phone, ignited a series of protests and demonstrations across the country (starting from Minneapolis itself on the day after Floyd’s killing). Suddenly, Americans “woke up” to the realities of structural racism in the U.S. justice system. During most of the summer, public and private institutions and organizations scrambled to step up racial justice programs (often referred to as DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion programs). There is a highly profitable service industry devoted to training schools (boards, administrators, teachers, students) to be more racially aware both in practice (e.g. active recruitment of Black / AAPI / Hispanic teachers and senior staff) and in the classroom (e.g. through use of teaching materials which more accurately reflect the country’s racist history, including the 20th-century civil rights movement, etc.).
Cultural Conflicts (2020-present)
Not all districts reopened with in-person classes in the fall 2020 semester; many remained closed until spring 2021. Overcome by despair at their children’s prospective “learning loss” and concerned that precious teaching/teacher resources were being devoted not to the basics but to sociocultural initiatives, conservative parents in (primarily red/purple) districts directed their anger against an acronym, CRT, i.e. Critical Race Theory. Let’s clear up a much-misunderstood point: CRT is not taught in K-12 schools anywhere in the country. Rather, it’s a term plagiarized from legal analysis which was introduced in some law schools in the early 1980s. DeedSpeakOut is clear about this because the types of issues CRT actually considers – how persistent negative effects of earlier practices continue today (examples: redlining in housing, school segregation in education, environmental sacrifice zones, the school-to-prison pipeline in education/justice) -are precisely the sorts of issues this blog has been dealing with the last five years.
From a purely academic perspective, we believe that a 12th-grade AP American History or Sociology class could undertake incredibly useful archival research into these areas – we’ve often thought that high school seniors could, for example, study the original deeds for houses built between 1920 and 1960 in their neighborhood/city, or examine K-12 school boundaries as these were drawn and redrawn during the same period (or up to 2000; the process of gerrymandering school attendance boundaries continues), or examine publicly-available detainment/arrest/sentencing records of young juvenile offenders between 1960 and 2020, or partner with an investigative reporting group (the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting comes to mind; another group is ProPublica) to examine historical zoning regulations for residential/light/heavy industry within the boundaries of their district.
Such research projects, depending on how they were ultimately presented (and deployed), could legitimately be considered “critical race theory-related/relevant” (although their primary focus would not be on legal issues, which are graduate-level). But what angry parents are protesting isn’t this sort of student work. Rather, they’re disturbed by efforts to introduce more racially- and ethnically-sensitive texts and discussions of U.S. history. Nicole Hannah Jones’ The 1619 Project (which came out in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia) has provided a lot of fodder to the anti-CRT movement, which has now spread to numerous state legislatures via bills outlawing the teaching of racism in various iterations, even going so far as to forbid the teaching of material that would make students feel “uncomfortable.” Such bills originate from a small number of conservative activist groups; in some states (e.g. Alaska), The 1619 Project is explicitly banned, while in Missouri, “Students must be presented with a positive picture of US history. Discussions of current policy issues are banned.” Many of these bills (not all have been voted into law; some remain pending and may be voted down) also include clauses forbidding classroom discussions of LGBTQ (or sex or gender) issues; Virginia has expanded on this with a bill that would require students to use their original “biological sex” bathrooms. Ah, Virginia.
When difficult and painful subjects are banned from K-12 education, whether by states or individual districts, can the banning of books which treat difficult and painful subjects be far behind? A small Tennessee school district board (McMinn County) enjoyed nationwide notoriety for several weeks over its decision to ban a modern-day classic, the graphic novel Maus, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for author Art Spiegelman. The novel is a story of the Holocaust, and apparently the bones of contention were the use of “mild swear words” (as if students in 2022 had never heard them) and the depiction of a naked female mouse.
Another book on the blacklisting list in 2021-2022 is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1988). Glenn Youngkin, then a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia (now Governor), featured the mother of a former high school student who had been assigned the novel in one of his campaign ads. The controversy, which culminated in a book banning (or “explicit content warning”) bill that then-Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed twice, eventually was capped by McAuliffe’s infamous – and eminently quotable – quote “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – a statement which the national press believed cost McAuliffe the election. The main objections were that the book depicted violence, sex, and above all, the heroine Sethe’s killing of her baby daughter.
It should be noted that Beloved was taught at the AP level only (Morrison’s other classic, The Bluest Eye, was taught in regular English classes). The campaign to ban Beloved because the heroine killed her little girl so she wouldn’t have to suffer the depredations of slavery (in line with the conservative line that “all life is sacred,” which is honored by conservatives mostly in the breach) reminded us of another American classic, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1932). We checked to see whether The Good Earth had similarly been banned for its depiction of a mother killing her newborn daughter. Yes – it had been banned, but not in the U.S. It was banned in China because it depicted poverty in a way that made the Maoist-era Communists “uncomfortable.” The U.S. may want to think carefully about whether it wants to follow China’s example.
Having set the stage, we now proceed to a consideration of the havoc wrought by the pandemic – school closings – school re-openings on two school boards, one on the East coast (Loudoun County, Va.) and one on the West (San Francisco). The bitterness and successive controversies which rent both boards asunder (literally) were well-documented in the national and independent media, and illustrate the complex issues which each board confronted before and during the pandemic.
Case Study 1: Loudoun County, Virginia
“The core misread of the national press is an idea the Equity Collaborative essentially labeled taboo. ‘The culture war is not a proxy for race,’ is how Grim put it. ‘It’s a proxy for class.’” (from Matt Taibbi, “Loudoun County Epilogue”)
“‘Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty,’ would be among their main initial observations about Loudoun.” (Taibbi, “Part 2: The Incident”)
Loudoun County lies in Northern Virginia; it is heavily populated by federal civil servants and high-tech employees (with many overlaps between the two groups; since the Clinton era, it has been known as “the Silicon Valley of the East”). Loudoun is the wealthiest county in the U.S., and that’s germane to the story of what happened there between 2018 and 2021, although it’s hardly ever mentioned by anybody.
Here’s how the MSM story goes: Terry McAuliffe lost the governor’s race in November 2021 because of white (i.e. racist) backlash against social justice movements within schools and over whether parents should have a say in what their children are taught.
But that’s not what happened in Loudoun County, which has for several election cycles been seen as a quintessential PMC voting bloc – i.e. Democratic. Matt Taibbi, an experienced and open-minded independent reporter, decided to go to Loudoun County and find out for himself what was going down.
Our summary of his four-part series (here, here, here and here): As noted above, Loudoun County is wealthy and predominantly white (67%). However, during the past 20 years, its population of Asian and in particular, South Asian first- and second-generation immigrants has risen to more than 20% of the total (Blacks, on the other hand, account for just 8% of the county’s population). This newly- and recently-arrived population have flocked to Loudoun for its well-paying high-tech jobs, and for its nationally-ranked public school system.
Loudoun’s School District has for years maintained an agreement with neighboring Fairfax County (also wealthy; it ranked no. 4 in 2020) so that 250-300 students from Loudoun could attend Thomas Jefferson High School (rank: no. 1 in the U.S.) in nearby Fairfax County. Fairfax’s accommodation of its neighbors doesn’t come cheap; the cost is more than $4 million a year. Each spring when it comes time for LCS to approve the upcoming year’s budget, there is grumbling, especially since Loudoun built its own state-of-the-art Thomas Jefferson clone, Loudoun Academies. The Board was unhappy with allotting $4+ million for TJ when the district had spent a bundle on Loudoun Academies, and parents whose children were destined for admission to TJ – the biggest public feeder school in the country to the Ivy League (and MIT, naturally) – weren’t at all pleased at the idea that their children might have to attend a knock-off school which could take decades to acquire the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.
The grumbling grew worse over the past three years, and then racial justice initiatives entered stage left. The local NAACP and activist parents began maintaining that a blind admissions system based on examination was racially biased, although blind admissions were actually created to avoid racial bias (it’s a topsy-turvy world in racial justice land these days). They began lobbying for admissions based on criteria that would take into consideration children’s race, recommendations, and so forth. (One wants to say “and SES,” but that’s a bit of a stretch in a county were the average income is more than $150,000 a year).
The thing was, Black students were somewhat underrepresented in admissions to TJHS, but the group that was most seriously underrepresented was white students, whose parents were unhappy but have resolved the issue of non-admittance by sending their children to private schools in the wider area for some time now.
What was the irony here? The group that was over-represented (by a factor of +3:1 in relation to their population share) in Thomas Jefferson admissions was Asian / South Asian students, many of whose parents / grandparents had left South India to escape racism in their own country. As Taibbi notes, many of these students are darker than their Black peers, but in Virginia they are classified as “white.”
Indian and South Indian parents had moved to Loudoun County for jobs and its public schools. Their mantra was that by working hard and excelling at academics, they could succeed in America in a way their skin color would not have allowed them to do in India. In other words, they believed in the American Dream.
These parents, who had previously voted pretty solidly Democratic, were unfailingly polite but really, really angry, and in November 2021 they expressed their anger by voting – many for the first time in their life – Republican.
And this wasn’t all. The District had hired a consultancy firm to carry out racial sensitivity training on a no-bid contract ($500,000, an amount the Board would normally have had to approve). The firm, “Equity Collaborative” out of Oakland, California (its headquarters located not far from San Francisco, the wokest of woke school districts as we’ll see below) implemented something called the “Action Plan to Eliminate Systemic Racism” which was approximately like igniting a torch to the kindling of parent discontent.
By late 2020, Loudoun County still hadn’t reopened its schools, and with white-collar workers returning to their offices, suburban mothers were furious. Schools reopened in early 2021, but by this time parent anger had reached the boiling point – and the Board’s patience, particularly that of members who had fully and uncritically embraced the Equity Collaborative’s anti-racist training had come to an end. School Board meetings devolved into shouting (and more); parents set up small groups of “for” or “against.” A special security detail had to be hired to protect board members during meetings, and parents who wished to speak before the Board were let in one by one to avoid rioting.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ student rights had come to the fore in Loudoun County and Virginia as a whole, with a focus on bathroom choice. The national press, Taibbi documents, got a particularly ugly incident in spring 2021 wrong. This led at least indirectly to the arrest of the father of a 16-year-old student who was sexually assaulted by a fellow-student in a (girls’) bathroom. Her attacker was wearing a skirt, but was apparently not transitioning. The school transferred him to another school in the district, where he promptly assaulted another student. The incident was misrepresented as an attack on transgender student rights, when in fact it was a case of a sexual assault on a minor.
Finally, we come to Terry McAullife’s “gaffe” when he maintained in a late September 2021 gubernatorial debate with his opponent that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin took that statement and ran with it – and won.
On the surface, this sounds pretty extreme – and Taibbi (who should perhaps be forgiven since he has three young children of his own) got this one wrong, as did the national press.
Jennifer Berkshire, writing for the Nation in the wake of the November election, fills in the details: in fact, McAuliffe was correct when he said that parents won’t be telling their children’s schools what to teach in future. But neither the state nor individual school boards/districts will either. McAuliffe had several years previously (2017) signed away curricular privileges for Virginia public schools to Amazon when Crystal City was awarded Amazon’s HQ2 in 2018. Cue Berkshire: “Virginia is essentially retooling its schools to train an army of future Bezos employees …”. Henceforth, the state will be divided up into regional workforce development districts, and companies / curricular development businesses will present curriculums tailored to training students to work for local employers.
Here’s the most ironic thing of all: Youngkin (co-CEO of private equity firm the Carlyle Group before entering politics in 2020; est. net worth $440 million) and McAuliffe are in perfect accord regarding who’ll be telling schools what they should teach in future. And it won’t be parents.
Case Study 2: San Francisco, California
And now for San Francisco, whose Unified School District has around 120 schools and 54,000 students (7th largest district in California). Like Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, San Francisco County is perched near the top of the income pyramid: it’s in 5th place in the nation, right behind Fairfax.
San Francisco schools closed early in the pandemic and reopened late (not until spring 2021); thus they remained closed for three full terms, only beginning to return in April 2021. This was in line with the county’s health department recommendations – San Francisco was more proactive about closures and required mitigation measures than most cities/counties in the state (or country), and as a result experienced a comparatively lighter incidence of COVID-19 during its first wave than other comparably-sized cities/counties.
But enough was enough. Parents wanted the schools reopened earlier than the Board did, and San Francisco being San Francisco, the City ended up suing its own School Board to force schools to reopen. Clearly, relations had worsened during the first year of the pandemic.
Given that schools were closed for a year+, how did the San Francisco School Board spend its time during this period? One issue that appears to have occupied it intensively (since 2018) was that of renaming no fewer than 44 (out of 120) schools in a gesture towards racial equity – not empty, admittedly, but not exactly geared towards solving San Francisco’s desperate housing shortage, not with even the business of reopening public schools safely. The Board’s decision, which included renaming Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln (yes, Lincoln) schools due to the racism of the three Presidents, had to be rescinded in the wake of public opposition (partly motivated by a host of historical mistakes by a presumptive “blue-ribbon” committee which undertook the renaming project), but for many, they’d crossed the Rubicon of racial equity extremism. In a recent (and very rare) recall election, three of the Board’s most outspoken anti-racism advocates were recalled by margins exceeding 70%.
There’s more – in fact, the story of the city’s various excursions into the tangled web of racial equity sans economic equality deserves a post of its own.
The next post in “Education in a Time of Pandemic” will look at how educational entrepreneurs seized on the opportunity afforded by pandemic school closures to hasten the process of school privatization on the public dime.
Further Reading: Governance & Education Policy
“School Boards get death threats amid rage over race, gender, mask policies”
“Death threats, online abuse, police protection: School board members face dark new reality”
“Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning
of ‘Divisive’ Subjects at School”
“This Is Not Transparency”
“Opinion: Cruz Attacks Jackson for ‘Critical Race Theory’ — But Sends His Own Daughters to Learn It”
“Where Have You Gone, Laura Bush?”
“The Woman Who Wanted Beloved Banned from Schools Is Right about One Thing”
“Virginia Governor Highlights Irony of Banning ‘Beloved’ from Schools”
“Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’ Banned in Tennessee School District”
“The Fight over ‘Maus’ Is Part of a Bigger Cultural Battle in Tennessee”
Loudoun County, VA
“Loudoun County, Virginia: A Culture War in Four Acts”
“A Culture War in Four Acts: Loudoun County, Virginia. Part Two: ‘The Incident.’”
“The Holy War of Loudoun County, Virginia”
“Loudoun County Epilogue: A Worsening Culture War, and the False Hope of ‘Decorum’”
“Corporate Democrat Goes Down to Defeat in Virginia” …
“Fairfax Schools Request Stay of Judge’s Order Invalidating TJ Admissions System”
“San Francisco Sues its Own School District for Not Reopening”
“San Francisco recalls school board members seen as too focused on racial justice”
“The Radical History of the Murals at George Washington High School”
“What Happens When an Elite Public School Becomes Open to All?”