The Los Angeles district’s school board has passed a resolution to “stop the bans” on abortion, an unusual move that prompts several broader questions for the nation’s more than 14,000 school districts: Should boards wade into divisive social issues? And how common is it for them to do so?
The resolution, approved as a special order of business May 21, is a clear rebuke to Alabama lawmakers, who recently passed a law banning nearly all instances of abortion in that state.
“This is an anti-choice movement that will particularly impact women of color and low-income women,” the Los Angeles resolution reads in part. “We reiterate our support for women making decisions about their bodies and their own lives. ... The district will support legislative advocacy in an attempt to fight back against this unconstitutional attempt to gut Roe v. Wade and punish women.”
There do not appear to be any other examples of a school board taking a stand on abortion.
In a statement, the chairwoman of the Los Angeles school board sounded a note of solidarity with women and also suggested that the decision to pass the policy modeled leadership for the district’s students.
“We stand with the women across the nation whose constitutional rights are being jeopardized,” Mónica García said. “The health and well-being of women must be prioritized, and we strongly challenge this violation of women’s freedom and reproductive rights. If you are being affected by the recent anti-choice state laws, please know that you are not alone in this fight. Our children are counting on us to be our absolute best selves.”
Having a Say
School boards, unlike Congress or state legislatures, are at least theoretically nonpartisan, while social issues like abortion often cleave down political lines. To be sure, districts often confront politically charged ideas like climate change, gendered use of restrooms, and divergent ideas about history. But those are generally tackled as they set curriculum and manage schools, not as separate endorsements of belief.
Andrew Saultz, a former teacher and local school board member in Michigan, noted that abortion does have a relationship to districts’ health and wellness policies—and like those topics, abortion has the potential to be controversial. (He’s now an assistant professor and director of the doctoral program in education and leadership at Pacific University in Oregon.)
“Some of the school board meetings I’ve been a part of, and that have been the most vitriolic, have been the meetings related to health curriculum,” he said. “So I immediately thought, ‘Well, the base on both the political left and right are fired up on reproductive health and choice, so particularly in a liberal area like L.A., it’s not a surprise.’”
That said, he noted, abortion is a topic that interests young people.
“I would say that the connection directly to students’ lives really is pretty present for high school students,” he said.
California recently updated its health- and sex-education framework, but most of the controversy about those guidelines had to do with their inclusion of LGBT topics and some of the specific recommended resources, which some parents felt were too explicit for students. (Several of those resources were removed from the final draft.)
Surprisingly, though, the state’s grade 9-12 framework, despite being more than 100 pages long, references abortion only once and only as an example of something young people would need to communicate about in a relationship. The line from the draft says: “Vignette topics should be conveyed objectively and may include pregnancy options and the decision to parent, have an abortion, or choose adoption.”
Saultz also noted that resolutions like Los Angeles’ can also carry a political purpose: Serving on a school board is often a steppingstone to other political roles, so to the extent that board members want to run for future offices, it’s a good signal for where they stand on key social issues.
“From a political side, it’s the school board members’ opportunity to demonstrate their values that will help them on the campaign trail moving forward,” he said.
Could it backfire? Experts aren’t sure.
In Los Angeles, “You have a large number of immigrants, many relatively traditional, and would some of them feel uncomfortable about this? I don’t know,” said Robert Maranto, the chairman of leadership at the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. In general, he said, he worries that focusing on social issues risks making it harder for board members to concur on core issues of teaching and learning.
“If you’re fighting over issues that more properly should be decided in Washington or in court, you’ll be less effective improving the schools at your home town,” he said.
Other recent news headlines suggest that school boards do take up social issues and that the trend, while generally quite rare, may be increasing.
Relevant to Students?
Some recent instances are arguably more closely linked to student well-being than abortion. In the wake of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric, for example, districts like Denver have passed resolutions clarifying their positions on immigration. In Denver’s case, the district vowed not to collect or share information on students’ immigration status.
A few districts like Sioux City, Iowa, have passed resolutions backing students who apply for recognition under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival policy, an Obama administration policy that defers deportation for eligible youths and gives them a chance to hold a work permit in the United States. The Des Moines, Iowa, district went further in its resolution, supporting DACA and putting out a protocol for dealing with officials with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
In both cases, the school systems said the policies were meant to reassure students and parents, according to local news reports.
The school board in Howard County, Md., this year passed a resolution endorsing the Black Lives Matter at School week of action, spotlighting structural racism in the education system, and in 2018, the board in neighboring Prince George’s County, where nearly two-thirds of residents are black, did the same.
Maranto said he appreciated schools’ desire to make students feel welcome and safe. But he’d also like to see boards more focused on unglamorous but necessary questions, like whether math teachers are well trained and the curriculum they’ve chosen is effective.
“If school boards keep taking liberal political stands, then why should those on the center and right vote for our next tax increase for schools?” he said. “We are supposed to serve people with a wide range of views.”
And while it’s tempting to think that pronouncements like Los Angeles’ wind up influencing relatively few people in public debates, they can directly affect a school board’s functioning, he noted. School board elections tend to be relatively low-turnout affairs, so alienating any constituency, even a small one, is risky.
“Generally, I wish we would focus more on school quality and less on taking social stands on culture-war issues,” Maranto said. “Every social issue you take a stand on will please some and displease others, and those you displease are more likely to remember.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2019 edition of Education Week as Los Angeles School Board Takes Stand on Abortion. Should It?