As we’re all too aware, democracy is under threat from hooligans who employ violence or threats of violence against citizens or elected officials. There’s no excuse, period, for this sort of behavior. We should all stand shoulder to shoulder behind this principle, no matter who the target is or what their politics.
But democracy is also at risk from those who use such threats as an excuse to stifle democratic dissent or silence robust debate. Plenty of left-leaning educational leaders regularly told us just this during the Trump administration, when they were adamant that violence in the streets of Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; or Seattle must not become an excuse to delegitimize those who were stridently but nonviolently denouncing police conduct or calling for criminal-justice reform.
Well, as right-leaning parents voice concerns about critical race theory, school mask policies, gender policies, and more, those same educational leaders have a chance to promote healthy democratic discourse. School boards in particular, which are the very face of democratic education, should be actively offering themselves as forums where we can work through these hot-button disputes. Yet rather than seizing the chance to be part of the solution, the National School Boards Association (NSBA)—representing the more than 90,000 school board members who govern the nation’s 14,000 public school districts—has chosen to be part of the problem.
In a public letter to the Biden administration, the NSBA declared that “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased,” and stated that “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” It then went on to ask the Biden administration to use the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act to investigate and prosecute the parents engaged in these supposed acts of domestic terror.
The problem is, when providing its examples of “acts of malice, violence, and threats” from thousands of school boards across the land, the NSBA chose to scramble together a lot of energetic but innocuous dissent with a tiny number of actual threats. In fact, of the 24 cherry-picked incidents which the NSBA cited as tantamount to domestic terrorism or hate crimes, 16 consisted entirely of tense verbal exchanges between parents and school board members in which there was never even a threat of physical violence.
Indeed, most of the NSBA’s examples were simply cases of angry parents disrupting school board meetings by objecting to district policies or curricula; talking beyond their permitted speaking time; shouting over school board members; chanting political slogans, waving signs, and picketing meetings; or being ejected from meetings for refusing to wear masks. None of this would be mentioned in the same breath as domestic terrorism or hate crime, I suspect, if the parents had a different set of demands.
To be clear, the NSBA’s missive included a few instances where violence was actually threatened. Again, that is inexcusable, and those individuals should be prosecuted with the full force of the law. Period. But states and communities are already equipped to do just that. And, to repeat myself, most of what the NSBA alluded to as “domestic terrorism and hate crimes” is actually democracy in action.
It’s tough to think of a more destructive response from an entity that supposedly stands for democratic education. The NSBA didn’t just squander a teachable moment; it chose to blur the distinction between permissible and suspect speech and suggest that unruly protesters should be targeted by the FBI.
As Andy Rotherham observed over at Eduwonk, “There is a complicated, at times politically toxic, conversation happening about schools right now. The issues range from masks and vaccinations to how and what to teach about American history and . . . there are those—–on the left and right—who would rather shut those debates down than engage them.” Rotherham continued, “The invocation of ‘domestic terrorism’ will fuel the impulse to shut down rather than work through. Protecting your members is one thing, but this is playing with matches and open letters released to the media are not the only way to engage government officials.
What to make of all this? For starters, I’d hope that Attorney General Merrick Garland comes to his senses and backs off from his worrisome threat to assemble a federal task force and work with states to follow through on the NSBA’s worrisome charge. It’s hard to think of anything more calculated to worsen our divides than the thought of the FBI treating parents as domestic terrorists for disrupting a school board meeting.
Garland is on the verge of setting an immensely ugly precedent. For those who don’t immediately see the problem, ponder what it would look like if a Republican takes back the White House in 2024 and a Republican Attorney General announces in January 2025 that those whose criticism of the police is deemed excessive would henceforth be investigated and pursued under the PATRIOT Act.
I rather like the response that my AEI colleague Max Eden proposed at Newsweek. If the NSBA has abandoned its commitment to democratic education, there’s no reason why states or communities that believe in that ideal should continue to subsidize the association. As Eden wrote, “NSBA is largely funded by dues collected from affiliated state school board associations, paid for by local school boards out of the public coffer.” Unless the NSBA reverses course, Eden suggests, “when state legislatures come back into session, they should consider legislation to prohibit taxpayer money from flowing to state school board associations unless those associations disaffiliate with, and stop funding, NSBA.” Works for me.
You know, Pedro Noguera and I recently penned a book that trod this very terrain. In it, we explored how those with very different perspectives on schools and schooling could fruitfully engage on tough, emotional questions. We’ve talked at great length about how educational leaders can promote such constructive, civil debate. But I guess we could’ve saved ourselves a lot of time by just telling concerned educators and public officials, “See what the NSBA is up to? Do the opposite.”
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.