School & District Management

Should School Boards Take Up Abortion, Immigration, and Other Social Issues?

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 23, 2019 6 min read
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The Los Angeles district’s school board has passed an unusual resolution to “stop the bans” on abortion, thrusting the district directly into the heart of a searing national debate about abortion—an issue the U.S. Supreme Court could choose to address in the near future.

The resolution, passed 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 with no provisions made for victims of rape or incest, and to other states that have moved to curb abortion.

“This is an anti-choice movement that will particularly impact women of color and low-income women,” the resolution reads in part. " ... We reiterate our support for women making decisions about their bodies and their own lives. Politicians shouldn’t be making decisions best left to women, their families, and their doctors. ... The district will support legislative advocacy in an attempt to 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, which naturally raises the question: Should school boards wade into social issues like this?

In a statement, the chairwoman of the Los Angeles school board sounded a note of solidarity with women, and also suggests 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 us to be our absolute best selves.”

Of course, school boards are not the only ones who take up issues only tangentially related to their duties. (Congress is notorious for passing random resolutions on topics or renaming post offices for favored lawmakers.) On the other hand, school boards, unlike Congress, are at least theoretically nonpartisan, and social issues often cleave down political lines.

Abortion: Relevant or Not?

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 Ph.D program in education and leadership at Pacific University in Oregon.)

“Some of the school board meetings I’ve been a part of, and 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, it is a topic that young people are interested in.

“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. Here’s the line from the draft: “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: School boards are often a stepping stone to other political roles, so to the extent that board members want to run for other 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 weren’t sure.

“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, a chair 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.

Is it a Trend?

Other recent news headlines suggest that social issues do show up from time to time, and that that trend, while generally quite rare, may be increasing.

Several recent school board issues 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 under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, 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 reprots.

“It is for (students) to feel safe in our schools,” a Sioux City board member told the Sioux City Journal.

In 2019, Howard County, in Maryland, passed a resolution endorsing the Black Lives Matter at School week of action, spotlighting structural racism in the education system, and in 2018, Prince George’s County, Md., where nearly two-thirds of residents are black, did the same.

Maranto said he appreciated schools’ desire to make kids 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 the functioning of a school board, 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,” he said. “Every social issue you take a stand on will please some and displease others, and those you displease are more likely to remember.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.