School & District Management

Why School Boards Are Now Hot Spots for Nasty Politics

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 29, 2021 11 min read
Collage of people yelling, praying, and masked in a board room.
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Shouting. Interruptions. Delays. Even police arrests.

In just a few months, the most local of all local forms of American governance—the school board—has been beset with drama. Board meetings, far from being quiet, by-the-books affairs, have turned into to ground zero of the nation’s political and cultural debates.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., meetings have been in disarray over disputes about masking policies and a board resolution on equity between white students and students of color. A Loudoun County, Va., meeting was truncated after public comments got out of hand. Commenters have described bizarre occurrences at board meetings nationwide—like board members applauding a pastor’s religious commentary in the middle of one Virginia district’s meeting.

All the while, school boards’ work has become more visible than ever, with meetings that once were only in person now often livestreamed and archived on YouTube.

What all this means yet for school district governance isn’t entirely clear. But it will almost certainly complicate board members’ and superintendents’ jobs this fall. They’ll need to balance conceptual debates over race and equity with the tangible responsibilities of spending significant amounts of federal cash and adjusting yet again to a rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant.

To an extent, this is not a new phenomenon. School board meetings have historically been the locus of intense cultural debates, like the teaching of evolution, the removal of offensive sports mascots, or the requirement, in the 1950s, for educators to take “loyalty oaths.”

The difference is that many of these debates now appear to be increasingly common, increasingly political, and less clearly centered on the specific needs of students.

“These are really adult battles over adult partisanship, and the interest of kids is of secondary importance to them,” said Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.

How did we get here? Board members, superintendents, and scholars point to three interrelated factors that have changed the political landscape of democratic school district governance.

Local no more: A trend toward the nationalization of politics

“All politics is local,” reportedly quipped former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill. And perhaps nowhere has that traditionally played out more than on the local school board.

But increasingly, it’s just not true, political scientists say. Instead, Americans’ political identities are predominantly shaped by the two dominant U.S. political parties and by their own attachments to national—and often highly symbolic—politics, said Daniel Hopkins, the author of a 2018 volume on the nationalization of American political identity.

Using survey data and statistical analysis, Hopkins’ book sketches out some of the core factors: Americans’ increased attachment to parties’ policy positions over specific candidates; a shift away from print news; and weaker attachments to local communities or neighborhoods than to their identity as an American, however defined.

And school boards, which meet monthly in almost every community in America, are among the easiest ways for fired-up people to engage in the democratic political process.

“America in theory has a highly participatory democracy. The challenge is that there are such limited avenues at the national level,” Hopkins said. “If an activist base is fired up about a nationalized issue, local politics may be the most immediate and effective venue for them to take action.”

What that means is that the issues the public brings to school boards are increasingly refracted through the lens of national political discourse—especially for issues like masking, school reopening, and race that are now as much about political identity as they are about keeping students safe and engaged.

The nationalization of school board politics may feel new, but it’s probably more accurate to say that long-standing tensions are now intensifying. The current debate over race in schools echoes the debate over the Common Core State Standards—though in that case much of the activism was aimed at state boards of education rather than local ones.

If an activist base is fired up about a nationalized issue, local politics may be the most immediate and effective venue for them to take action.

“I think it is a continuation and has ratcheted up, but started 10 years ago with President [Barack] Obama, and the common core as the symptom,” said Kogan, who has studied school board politics and elections. “And it was bolstered by the fact that [President Donald] Trump was unusually divisive and didn’t hesitate to get involved in these debates.

At least a few politicians, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, have blatantly said they will support efforts to select school board candidates who oppose so-called critical race theory in schools. New PACs have sprung up to support anti-CRT candidates. And a sophisticated network of conservative actors are helping to shape state legislation and offering toolkits to oppose CRT.

Other local political groups, like the Pennsylvania-based Keeping Kids in Schools PAC, are focused on running candidates who are pledging to keep schools open—an issue boards are sure to confront because of new concerns about the Delta variant and children.

Such pressure-group tactics in K-12 also are not a new phenomenon. About a decade ago, new advocacy groups emerged that promoted policy ideas like the expansion of charter schools and teacher evaluations favored by the Obama administration.

But, as with the common core, the majority of that action was focused on state- level politics. The acceleration within the local sphere feels new.

A rapidly shifting general-media landscape

There’s no question that as the local news industry has economically collapsed, so too has coverage of local school boards. Data suggest that there are simply fewer reporters to follow them these days.

Survey data released this year by the Education Writers Association, a membership organization for education reporters, show that 40 percent of respondents working at general-interest newspapers said their education news staff had shrunk; just 12 percent said it had grown.

And that has real consequences for how people perceive school districts and their work, said Caroline Hendrie, the executive director of EWA. (Hendrie is a former Education Week reporter and editor.)

“If the day to day of school board and administrative deliberation and decisionmaking are not receiving close coverage because education journalists are stretched way too thin, then you will have people just not aware of even how the process works. And they may have more of an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ idea about how the schools are run,” she said.

There are a few bright spots, notably the rise of digital outlets like Chalkbeat stepping in to provide critical local beat news. But those innovations aren’t enough to offset the decline in local print and radio reporters, Hendrie said.

Wade Stanford, the superintendent of the small Westwood school system near Palestine, Texas, says his district typically only gets local media coverage when he sends the reporters at the city’s newspaper a press release. It’s more difficult to get sustained coverage, and that’s because the reporters are covering so many topics.

“For them to get someone to come to these meetings is nearly impossible,” he said. “So I do think that’s where I’m convinced a little bit of, ‘How can we do this where we help get the word out?’ We can’t blame the media without being able to offer some solutions.”

Another factor has been the public’s increased dependence on a small number of national news publications. That includes not only traditional newspapers like The New York Times but also cable channels that specialize in spinning up controversy.

In fact, Hopkins’ research found that local newspapers’ coverage volume hadn’t changed significantly; the real change was in audience behavior, as they shifted toward national media sources that align with their interest and identities.

Even in those communities with ample coverage, journalists note that where the public gets their news can shape how they view the district.

Olivia Krauth, the education reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal, has won plaudits from other education reporters for her hard-hitting, real-time fact-checking of the CRT and reopening debates in the Jefferson County, Ky., district. She’s unusual in having colleagues from other local outlets who also routinely cover board meetings.

The problem, she said, lies with the local TV news channels that often show up only when something dramatic happens, and their coverage tends to lack important nuance.

“They don’t dabble in ed. policy, they don’t know how the superintendent works with the board and how the school board is elected or the collective bargaining contract with the teachers’ union works,” she said. “The other daily beat reporters know all that, and we try to explain that. But the TV reporters don’t have that background knowledge, didn’t include it in their stories, and that’s what was getting to these parents who have their issues with the district.”

In the very worst cases, political groups have purchased former local papers and turned them into propaganda sheets promoting certain viewpoints or bankrolled their preferred candidates’ campaigns for local offices.

Social media has changed communications—not always for the better

When Kari Denitzio ran for the school board in Walpole, Mass., she knew she’d take some guff. What she hadn’t planned on was that critics would use social-media channels to mobilize people all over the country to attack her.

That’s what she said happened when a conservative blogger and YouTuber got angered by a squabble over a racist incident at the school she worked in. (Denitzio is a school counselor in a different district from the one on whose board she sits.)

The blogger reportedly dug up her votes in Walpole relating to diversity and equity, including one which had passed unanimously, and used them to gin up drama among others nationally. Ultimately, Denitzio said, she ended up having to delete informational posts she’d put up on the Walpole school committee’s Facebook page—thus defeating the purpose of the page in the first place.

“I feel as though social media can be such a useful tool for elected boards to share information with constituents. And yet I quickly saw how it was weaponized,” she said. “Just putting information out on the page feels quite personally risky.”

“I think what we’re in is the most radical disruption of education and the dissemination of information that we’ve ever seen.

And thanks to the incredible reach of social media, any action can spread far beyond the community in which it occurs.

Most of the administrators interviewed for this story described their concerns about social-media misinformation, even as they also praised the tools for other reasons. Some said they rely on Facebook for daily updates that feel more personal than the traditional email or robo-call. And it can help keep their finger on the pulse of what parents and the public are worried about.

But, said Stanford of the Westwood district, what people read on social media tends to shape, and sometimes warp, what board members and the public hear and believe.

“I think what we’re in is the most radical disruption of education and the dissemination of information that we’ve ever seen,” he said. “When you disrupt the education delivery, it impacts the homes and hearts of every parent, every student, every guardian, and every educator. … It got people mobilized as far as their thought processes. Social media gave a platform to say things unfiltered.

“It may be a very small perspective, but it becomes large for the people who are reading it,” he continued. “We tend to gravitate toward the sources we believe in and we read the things we believe in and take them as absolutes without vetting them to see how accurate they are.”

What does it all portend for the future?

At least in the short term, it means probably more local parent advocacy, more drama around school board meetings, and potentially, a change up in school board constituencies.

Historically, incumbents running for reelection have had a significant advantage in retaining their seats in low-engagement, low-turnout elections. That could change, at least temporarily.

Ballotpedia has identified at least 55 attempted school board recalls in 2021 aimed at nearly 140 board members, a significant increase from the figures in each year of the previous decade. But that tally doesn’t include challengers who are running on hot-button platforms related to school reopening or pushing back on equity plans. (Some such challengers have already won their elections.)

Another possible wrinkle is school boards themselves leaning into the controversy: A handful of boards across 12 states have considered or passed their own resolutions on critical race theory, according to an analysis of media clips by the Education Week Library. Some of the action appears to be driven by board members’ own political beliefs, while other boards appear to be trying to head off criticism of their general equity efforts.

(This kind of political signaling is also not new to school boards; in 2019, for example, the Los Angeles school board took a stance on abortion after the passage of a Georgia law restricting access to abortion.)

Despite all these factors, Ohio State’s Kogan warns, it’s not clear that any of these changes mean that parents or the community at large—outside those who are the most worked up about policy changes—will be more engaged in district governance activity.

And board service, as sitting board members often stress, means much more than promoting a pet issue. It means handling all the thankless but important work of approving licenses and certificates, navigating the budgetary process, hiring and firing employees, and signing off on purchasing decisions. Newly elected board members running on single-issue campaigns may be in for a rude awakening.

“I suspect that most people are still not paying much attention to these things outside of a small number of activists. But you don’t need that many people to organize a recall, and you don’t need that many people to run,” Kogan concluded. “I suspect we won’t see much difference on the side of voters, but we might see more people running because they’re in these vocalized mobilized minorities.”

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Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as Why School Boards Are Now Hot Spots for Nasty Politics


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