States

What California Gov. Newsom’s Fight With a School District Says About Local Control

By Libby Stanford — August 11, 2023 8 min read
An overflow crowd attends a Temecula Valley Unified School District board meeting July 18, 2023, at which a proposed social studies curriculum was again debated and rejected.
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom is fashioning himself as the Democratic counterweight to Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has staked his presidential campaign on his war on “wokeness” and railed against what he and other conservatives describe as left-wing indoctrination in public schools.

In July, Newsom went back and forth with the Temecula Valley Unified School District when the southern California district school board’s three conservative members, who hold the majority, rejected an updated, state-endorsed, elementary-level social studies curriculum that included lesson plans that mentioned Harvey Milk, the late San Francisco supervisor who was the state’s first openly gay elected official and a gay rights activist.

On July 19, Newsom announced that the state would fine the district $1.5 million if it failed to adopt the updated curriculum, the rejection of which would violate at least four state laws and policies, including one that requires schools to teach about the historic contributions of LGBTQ+ Americans, said Ben Chida, Newsom’s senior education adviser.

On July 21, the school board held a special meeting and relented, voting to approve the instructional materials and avoid the massive fine. Newsom used the opportunity to criticize “extremists” for aiming to control information and censor curriculum.

“Demagogues who whitewash history, censor books, and perpetuate prejudice never succeed,” the governor said in a statement. “Hate doesn’t belong in our classrooms and because of the board majority’s antics, Temecula has a civil rights investigation to answer for.”

The back-and-forth was a show of political muscle from the governor of America’s largest state. But it—as well as laws in conservative states that have restricted the teaching of so-called “divisive topics,” such as sexuality, gender identity, and race—was also a challenge to a long-standing tradition across the country of leaving curriculum decisions to local school boards.

“In California, we’ve made a big investment in [the] Local Control Funding Formula [and] gave a lot of control over how funds are spent to local school boards, so there’s a real deep value of local control,” said Julie Marsh, an education policy professor at the University of Southern California, referring to California’s school funding model that allocates funding to school districts based on the percentage of high-needs students, such as English learners, students in poverty, and students in foster care. “But the question is, what’s the proper role of the state? And when is it an overreach?”

The battle in Temecula

Newsom’s office decided to intervene in Temecula Valley after hearing from community members with concerns about district efforts to ban books and reject the social studies curriculum, Chida said.

Newsom and his team viewed the situation as a violation of parents’ rights, Chida said, because parents from across the district had taken the time to weigh in on and approve the curriculum through a yearlong, state-required adoption process involving both parents and educators before the local school board decided to reject it.

“The reason why we were so motivated, the governor was so motivated, to jump in was, this is an egregious attack on parental rights,” Chida said, “real parental rights, not the BS parental rights that some people are talking about.”

In addition to requiring schools to teach about the contributions of LGBTQ+ and diverse communities to American history, the state requires districts to provide students with basic learning materials. The rejection of the social studies curriculum would have forced the district to use an outdated book published in 2006, which is no longer printed, so the district couldn’t have issued one to every student, Chida said.

The curriculum rejection would also violate the state’s English/Language Arts framework and a state policy that requires districts to receive parental input before approving curriculum.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has also opened an investigation into whether Temecula Valley’s rejection of the curriculum violated a state law that requires government decisions be made without “discriminatory animus.”

At the July 21 school board meeting, the Temecula Valley school district’s lawyer walked board members through their options. There was only one legal path forward: adopt the books as recommended.

“Let me be clear, Gov. Newsom, [State Superintendent Tony] Thurmond, Bonta, … they’re salivating at us to make a mistake, so for me, I want to make the right decision,” Board President Joseph Komrosky, who initially supported rejecting the curriculum, said at the meeting. “We have to take action that’s legal, not illegal, to avoid litigation.”

Neither Komrosky nor representatives from the Temecula Valley school district responded to requests for comment.

The question of local control

Local control has long been the tradition in American public education. While states set standards, decisions about how schools spend money and align their curriculum with state standards are largely left up to school boards.

When he announced the fine against Temecula, Newsom also touted a bill pending in the state legislature that would add to the state requirement that districts provide “adequate instructional materials” by allowing California to fine districts that fail to do so. That bill, which has passed the state’s Assembly and awaits a vote in the Senate, would give the state more recourse in situations like the Temecula Valley one.

But it’s a situation with implications for the future of local control, Marsh said. And the same applies to laws restricting curriculum in Republican-led states like Florida. At the same time, some level of state intervention is needed, especially when students’ rights or societal goals are in question, she said.

“For me, it’s almost a philosophical question of, at what point is there too much local control?” Marsh said. “If it’s taking away rights from students, for example, that’s often when you say, ‘OK, someone needs to step in because local control has to be for everyone.’ ”

Chida doesn’t think Newsom infringed on Temecula’s local control because the district had already violated state curriculum requirements, and parents disagreed with the board’s rejection of the social studies curriculum.

“I know it superficially looks like that, when you look at a glance, you’re like, ‘oh, this is a state arguing with a local [district]. It must be a local control problem,’ ” Chida said. “But local control has never countenanced willful violation of multiple laws. Local control is the space that is there within the laws.”

Marsh’s colleague, Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at USC, believes there are some benefits to moving away from local control. In 2021, he published a book titled Beyond Standards, which argued that if the public wants true school reform, then states need control over curriculum decisions.

As an example, Polikoff used the national push to adopt evidence-based reading instruction as an example of states using their power to dictate curriculum decisions to improve instruction. And while he said he doesn’t agree with restrictions in Republican-led states to limit teaching about race, gender, and sexuality in schools, he sees those policies as “well within the authority of the state department of education.”

“Sometimes people are going to use it for goals I don’t like and then sometimes, like here in California, they’re going to use it for goals I do like,” Polikoff said. “That’s just the reality of our messy system.”

See Also

Reading interventionist Laura Beth Ross teaches reading skills to first graders at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
Reading interventionist Laura Beth Ross teaches reading skills to first graders at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
Kate Medley for Education Week

Newsom’s political motivations

Chida views the situation in Temecula as an example of conservative-state policies reaching California. The state felt it was important to step in, he said.

“Temecula is an example of that, I would say, toxic and insidious dialogue coming to California,” Chida said. “We felt the need to push back and defend and to make sure that it was clear that California was not going to readily be a hotbed for this type of ugly activity.”

There’s also a clear political angle to the move, as Newsom is often discussed as a 2028 presidential contender and has deliberately taken on DeSantis on multiple fronts.

Earlier this month, the two governors tentatively agreed to participate in a debate hosted by Fox News, which will give both politicians a national platform.

Regardless of Newsom’s political intentions, the Temecula episode illustrates how school boards have become highly politicized, Marsh said.

Parents’ rights groups such as Mom for Liberty have funneled their resources into school board campaigns, hoping to elect conservative majorities that will pass policies restricting instruction about race, gender, and sexuality, and prohibit schools from shielding student name and pronoun changes from parents. A constellation of liberal groups like Red Wine and Blue have responded in kind.

“This is an example of the ways in which boards and schools have become part of a broader culture war in our country,” Marsh said. “Newsom is a good example of the kind of ways in which education is really part of a broader political theater and quest for power in some sense.”

That political theater is one that affects schools, whether in liberal or conservative communities. In a survey earlier this year by the Rand Corporation, nearly all superintendents cited politics as one of the biggest sources of stress in their jobs.

“I would say virtually every administrator I talked to in the last year has emphasized to me the toxic politics and how it’s gotten so much worse recently, and how much of their time they have to deal with that stuff,” Polikoff said. “That, I think, is harmful. It distracts from the real work of teaching kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as What Gov. Newsom’s Fight With a California School District Says About Local Control

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