Commentary

Extremists undermine faith in our schools. We owe it to our kids, community to speak up | Opinion

Gather your facts, gather your friends, and make your voice heard at your local school board

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By Susan Spicka

For many of us, our local school districts are places that we appreciate, value, and depend on. We recognize that our schools are not perfect, but we are grateful for skilled teachers who have dedicated their professional careers to helping our children learn and grow.

We enjoy going to school concerts, art shows, track meets, football games, theater performances, and more. And many of us have logged a lot of hours at bake sales, concession stands, and countless other fundraisers to help increase resources for students.

After we made it through the worst of the COVID building closures–and that was really hard– seemingly out of nowhere, angry people began showing up at school board meetings.

They were screaming about masking and vaccines. They were attacking teachers and administrators. They were ranting about book banning, whitewashing history, and bizarre conspiracy theories. School board races turned into dog fights and the vitriol these people brought to board meetings spilled out into our communities through social media.

And this hasn’t stopped.

These extremists are just a tiny fraction of a percentage of the residents in any given community. Some of them aren’t even parents.

But when they are the only people speaking up at school board meetings or when they are elected school board members, they can do a lot of damage. They demoralize teachers and school staff. They can wear down board members. They can negatively influence policy decisions. And increasingly ugly and focused attacks on students in marginalized groups threaten very real harm to children.

In some communities, advocates are organizing themselves and pushing back against extremists. In other communities, people aren’t sure what to do. They have been staying out of these conversations hoping it will just go away and things will be OK.

But these extremists show no signs of ending their attacks on our local schools and teachers.

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National organizations are constantly feeding fresh talking points to take to meetings or post on social media and they are organizing to take over school boards in 2023. This is a highly organized, well-funded, methodical operation to undermine the public’s faith in public education.

In my district, parents and community members who support our schools have largely stayed away from board meetings. But as the extremists’ escalated attacks on marginalized children this changed.

A district dad published a letter in our local paper and then a group of moms got together and organized to go to a meeting.

We prepared our comments in support of our schools and our kids’ teachers and – we brought our crochet projects because school board meetings can be long and dull.

We clapped and cheered to support the good decisions our administration and board made, we may have politely jeered at some of the outrageous comments made by the extremists, we had fun, and we made a difference.

The extremists backpedaled on their attacks because this time they weren’t the only voices in the room. After the meeting teachers, parents and board members thanked us for speaking up. Our group is growing, and we will keep attending meetings, making a difference, and having fun (and making progress on our blankets).

Staffing shortage, COVID-19, politics take toll on Pennsylvania teachers

As our kids come out of COVID, they need us now more than ever to create the best conditions for their future, In some places that means we are going to need to go to school board meetings to demonstrate public support for our board to create safe, inclusive schools where all students feel valued and where all students will have an opportunity to learn and thrive.

It doesn’t take much to get started. A few of us just made a “date” to go and to bring our yarn projects. Sometimes 1-2 of us will make a comment and respond to nonsense, other times we will just cheer for our board when they support teachers and students. We will do it together.

Education Voters is creating a space where parents and community members can come together to network and share tips and tools for pushing back against extremists who are trying to ruin our local schools. It is a space where we can build community and a positive response to the hostility.

If you have a lot of experience to share or if you are new to this space, please email [email protected] for more information.

Susan Spicka is the education policy director for Education Voters of PA. She writes from Shippensburg, Pa. Her work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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