Christina Ellis, a senior at Central York High School, speaks during a press conference at the Pa. Capitol on Monday 9/27/21 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)
South Central Pennsylvania gained national notoriety last week when the Central York School Board reversed a previous decision to forbid school personnel from using certain books and other materials which the majority of the Board deemed to contain controversial perspectives on race relations.
As a 1979 graduate of Central York High School (whose alumni roster also includes Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman), this incident touched a particular nerve for me. It is never a good feeling to have the school you attended ridiculed for adopting an ignorant, absurd policy.
But this story is bigger than a single school board and the heroes and villains involved in reversing a policy which forbid the study of the perspectives of many non-white authors. It is indicative of the conflicts present across Pennsylvania between those desperately clinging to the status quo and those promoting changes that benefit the entire population. And it is why a more detailed look at this situation is revealing.
The “Central” in the Central York School District refers to its location in the central part of York County. The district is made up of economically diverse areas north and east of York city, with wealthy suburban areas mixed with the row homes of the borough of North York. For many years it was overwhelmingly white, Christian, and conservative. When I attended the high school, there were fewer than a dozen black students in a school population of about 1000. I learned about diversity when I left South Central Pennsylvania for college and a career.
Fortunately, the Central York school district has grown and diversified since 1979. The changes that have come to the area conflict with the views of some long-time residents, however, and these views have been amplified by the right-wing media and the divisive political atmosphere.
A principle of conservative activism in recent decades has been to organize around local elections. No elections are more local than those for school boards, and many candidates have found an anti-tax message gets a positive reaction from voters. Conservative Republican activists have embraced this approach and have recruited school board candidates to run on this platform – including in the Central York district.
But the agenda of this movement goes far beyond taxes. When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis resulted in mass protests across the nation, a right-wing response was to claim the protests were actually the result of young people being indoctrinated by anti-white messages in books and the media. Public schools were deemed to be contributing to this, and school boards which had been seeded with conservative activists were primed to act.
Local elections in November of 2019 resulted in five Republican candidates winning seats on the Central York School Board. Within a year, this activist Board chose to prohibit a long list of resources on diversity from use by district personnel, a list which had been compiled by a diversity committee made up of district residents.
The board claims its action was in response to complaints from parents, but the Board failed to consider the views of another group – Central York students. A group of students organized to protest the action of the board, and their objections attracted the attention of other students, parents, and eventually the local and national media. In the face of growing pressure and ridicule, the Board backed down and rescinded the prohibition.
There are important lessons to be learned from this saga beyond the success of student activists and the misguided actions of reactionary school board members. The most hopeful and critical is the growing willingness of a vocal group of people in South Central Pennsylvania to embrace diversity and fight for inclusion instead of exclusion.
But this incident also amplifies the importance of local elections. The era of non-partisan school board elections to choose local citizens to determine a school district’s budget and support the decisions of professional educators is over. The message of holding the line on school taxes is obscuring the true agenda of many right-wing activists.
These activists see opportunities to promote their views through public school curriculums and have turned previously sleepy school board elections into local versions of presidential campaigns, with attack ads and mailings a now-common practice. Those who desire our schools to be inclusive centers of fact-based learning and critical thinking have no choice but to counter these messages and appeal to voters to elect forward-looking school board members.
Six seats on the Central York School Board are up for election this November. The York County Republican Party has already issued a misleading statement attempting to whitewash (yes, that word is used intentionally) the whole controversy and endorsing a slate of candidates, including two incumbents who supported the prohibition.
Community activism forced the current Central York School Board to rescind an appalling policy. The November elections will be an indication whether this activism can also be reflected in the voting booth.
Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter at @RELandis.
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