This year, local school board elections matter more than ever | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Political agendas, not the well-being of pupils, are driving aspirants endeavoring to lead local school districts

May 9, 2023 6:30 am

Image via WikiMedia Commons)

On the political ladder, local school boards are a low rung. On the ladder leading to healthy citizens, school boards should be poised on a rung near the top.

This year’s primary elections for school board show the ladder to be a shaky one.

In my experiences as a voter and an educator, school board elections have been fairly straightforward. Candidates and those elected to seats on the boards have had the good of their school districts’ students and their community as their goals.

Yes, there have been some hiccups along the way, a few unfortunate teachers’ strikes and a sprinkling of contenders who feel that once their own children are through the system they should not be required to pay for the education of others’ students, for instance.

Principally, however, those seeking seats and those chosen for the boards have had the welfare of the local populace as their aims.

This year, though, matters are different.

The MAGA slime has oozed down to gum up local school board races. Political agendas, not the well-being of pupils, are driving aspirants endeavoring to lead local school districts. 

Most notably, whether officially members or not, many office seekers are acolytes of movements such as Moms for Liberty, the ultra- conservative group formed “… to unite parents who are ready to fight those that stand in the way of liberty,” as long as “liberty” meets its definition.

Tiffany Justice, co-founder of this cult, explained her group’s intent in an interview on mossback Steve Bannon’s “War Room:” “We’re going to take over the school boards, but that’s not enough. Once we replace the school boards, what we need to do is we need to have search firms, that are conservative search firms, that help us to find new educational leaders, because parents are going to get in there and they’re going to want to fire everyone.”

Phew! “They’re going to want to fire everyone.”

By everyone, I suppose she means, who does not share the MfL philosophy.

To find out what this movement wants — and doesn’t want — one needs only to hear what one local MfL candidate has to say.

“We want basic education. We want academic skills taught,” says one candidate, who is vice-chair of the Cumberland  County chapter of Moms for Liberty.

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“We just feel there’s a lot of other ideology and information coming in for our students and taking up academic time,” she continues and then explains, “Everything we do is not for the common good. That’s communism. That’s Marxism. That’s socialism. It’s that nudging of that ideology that we have a concern about.”

She must have missed the lesson on the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

It seems the Founding Fathers had the common good in mind when they drafted the fundamental rules that determine how our country is run.

Furthermore, these same creators of the United States of America had something to say about education in this new nation.

According to Nancy Kober and Diane Stark Rentner, of the Center on Education Policy at the George Washington University, a national, independent source for research and information about public education, “the Founding Fathers maintained that the success of the fragile American democracy would depend on the competency of its citizens. They believed strongly that preserving democracy would require an educated population that could understand political and social issues and would participate in civic life, vote wisely, protect their rights and freedoms, and resist tyrants and demagogues. Character and virtue were also considered essential to good citizenship, and education was seen as a means to provide moral instruction and build character.”

Beyond this, “Advocates [of free public education] saw universal education as a means to eliminate poverty, crime, and other social problems.”

Parents, educators in Pa. and beyond organize against Moms for Liberty

Note this: “Character and virtue were also considered essential to good citizenship.”

Again these right-wing movements are against character development in schools. “It’s not the place of the public school system to develop a child’s character,” claims the same candidate cited earlier.

In the article “Parents sue West Shore School District over character building program,” reporter Zach Hoopes explained the program in question: “Character Strong is a curriculum published by a Washington-based company and used in schools across the nation to teach children social skills that develop ‘thoughtful, healthy, and kind human beings,’ with a successful track record of reducing conflict and bullying in schools, according to its website.” 

But the plaintiffs in the case are not interested in developing thoughtful, healthy, and kind human beings. “I have the right to teach them respect,” the parent wrote. “Again, not everyone deserves respect, empathy, honesty, kindness etc. from my children.” 

Phew again.

Talk about promoting an “us vs. them” ideology. But such statements are consistent with the tactics of these poisonous groups.

“[T]he new scare tactic on the right is to freak out about ‘social-emotional learning.’ Far-right dark money groups are busy propagandizing against this educational concept with false accusations that it’s ‘racist garbage,’ ‘anti-white,’ and ‘a vehicle for introducing leftist propaganda in the classroom,'” Amanda Marcotte, senior politics writer at Salon, wrote. “In reality, social-emotional learning is merely pedagogical jargon for teaching kids ‘critical thinking, emotion management, conflict resolution, decision making, teamwork,’ all of which are necessary for ‘academic success, employability, self-esteem, relationships, and civic and community engagement.’”

Fortunately, awareness of the insidious intent of Moms for Liberty and similar groups is rising and fair-minded folks are challenging the reactionary and bigoted views which call for book banning and eliminating critical thinking curricula.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, a human rights and free expression organization, writes in Time Magazine that “Moms for Liberty, the Parental Rights Foundation, and No Left Turn in Education. Their aim is to activate parents to contest what is taught in the classroom, what books are available to students, and the professional authority of teachers, administrators, and librarians to carry out their work. This campaign goes well beyond a judicious effort to prompt reconsideration of controversial aspects of certain school curricula or questions of the age-appropriateness of certain materials and narratives. Rather, its methods center on censorship and are chilling speech in classrooms across the country.”

Conservative Diane Ravitch, historian of education, an educational policy analyst, and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, speaks out against MfL’s tactics.

“The astroturf Koch-funded ‘Moms for Liberty’ is offering a $500 reward to anyone who catches a teacher teaching ‘divisive concepts,’ which is against state law. What is a divisive concept? Maybe teaching about the First Amendment is one. Teaching about the horrors of war is another. Teaching about the effects of climate change, for sure. Teaching that vaccines save lives is another so don’t talk about polio or other diseases, certainly not coronavirus,” Ravitch wrote.

Ouch! This tactic goes well beyond Pennsylvania state Rep. Barbara Gleim’s, R-Cumberland, call for “conservative eyes and ears in the classroom.”

“All politics is local,” the late U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill, D-Mass., once opined.

One cannot get more local than district school boards. The policies set and curricula determined by the enneads chosen as school board directors provide the basis for developing good citizens as expected by our Founding Fathers. If we elect candidates who espouse the hateful and hurtful positions of Moms for Liberty and others, we will crack the foundation of authentic liberty for all.

Do not vote for these alt-right contenders for our school boards. Our children and our future will suffer if you do.

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Lloyd E. Sheaffer
Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].