Sun. Feb 5th, 2023


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Opinion | Masks Are Just the Latest School Board Culture War

5 min read

America’s school board meetings are out of control.

Forget sonorous debates over capital improvements and annual budgets. Today’s gatherings are ground zero for some of the nation’s nastiest brawls over the hyper-politicized issue of mask mandates. Meetings are being overrun by protesters voicing their objections to face-coverings in classrooms — replete with mask-themed conspiracy theories, accusations of fascism and biblically themed condemnations. (Many protesters have divined that the Almighty hates masks.) School board members are being harassed and threatened, in person and online.

The encounters can get weird — and scary. Outside a school board meeting near Nashville, protesters swarmed medical professionals who had spoken in support of masking, screaming profanity and threats. “You will never be allowed in public again!” one raged. “We know who you are,” another warned. “You can leave freely, but we will find you!”

At a school board meeting in Lee County, Fla., one anti-mask speaker linked the board’s support of a mandate with support for child sex trafficking. (Don’t ask.) Outside, law enforcement had to break up physical altercations.

Just before a scheduled meeting in Fort Lauderdale, a protester sporting a “Not Vaccinated” T-shirt spritzed a tray of masks with lighter fluid and set it aflame, proclaiming, “It’s time to pass off this symbol of tyranny!” The board postponed its mask discussion.

After a school board on the outskirts of Pittsburgh passed a mask mandate, one man in the audience gave a Nazi salute, and someone shouted, “You made Dr. Mengele proud!” On the other side of the state, near Philadelphia, a father in a hazmat suit told the audience at a board meeting that divisive mask mandates are “what Hitler wants.”

Who knew Pennsylvania’s anti-maskers possessed such keen insight into the minds of the Third Reich?

Displays like these upset people who do not think that largely nonpartisan school boards should be the targets of partisan lunacy. But while the drama may feel bound up in the angry, ugly, polarized politics of the moment, it is nothing new. Public schools have long been an irresistible battleground for America’s culture warriors. On issues ranging from sex education to desegregation, public prayer to evolution to the Pledge of Allegiance, cultural cage matches are frequently fought on the backs of local schools, with board members, educators and students too often caught in the fray.

Mask mandates are not the only topic roiling the school scene. Not infrequently, multiple issues get bundled together. In the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, the Loudon County school board has drawn the wrath of parents opposed to critical race theory, transgender rights and pandemic policies. The board’s actions have been compared to those of Nazis and Communists. A new PAC, Fight for Schools, has popped up, aimed at recalling and replacing most of the board with “common sense” candidates. On Wednesday, the PAC is co-hosting a “Save Our Schools” rally with 1776 Action, a group opposed to critical race theory. The rally is to feature the former Trump administration cabinet member Ben Carson.

Much of the passion in the school culture wars is grounded in gut-level fears. Many parents are terrified by the thought that their children could be indoctrinated or otherwise manipulated by strangers.

This is a particular concern for conservatives, who worry that a snooty, liberal education establishment, in cahoots with a secular state, will turn their offspring against them and their traditional values. The fierce strains of anti-intellectualism and anti-science that periodically dominate conservatism make things exponentially worse. Just witness the backlash in some conservative corners against college — not against specific institutions or particular excesses but against the idea of higher education altogether.

As Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman elected to head the Cherokee Nation, once noted, “Whoever controls the education of our children controls the future.”

School boards are super local, highly accessible public entities on which citizens can focus their rage and frustration. Fed up with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting normal life? What easier target than the low-level officials struggling to keep area schools on track? It can be tough for an individual or a small band of people to command the attention of a member of Congress or a state lawmaker. But school board members are right there in the community — with meetings open to all! — just waiting to be screamed at. Think of it as open-mic night for the disgruntled.

For the average citizen, punishing or even replacing a school board member seems a much more manageable proposition than ousting a mayor or governor. Small surprise that, over the decades, conservative movements and groups — who tend to have a better grasp of the power of local politics than their liberal counterparts — have spearheaded large-scale pressure campaigns and board takeovers. The conservative strategist Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, once said he would “exchange the presidency for 2,000 school seats.”

Pretty much every era has its defining school battles. Last decade, the Tea Party organized pressure campaigns on boards and fielded candidates, with an eye toward starving education systems it considered bloated and focused on the wrong missions.

During the Clinton presidency, the Christian Coalition led a nationwide push to stock school boards with social conservatives as part of its broader effort to build a grass-roots army. The group even conducted training seminars for candidates.

During the 1960s and 70s, sex education was a major flash point. The Civil Rights era brought bloodshed over school desegregation along with the rise of all-white segregation academies. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, as part of its nativist agenda, pushed school boards to jettison textbooks that spoke “slightly of the founders.” And at any given moment, someone somewhere is apoplectic over a textbook or novel that is part of the local school curriculum.

National political players are quick to latch on to issues that resonate. Remember when President Ronald Reagan was flogging a school-prayer amendment? Republicans today, including many denizens of Trumpworld, are working overtime to keep their base spun up over critical race theory.

All these fights are purportedly waged For the Good of the Children, even as the children are being used as pawns. It is not a pretty sight. But it is the American way.

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