Running for school board used to be a good way to get your feet wet in the event that you ever wanted to run for a “real” office. Seats, especially in smaller districts were typically relatively easy to win. Parents are notoriously inattentive to their children’s education so if you managed to snag one you had a chance of having a pretty cushy side gig for a while. This is no longer the case.
School board meetings have become the premier battleground for partisan politics in America. No matter what state you are in there has been a contentious school board meeting near you in the last few months, and more likely in the last few weeks. “Contentious” is actually putting it lightly in some cases. There has been name calling, yelling, screaming, fights, and even arrests at school board meetings. Here locally, Carmel Clay Schools had to add metal detectors at their meetings as a man was arrested at a previous meeting after a handgun fell from his pocket. So, it is clear that school board meetings have evolved beyond the small-time, and uneventful happenings they used to be. This is highlighted by the fact that school board members across the country are resigning their positions., which makes sense as they are largely unpaid volunteers anyway, and if paid, certainly not enough compensation to deal with what their jobs have become.
But how did it get this way? What has happened recently that has created such a hostile environment for school board meetings?
Most of the arguments can be boiled down to two categories: COVID and diversity. When you see a headline in your local newspaper about a hostile school board meeting there is virtually a 100% chance that it was about COVID protocols like mask mandates or diversity topics like DEI and Critical Race Theory (or what they perceive as critical race theory.) Some people are against those how those topics are being implemented, and they are showing up and making themselves heard … among other things.
While this phenomenon seems to be manifesting itself as an organic parent centered movement, that’s not the entire story. Yes, the tip of the iceberg is parents but there are funded organizations and politicians driving some of these debates as well. These issues are partisan in nature. Republicans didn’t really have an education platform to successfully counter the Red for Ed and teacher strikes the last couple of election cycles, and it hurt them. So, it makes sense that they would lean into the anti-mask, anti-Critical Race Theory, and anti-DEI sentiments that are already prevalent in their base. They view this as a winning issue for them in many places.
This isn’t going away anytime soon either. COVID-19 has gotten worse lately as the Delta variant has taken hold. So those arguments about mask mandates will still be around and pretty soon schools may start requiring teachers to get vaccines which will trigger another round of sparring. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a massive topic with lots of different aspects people can take issue on. Today, it’s diversity hiring initiatives and transgender athletes but tomorrow it can be LGBTQIA+ literature or racial bias training. Different laws around Critical Race Theory are being passed and challenged in states all over the country.
So, for the time being, this may just be the new normal. School board meetings aren’t what they used to be and likely will not go back to that for some time. If you plan on attending one be aware that people may be turned up when you get there.