Restoring our public schools and empowering parents

By Dan Lennington and Dr. Will Flanders

MILWAUKEE — The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) recently joined 14 other states in withdrawing from the National School Boards Association (NSBA). In total, 27 states have taken steps to distance themselves from NSBA. Like other taxpayer-financed governmental associations, WASB doubtless has its own issues worthy of discussion. Nonetheless, WASB’s move represents a stinging rebuke to a national organization that has become far too disconnected from the constituents they ultimately ought to serve—parents.

This dispute started on Sept. 29, when NSBA sent a letter to President Biden comparing parents’ participation in a school-board meetings to “domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” NSBA complained specifically about parents’ anger over the spread of critical race theory in public schools by trotting out the thoroughly debunked claim that “critical race theory is not taught in public schools.”

After the White House “actively engaged” with NSBA over the matter, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum directing the FBI and federal prosecutors around the country to investigate the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” by parents at school board meetings. This claim of “violence” has also been debunked, resulting in a vicious grilling of the attorney general by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). And most recently, Congress discovered that NSBA’s encouragement caused the FBI to investigate parents who “harass” or “intimidate” school boards, to create “threat assessments” for school boards, and to track parents for potential investigations with certain “threat tags.”

NSBA’s adversarial position toward parental involvement is unacceptable under any circumstances. But NSBA’s attempt to compare angry parents to “terrorists” is even more outrageous given the very legitimate concerns that parents have raised since the beginning of the pandemic.

At the top of the list of legitimate parental grievances was the decision to keep many schools closed during the 2020-21 school year, despite strong scientific evidence that it was safe to reopen. Research by our own organization, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), found that it was not the rates of COVID transmission in a community that effected reopening decisions, but rather whether there was a strong union presence in the school district.

This electoral disconnect has continued into the present school year with many schools persisting in their belief that mask mandates are necessary or somehow even legally required. Also, many schools have doubled down on the continued expansion of critical race theory and “equity” policies. Here in Wisconsin, school boards have also eschewed transparency and in some cases attempted to limit public comment at meetings.

In response, parents have certainly escalated the fight by employing unusual and extreme tactics. For example, Wisconsin has had more school-board recall attempts this year than any other state except California. While no school board member has yet been recalled, six school board members have resigned in response to recall attempts and roughly 1/3 of incumbents lost in the spring 2021 election. Some parents have also moved to take over annual school board meetings, and in one case, successfully cut school-board member salaries by $6,400 each. Other school board meetings have become colorful, to say the least, and in some circumstances, rather raucous.

Parental outrage has also translated into legal action. WILL recently represented a mother in Kenosha who successfully used a 2015 federal law to observe her son’s classroom in person after concerns about curriculum and school discipline. Another parent used a similar federal law to chastise a Milwaukee Public School teacher who attempted to grill students about why they wouldn’t get a COVID vaccine. Yet more parents, represented by WILL, successfully defended their religious liberties and freedom of speech in the context of a school board recall. Other parents, through guidance from WILL, have used federal and state laws to gain transparency and hold school boards accountable in the area of curriculum, public-health laws, and sexually-explicit materials in school libraries.

The attempt to stifle parent involvement, led by NSBA, has certainly backfired politically. In the end, NSBA was forced to apologize for its attempt to conflate parents and terrorists. And not only have parents rallied around the banners of transparency, accountability, and parental empowerment, but they have also translated that organization into the beginning of a stunning political movement.

Despite these successes, more work is needed to address public schools’ failure to respond to parents’ righteous anger over transparency, falling standards, school discipline, and COVID restrictions. The battle lines are drawn, and as we move into a significant election year, school boards can expect even more pressure and scrutiny from the public. The question is: how will Wisconsin school boards respond to this building pressure? That WASB thought the national association went too far in its rhetoric is a step in the right direction. Yet there is still a long way to go for WASB and individual school boards to show they have learned the lessons of the past year and will work to foster a collaborative relationship with parents.

Dan Lennington is deputy counsel and Dr. Will Flanders is research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

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