The media pile-on atop Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) for his comments Wednesday characterizing mock Nazi salutes at school board meetings as First Amendment–protected speech is not, unfortunately, an aberrational event when it comes to news coverage this fall of parents publicly registering their discontent with various contentious K-12 policies.
Not a day goes by without the media comparing raucous school board meetings to the January 6 Capitol Hill riots, attributing the increase in parental outrage to racism and/or manipulation by cynical puppet masters, conducting laughably one-sided fact-checks, using the phrase "Republicans seize" unironically, and taking at face value education-establishment claims that all curricular and organizational changes made in the name of racial equity are merely about being more accurate in the teaching of history.
Sometimes most or even all of these boxes can get checked off in a single article or broadcast segment. Such as on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 Wednesday night, when, after a minutes-long, head-shaking lecture from Cooper about how "facts are facts," CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin came on to provide this tendentious explanation for why school board politics have become heated enough to animate GOP senators and change the trajectory of next week's Virginia gubernatorial election.
"It's really important to remember why we are talking about school boards at all: because it's about white supremacy, and that's on the rise in the Republican Party," Toobin charged. "The reason school boards are controversial is that some school boards have dared to teach that, you know, civil rights and African American rights have not been so great in this country over the centuries, like when we had slavery and when we had Jim Crow. And that has so outraged the Republican Party—telling the truth about race in America—that they feel the way to win elections and to win the governorship in Virginia, is to demonize these school boards for daring to tell the truth about race in America. And that's really the core of what's going on here."
The progressive journalist Zaid Jilani, who lives in northern Virginia and teaches part time there, retorted on an episode of The Fifth Column podcast Wednesday that Toobin's vision bore no resemblance to what he's experienced on the ground.
"Those debates actually have been happening for a number of months, before this all became like a national thing," Jilani said. "There were debates about some of the selective high schools, and…should they use testing to get people in, should it be a holistic process. There were debates about curriculum, there were debates about COVID and masking. And I don't think at any point in those debates did any white supremacists show up. I didn't see anyone in a Klan hood."
There is something revealingly incongruous about a news organization that in one breath conducts hair-splitting fact-checks deferring to the government's point of view ("In fact, there's no mention of 'parents'…at all in the memo, none," Cooper said triumphantly Wednesday, about the controversial October 4 Justice Department directive to have federal agents be on the lookout for anti–school board violence), then in the next being content to nod along when a colleague accuses citizen participants in democracy and a major political party of being primarily motivated by white supremacy.
Since this issue is not going away anytime soon, particularly if Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin upsets Virginia power pol Terry McAuliffe in the governor's race next week, it's worth being on the lookout for recurrent media framing devices that distort the depiction of an important set of debates. (K-12 instruction amounts to about 20 percent of all state and local government spending, don't forget.) The point is not to be steered toward my admittedly idiosyncratic school policy preferences, but rather to become via pattern recognition a more discerning consumer of news.
Here are two of the most common ways the media warp school board politics.
1) Exaggerating the incidence of violence.
On October 22, in an article picked up widely and also adapted by the Associated Press, Minnesota Public Radio made this alarming assertion: "Violent school board meetings and threats toward school board members [in Minnesota] over these issues have caused dozens of board leaders to quit their positions." Do note the serial pluralization.
Were there really multiple acts of violence, and multiple threats, causing "dozens" of board members to quit, in a state known for its niceness? The 757-word article did not explicitly list any; there was one hyperlink to a June piece that mentioned "someone had recently threatened on a community Facebook page to rush the podium" at one meeting, but no such bum-rush took place.
I was able to find one violent incident in Minnesota, from late September, when two members of the public who were on opposite sides of a school masking policy debate got into a brief scuffle that was broken up by a police officer.
What seems to be happening much more than citizen-on-official violence, or credible threats thereof, is a recurring reaction of bewilderment on the part of the (often volunteer) school board members in the face of vein-throbbing parental outrage and doubtlessly some pretty bizarro vox-populi rants. Some board members are spooked, some don't consider the emotional conflict worth the hassle, and some, like Mankato, Minnesota, School Board Chair Jodi Sapp, think the way out of the mess is to declare that this "is not a meeting that belongs to the public," and then require any citizen speaker to state his or her name and home address into a microphone:
There have been indeed acts of personal violence and physical intimidation at school board meetings this summer and fall. But how many?
In its notorious but still successful letter of September 29 requesting "immediate" federal law enforcement assistance "to protect our students, school board members, and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence," the National School Board Association (NSBA) mentioned and linked to 20 discrete incidents, using such summative language as "attacks against school board members and educators," and "acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials."
How many of the 20 incidents included a physical altercation? The bulk of them (I count 13) were meetings disrupted by shouting or defiance of mask policies. As best as I can reckon, the NSBA letter contained two references to people coming to blows: a guy in Illinois punching the school official who was escorting him out, and the now-infamous (and still-disputed) case in Loudoun County, Virginia, where the father of a girl who had been sexually assaulted in a school bathroom went berserk after hearing the superintendent say that, "To my knowledge, we don't have any record of assaults occurring in our restrooms."
The Loudoun County arrest in particular has stoked local, state, and national outrage, with all the wild-eyed truth bending that comes with it. (The NSBA letter misportrayed the incident as being tied to discussion of "critical race theory and…equity issues"; conservatives have since inaccurately blamed the attack on the school's transgender bathroom policies.) And the personalized vitriol directed at Loudoun officials has been especially vile, worthy of heightened law enforcement attention. Still, a violent reaction from a lone father distraught over his daughter's assault seems a poor fit for a national trend story.
There have been other acts of violence not listed in the NSBA letter—there were reportedly multiple fights in a Missouri parking lot after a September meeting on masking, for example. But the fact that we're still counting on one hand, maybe two, the number of times people at our testy school board meetings this year have thrown hands, in a country of 14,000 or so school boards, suggests a far more modest contextual presentation of the conflicts than we have seen in the press.
"GOP Demands Justice Department Back Off Threat To Protect School Board Members From Violent Mobs," ran the headline this week at Above the Law. Such lopsided hyperbole, and contempt for swaths of the citizenry, has (along with restrictive blue-state educational COVID-19 policies) driven at least a half-dozen school-opening advocates I follow on Twitter away from a Democratic Party they've spent their lives voting for. And it may yet push voters in Democratic Virginia to vote Republican for governor.
2) Claiming that parental outrage is a contrived, ginned-up "culture war" untethered from real-world concerns.
"Fox News can't get enough of these congressional hearings in which GOP lawmakers bash AG Merrick Garland over manufactured controversies," wrote CNN Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy this week in the Reliable Sources newsletter.
"Fox News helped amplify (if not create) a furor at school board meetings several months ago," wrote Washington Post columnist Philip Bump last week. "Over the summer, this had the (intended) effect of establishing a tea-party-like movement from the base up—one that, like the tea party a decade ago, was carefully cultivated and tended….It's an issue that was formed from the sheer energy of the culture war more than anything else."
I do not recall Fox having such pull in San Francisco and New York City. Yet both cosmopolitan capitals have been the site of intense school board politics—not for months, but for years. Three of the seven board members of the San Francisco Unified School District are facing a recall vote this coming February, with backers of the effort (per Ballotpedia's write-up) "frustrated that schools in the district remained closed for nearly a year in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic," and also "upset that the board had spent time voting to rename 44 buildings in the district rather than focusing on opening schools."
From 2009–2020, Ballotpedia counted between 18 and 38 school board recalls per year, targeting between 46 and 91 members. In 2021 those numbers have more than doubled—84 recalls aiming at 215 officials. Now close your eyes and think real hard: What other motivations might recallers have besides the enjoyment of responding "How high?" when Fox News yells "Jump!"?
"The combination of extended Covid-related school closures; mask mandates; an increasingly extreme race- and gender-focused curriculum; and the removal of tests, honors classes and merit-based admissions has created a bumper crop of engaged—and, in many cases, enraged—parents rightfully concerned about what is happening in their children's schools," wrote Manhattan-based school activist and City Council candidate Maud Maron, a "lifelong liberal," over at Bari Weiss' Substack on October 11.
During the 19+ months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly since the fall of 2020, the United States, especially in its biggest cities, has been a global outlier when it comes to keeping schools closed, masking children, and (soon enough) mandating vaccines for 5-year-olds. These comparatively extreme policies, driven largely by the strength of teachers unions in parts of America's decentralized schooling system, have understandably motivated some parents to get more involved in the decision-making process.
And one of the things that they discover there is that the education establishment, particularly but not only in big cities, has only accelerated recent trends of junking Gifted & Talented programs, removing selective entrance exams, constructing "controlled choice" admission systems, and centering curricula around "anti-racist" themes, all in the name of "equity." These choices are divisive in the most placid of times, which a pandemic is decidedly not.
"We should call this controversy what it is—a scare campaign cooked up by G.O.P. operatives" and others to "limit our students' education and understanding of historical and current events," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told The New York Times last week.
Well, no. As I have been writing about for two years now, the equity-based policy changes, and the way some education officials have bulldozed the concerns of affected parents, was already beginning to alienate families away from public schooling before the onset of the pandemic. Combined with the aforementioned COVID-19 restrictions, these radical alterations are fueling a K-12 exodus.
Sometimes media outlets cover these topics with nuance and detail. Other times they spend an inordinate amount of time fact-checking the semantic difference between the academic term critical race theory and the co-opting of the term by conservative activists as a negative political branding exercise. (A branding exercise, to be sure, that has led to bad policy results, such as a Texas Republican lawmaker this week compiling a list of 850 books that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.")
As I can testify from grisly firsthand experience, there are kooks at just about any public meeting (it takes one to know one), and those who are being motivated by the apocalyptic likes of Tucker Carlson are likely to have a heightened sense of crazy. But it's a category error to characterize most participants at school board gatherings as being driven there by national media. These politics, and relationships, are local.
So when former President Barack Obama sneers that, "We don't have time to be wasted on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage, the right-wing media's peddles to juice their ratings," as he did by McAuliffe's side on Saturday, it's an insult to every last one of us who has dragged ass out to the local school meeting because we care about policies affecting our kids.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.