Politics, School Boards, and Partisan Conflict: What Ain’t Supposed To Happen, Well, It Does

Tax-supported public schools have been havens of non-partisan activity. Whether one is a Democrat or Republican is immaterial when it comes to public schools. After all, the point of schooling is to make the young into good citizens who will do what’s best for the community, regardless of which political party they join.

But that’s not what occurred in Williamson County, Tennessee. Here is The New York Timesaccount of events from this past spring:

“What happens when a child sounds out the word ‘lesbian’ and turns to their teacher and asks, ‘What is a lesbian?’”

Trisha Lucente, the mom of a local kindergartner, has come before the Williamson County school board to voice her distress over the district’s continued use of Epic, a digital library app containing more than 40,000 children’s books and videos. Ms. Lucente and like-minded parents have complained about several titles that they consider inappropriate. Anything touching on race, gender or sexuality can set off alarms in conservative circles here. (A book on sea horses came under fire recently. The fact that male sea horses get pregnant was seen as promoting the idea of gender fluidity.)

In response, the school system temporarily shut down access to the library to conduct a review — prompting an outcry from supporters of the app — then reinstated it while allowing parents to opt out their kids.*

Williamson County School Board’s struggle over the library app underscores the point that public schools are political entities that can get sucked into divisive conflict. In this instance, a recent change in state law allowed candidates for the County school board to announce their political party affiliation. Given the recent history of curricular battles across the country, what occurred in Williamson was predictable. Board policy-making became a cradle of conflict.

But that’s not the way 151 school boards in Tennessee and 13,000-plus across the U.S. are supposed to do business. They are supposed to be non-partisan and apolitical.

Negativity toward Politics in Public Schools

I have worked with school board members, teachers, principals, district administrators, and superintendents for decades. I found that their responses to the idea that schools (and schooling) are fundamentally political largely negative. Although teachers and principals winced when I raised this point and gave highly specific examples of school boards acting politically (e.g., Kanawa County, West Virginia) they remained unpersuaded.

Superintendents, however, did see that a substantial portion of their work was political, that is, building coalitions to support policies recommended to the school board, negotiating with groups inside and outside the district to reach a satisfactory compromise to a dilemma, seeking out new resources for implementing policies, and figuring out how best to deal with obstreperous board members. Superintendents acknowledged that they are, indeed, political actors. Nonetheless, their words and body language revealed that many school chiefs disliked the inherent politics of the job.

Why is this? My guess is that the idea of politics quickly morphs into what most educators and most Americans associate with partisan politics (i.e., Republicans and Democrats). And, for the most part, that has been taboo. Consequently, most school board members across the 13,000-plus districts do not identify their party affiliation. Such party politics is rare.

Here is the punch line: What most educators ignore is that the non-partisan politics happen all the time within schools and districts. By non-partisan school politics, I mean the back-and-forth debates over school board policies and actions taken that govern what content and skills are taught in classrooms, schools, and districts.

A second guess for the negativity is that U.S. schools’ prior experience with partisan politics was disastrous. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, political parties saw schools as just another agency to reward loyal party members with jobs and contracts. The Progressive movement in the late-1890s through the 1920s introduced civil service reforms where applicants for jobs had to take tests, show credentials and experience to be hired as government employees. States and districts adopted these rules and over decades removed schools from partisan politics and patronage.

Those are my guesses as to why educators too often get sniffy over attaching the word “political” to what they do in schools.

It is foolish, however, to deny that schools are political institutions established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not means that schools matter a great deal to the community. School boards, administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve community-inspired goals. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 6-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community, state, and nation.

When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, however, it is easy to see not only what community values are embedded in each and every goal but also how potential partisan and parental conflicts over school curricula arise.

No surprise then that Trisha Lucente, the mother of a Williamson County kindergartner, complained at a meeting of the School Board about a digital library app available to students and their parents that included books dealing with race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality that she found both inappropriate and immoral.

______________________________

*A much longer and fuller account of the conflict that has occurred in Williamson County since May 2021 involved a school program called “Wit and Wisdom.” The description can be found in Paige Williams, “Class Warfare,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2022

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