By David M. Greenwald
This week, Governor Newsom wrote a letter to the Temecula school board inquiring as to why the board rejected the Social Studies Alive program—but perhaps more importantly, why the school board president referred to gay rights leader Harvey Milk as “a pedophile.”
According to the Press Enterprise, the school board president fired back “that he was not referring to Milk’s sexuality, but to reports that Milk had a relationship with a teenager.”
“I’ll ask you one simple question, governor,” Joseph Komrosky said. “Do you approve of a 33-year-old person, regardless of their gender identity or sexual preference, having a sexual relationship with any 16-year-old, regardless of their gender identity or sexual preference?”
(It’s probably important to note that the definition of pedophile is not a relationship with someone underaged, but rather someone prepubescent.)
The broader picture, however, is that, increasingly, cultural wars are coming to previously quiet school board meetings.
Locally the issue has been over trans rights and education.
In a recent email, local activist Beth Bourne noted DJUSD policies “on confidentiality when a child comes out as ‘transgender’ at school.”
She wrote, “Only parents, the ones who love their child more than any other person on earth, are kept in the dark as school staff and teachers manipulate and impact our children’s psychological and emotional health. Why? We require a permission slip from mom or dad for a child to take a Tylenol at school, to arrive 15 minutes late, to attend a field trip, etc. but not to identify as a sex different than their biological reality?”
When pointed out that the district lacks discretion on this issue, the school district is following state law, AB 1266.
She agreed, “I agree there is no local discretion but that’s why it’s even more important the school district is transparent with how gender ideology is promoted in schools, k-12.”
The local issue is part of a broader trend.
A recent article in the Orange County Register noted the increasing trend in Southern California, and referenced two studies out of UCLA—one from November and a follow up in March.
In November, UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access published a report, “Educating for a Diverse Democracy: The Chilling Role of Political Conflict in Blue, Purple, and Red Communities.”
The study was co-authored by UCLA professor of education John Rogers and UC Riverside professor of education policy and politics Joseph Kahne, and was based on a survey of 682 U.S. public high school principals and follow-up interviews with 32 of them in the summer of 2022.
According to the principals surveyed by the UCLA authors, “45% of them reported that conflict during the 2021-22 school year was higher than it was before the pandemic.”
The triggering event was masking and vaccinations, but has since spread to issues like Critical Race Theory and now Transgender issues.
The study found:
- 50% of principals reported attempts to limit or challenge teaching about race and racism during the 2021-22 school year;
- 48% of principals reported attempts to limit or challenge the teaching of LGBTQ+ student rights during the 2021-22 school year;
- 33% of principals reported attempts to limit or challenge student access to books in the school library during the 2021-22 school year.
The Orange County Register article noted, “Some of the backlash is due to anxieties stirred up during the pandemic, but the cultural issues around LGBT issues and race are also a response to changing societal standards in recent decades.”
The lead author, John Rogers, explained to the paper, “There are plenty of folks who find these changes frightening and who are pushing back, often in hateful ways.”
He added, “Unfortunately, those dynamics lead to heightened dynamics in public schools. And that’s problematic because public schools are ideally places where diverse people are coming together to find ways to work together and find common ground and create community.”
In March, UCLA followed that up with “Educating for a Diverse Democracy in California: The Growing Challenges of Political Conflict and Hostile Behavior,” based on interviews with 150 California high school principals.
The results were similar.
What was interesting, however: “Results were most pronounced in communities with a mix of politically liberal and conservative residents, as measured by how many voted for former President Donald Trump. “
Again, 93% of principals reported the level of the “political division and incivility” had increased since the pandemic’s start in 2020.
“Teachers are getting threatening emails, school board members are getting threatening emails,” Kahne said. “School board meetings are being turned into circuses.”
The Register noted, “Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework used in law schools and graduate schools that argues racism is embedded in government and business systems, rather than just being the result of individual people’s attitudes. Today, it’s often used as shorthand by conservatives for any discussion of race or racism in America that can be seen as criticizing traditional institutions or the country as a whole.”
“Cultural controversies used to be mostly about sex education and evolution,” Marcia Godwin, a professor surveyed, said. “The curricular battles are now disproportionately on critical race theory and LGBTQ+ concerns.”
One of my concerns has been the students are getting caught in the middle.
This is a point that teacher and DTA President Victor Lagunes made last week, “Our students, families and staff, our schools have not had the positivity that we would hope, and instead some having been met with intimidation, being othered and feelings of insecurity when we should be feeling quite the opposite. Pride.”
The Register quoting Kahne noted, “It would be imaginable you could have lots of fights at school boards but in the classroom nothing changes… (But) what was happening in school board meetings was having a big effect on what teachers do and what students are learning.”
Is that really what we want?
“In areas where there was a good deal of community conflict — efforts to attack or restrict LGBT rights, efforts to attack or restrict teaching of race or inequality — it was likely that schools were less likely to have professional development on things like teaching professional issues,” Rogers said.
“A large number of teachers and administrators are saying, ‘Why are we in this job?’ At a time when we have a huge teacher shortage, we’re driving teachers from the classroom, and young people are going to pay the cost,” Kahne said.
“Once it seems like this is a topic that you’re allowed to speak out on, and you’re not violating social norms in challenging their fellow students, some students are going to feel free to do so,” Rogers said. “And that undermines the feeling of safety and community that’s so vital for students to learn.”
But California students tend to be more tolerant of LGBTQ classmates and issues than many of the adults attacking their school boards, the paper noted.
“Even in areas that are quite conservative and in areas that have had quite a bit of pushback … principals are saying that it’s becoming more and more common for students to be out, for trans students to be out,” Rogers said. “In general, there’s a movement to more acceptance and more openness in the schools even as there’s a movement toward more hate playing out outside of the schools.”
This seems to be the reality where we are headed, even in relatively progressive areas like Davis—protests and pushback seem to be occurring.
But it might only get worse.
There were reports this week of violence outside of a Glendale Unified School District board meeting.
That precipitated the governor to issue a response.
“I spoke with Superintendent Ekchian and I want to thank her and the Glendale Unified School Board for standing tall against this organized campaign of hate,” Governor Newsom said.
“In California, we celebrate the beauty of pluralism — how our diverse communities, heritages, and identities belong and, together, make us whole. Glendale represents the best of this commitment, but the hate we saw on full display last night does not,” he continued.
The governor noted, “What should have been a routine vote — simply recognizing Pride Month for the fourth year in a row — turned to violence. The words of the resolution did not change from years past, but what has changed is a wave of division and demonization sweeping our nation. With hate on the rise nationally, we must rise together in California to affirm what both Pride Month and Immigrant Heritage Month represent — that in the Golden State, no matter who you are or what diverse community you are from, you belong.”
That’s where things are headed.