Opinion: Conservative politics could play into school elections

Dr. Alan Singer

By Dr. Alan Singer

The war on local school boards, teaching and history is escalating as conservative activists and Republican politicians prepare for the 2022 congressional midterm elections.

This year, 66 gag-order bills to prevent teaching about race and racism were introduced in 26 states, and at least 12 became law. Among the measures was Assembly Bill 8253, introduced in New York by Republican Assemblyman Colin Schmitt of upstate New Windsor, which, if passed, would ban students and teachers in K-through-12 schools from learning about The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which examined the nation’s beginnings through the lens of slavery.

According to a report by the nonprofit PEN America, many of the bills mirror legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate by Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, and former President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order “combating race and sex stereotyping.” Most include a provision prohibiting “divisive concepts.”

One frightening development is a shift in strategy by groups like the Proud Boys, whose members were involved in the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Proud Boys are now picketing school board meetings in protests against mask and vaccine mandates, and school curricula and reading assignments that they don’t like. This fall there were Proud Boy rallies on Long Island in Rockville Centre, Bay Shore and Patchogue.

In New York, school board elections are scheduled for next May 17, six months before November’s congressional election. Filing petitions are due in most school districts on April 18. The New York State School Boards Association provides a booklet for people considering becoming school board candidates.

On Long Island, insurgent candidates challenging coronavirus mask mandates and a fictionalized version of critical race theory won three seats on the Smithtown Board of Education last May. Now a Republican consulting firm is organizing classes to further polarize and politicize school board races. Among those offering the classes are a former Trump activist, a former contractor with the Nassau County government when it was under Republican control and a Republican Suffolk County legislator.

The latest Long Island school district to erupt with a critical race theory controversy is Great Neck. Some residents accuse a Great Neck North High School 11th-grade English teacher of presenting in class that whites are racists and students need to understand white fragility and reject privilege. The local parents appear to be working with a national organization, Parents Defending Education, which claims it wants to ensure that American schools do not promote “harmful agendas.” The group’s website has slides that were supposedly shown in the English class.

What is missing from their attack on teachings is any attempt to learn what actually took place in the classroom. Students read the book “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which won a National Book Award. The slides were part of a lesson introducing students to the issues raised in the book, and by other authors who question or challenge what they perceive of as racism and white supremacy in the U.S. Students were asked to pledge to think about the issues raised in the book, not to agree with a particular author.

According to state Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young, “The New York State Board of Regents policy on diversity, equity and inclusion is not an attempt to, in fact, teach critical race theory. Critical race theory is not our theory of action. Our theory of action is cultural responsiveness.” The official position of the state educational governing body, and the reality of what gets taught in the classroom, have not stopped conservative Republicans from mobilizing white families to stop CRT.

Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, has called the political assault on school boards a “false narrative.” Worona responded to the assault, “There are many people who are proclaiming that the curriculum is being designed to indoctrinate students to think in a particular way, as opposed to what we’ve done for eons, which is to teach critical thinking skills.”

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter, @AlanJSinger1.