Over the last several months, school board meetings across the country have become ground zero for contentious and destructive battles. The vitriolic political rhetoric and threatening behavior are posing a serious threat to democracy.
Last month, anti-mask protesters forced their way into a Poway Unified School District board meeting in San Diego County, and video showed that a few tried to swear themselves in as new board members. In June, players on Coronado High School's basketball team threw tortillas into the air at an opposing team of predominantly Latino players. After the local school board issued a formal apology for the incident, one board member was repeatedly harassed on social media, including threats of physical violence. Throughout the U.S., school board members are being subjected to abuse, and some of them are choosing to resign.
As researchers who have long studied the democratic aims of education, we are concerned these antidemocratic attacks will lead district and school leaders to avoid putting into place challenging policies, such as COVID-related masking and vaccine rules aimed at protecting the health of educators and students. We also worry that these leaders will discourage classroom discussion of controversial issues and teaching about the history and current manifestations of American racism. Such a retreat by educators, to avoid community backlash, would forsake the pivotal role many public schools try to play in preparing young people to engage in democracy.
Yet according to a just-published study based on a national survey of more than 500 principals we conducted in 2018, school leaders in conservative and liberal settings were equally likely to provide support for many effective forms of civic education, including teaching about how elections work and connecting community service work to the curriculum.
We also found that when district leaders emphasized the importance of educating for democracy, schools in both liberal and conservative areas were far more likely to support such practices. This is encouraging because it demonstrates that school leaders can act to foster the practices and norms that are essential to democracy.
At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the state of democracy. The current attacks on school boards and district leaders are not politics as usual. They are tied to a much broader effort by powerful and well-funded groups seeking to undermine the legitimacy of democratic governance. This threat should not be taken lightly. As political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in their 2018 book, the erosion of democratic institutions and democratic norms and commitments is “how democracies die.”
We are not alone in our concerns. The National School Boards Assn. and the School Superintendents Assn. have taken a forceful step, calling for an end to “aggression, intimidation, threats and violence toward superintendents, board members and educators.” And a broad coalition of educational groups and historians formed Learn from History over the summer, partly to educate parents and the public about the need for schools to provide a fact-based history education — and to “teach students to reject racism.”
Local school board members and civic leaders need to heed these calls and stand up for inclusive participation, respectful exchange and deliberation based on facts and evidence. We need more parents, educators and community members to participate in school board meetings. More than ever, they need to be partisans for democracy, rejecting antidemocratic rhetoric, falsehoods and threats being made against school board members. These democratic commitments should be expressed publicly in online posts, letters to the editor and statements at board meetings. Such efforts both shore up public support for the democratic process and model robust engagement for the next generation.
Public schools are well positioned to support democracy. They are often centers of their communities, with classrooms that can expose students to a diversity they may not experience away from school. At their best, schools present difficult and challenging ideas to students while promoting evidence-based inquiry and deliberation — practices and capacities that are central to what a democracy needs to function well.
Schools and school districts should explicitly act to promote learning opportunities that prepare youth for thoughtful engagement in democratic life. This will be more difficult now than it was in the summer of 2018 when we conducted the survey, although the deepening political divisions in broader society had already begun seeping into schools and classrooms, as exemplified by students chanting “Build the wall” at immigrant classmates. This divisiveness has only grown since, making educating for democracy all the more important.
From the U.S. Capitol to the local school board, democracy is under assault. To protect and strengthen it, school leaders and community members — regardless of their perspective — must demand inclusive, informed and democratic deliberation at school board meetings. And it should not be their battle alone. Healthy forms of civic engagement must be emphasized throughout society.
If adults don’t practice democracy — and youths are not taught how to — we may lose it.
Joseph Kahne is a professor of education and co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside. John Rogers is a professor of education and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.