Are school board culture wars coming to Sacramento? Parental rights groups growing stronger

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Several people carried signs at Monday’s Capitol rally. “Stop the Democratic grooming of our children,” said one.

“My child is not your science experiment,” said another.

But most prominent were the white buttons adorning dresses, shirts, and jackets that read: PROTECT PARENTS’ RIGHTS.

Summertime may be the carefree highlight of the year for school-aged children, but it’s been a turbulent season for local school boards, especially in Southern California.

Boards in Chino and Murrieta enacted policies requiring teachers and school staff to inform parents of changes in their childrens’ gender identity. An Orange County district may soon follow. The Temecula Valley Unified School District voted to reject curriculum that taught about Harvey Milk and the gay rights movement. It backed down and approved the plan after Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened a $1.5 million fine.

On Monday, a group of 200 or so concerned parents, grandparents, and community members from up and down the state gathered to fight back against what they see as the attack on parents’ rights — led by Newsom — and to lobby against several bills making their way through the legislature.

Many of the state’s most outspoken supporters of the parents’ rights movement are newly elected school board members in the Sacramento region. They are confident that their cause — sparked by the lockdowns and mask mandates of the pandemic era and fed by the conviction that schools have become centers of leftist indoctrination — will only gain strength.

“There’s this apparatus of power and we’re realizing where we have influence. And that influence is growing,” said Jonathan Zachreson, who was elected to Roseville City Unified School District last November — one of 26 school board candidates from Colfax to Roseville who ran on a “pro-parent” platform and won in 2022.

Rocklin, Elk Grove school boards seek to strengthen parental rights

Sacramento area school districts could soon be confronted with proposals similar to those that roiled Chino and Temecula.

In Elk Grove Unified School District, the board is set to hear a presentation about parents rights at its next meeting on Sept. 5.

“Given that there is a different understanding with respect to parental rights, I request that the Board of Education have an agenda item in which it receives a report on existing (state) ed code language with respect to parents’ rights,” said Trustee Carmine Forcina at a July school board meeting. “And include within that report any pertinent court cases that affirm the education code statements.”

Forcina does not believe the request for a presentation “is threatening.”

“The intent of having a report at a Board meeting is to give the public ... an opportunity to hear the ‘What Is,’” he said at the July session.

At an Aug. 9 board meeting, Rocklin Unified School District Trustee Dereck Counter proposed creation of a subcommittee to consider strengthening parent notification policies. It is scheduled to present on the topic at its next session on Sept. 6.

Dereck Counter, a trustee of the Rocklin Unified School District Board of Education, attends a meeting in 2021.
Dereck Counter, a trustee of the Rocklin Unified School District Board of Education, attends a meeting in 2021.

“I want to look at strengthening parents’ rights notifications with respect to some of our RUSD policies,” Counter said.

“Our teachers, our instructional aides, counselors, staff, all have positive connections with our students ... alongside with our great educators that we have, I want to increase the parent notifications, strengthen the parent rights,” he said. “We need to keep parents in all the conversations about substantial changes that would support the academic, social, emotional, and mental growth of our district’s students.”

Board President Julie Hupp seconded the motion to form a subcommittee, and placed herself on it.

Mike Murray, a Rocklin parent running to represent Placer County’s 3rd supervisorial district, is a strong supporter of Counter’s, and three other like-minded pro-parent RUSD trustees: Hupp, Tiffany Saathoff (a pastor at Destiny Church and Republican Assemblyman Joe Patterson’s Chief of Staff), and Rachelle Price.

“As a parent, all we want is transparency,” Murray, who has two children enrolled in RUSD schools, said at the rally Monday.

Like Zachreson, he worries about the slate of state bills “trying to take away local control” from school boards. What works in some communities and local jurisdictions might not make sense in others, he said.

“We want to be part of their lives, be there to help them. We don’t want that taken away by the government.”

Parents’ rights is a ‘collaborative movement’

Many who rallied in Sacramento Monday see their movement as a biblical calling — they answer to God, not the government — and believe that the state is undermining the bedrock principle of local control of schools.

It was the second such demonstration in just one week. Last Wednesday, Sonja Shaw, president of Chino Valley Unified School District, appeared at the Capitol with Assemblyman Bill Essayli, R-Riverside, a fellow “champion of parents’ rights.”

Shaw, a trainer who has become a heroine of the parents’ rights movement, was called by one pastor in attendance “a true, modern day Deborah.” She spoke Monday as well.

“God is using California to guide the way,” Shaw said, against the indoctrination of young kids, and against the “political cartel of Newsom, Bonta and (State Superintendent Tony) Thurmond.”

Thurmond showed up to a Chino Valley school board meeting last month — he says students in the district invited him — and was ousted after a verbal showdown with Shaw, who had him removed. To Thurmond, Shaw is an extremist. To Shaw and her supporters and colleagues, there’s nothing extreme about protecting children.

School boards across even the bluest of states are increasingly made up of parents who see themselves on the front lines of what Shaw called “a spiritual battle” and “a warfare.”

And yet, at Monday’s event, sponsored by the California Family Council with Turning Point USA members present, it would be easy to assume that all attendees are bedfellows in the conservative Christian movement. But activists maintain the parents’ rights movement transcends such identifiers as “Republican” or “Democrat.”

“This is a collaborative movement,” Zachreson said Monday.

Zachreson, who is not religious, was a lifelong No Party Preference voter until the COVID-19 pandemic when he changed his affiliation to Republican.

Prior to his election, Zacherson organized around reopening California schools during the COVID-19 shutdowns. He was an early objector to mask and vaccine mandates, school and business shutdowns, and what he calls violations of individual liberty where medical and educational decisions are concerned.

Now that they are turning their focus to class curriculum, parental notification, increased parental involvement in the classroom, and local control.

One target is Assemblyman Corey Jackson’s AB 1078, which would require a two-thirds supermajority vote from a school board for removal of a book from a library or curriculum. Schools could also be fined if they do not supply enough diverse instructional materials, as required by the Department of Education’s content standards.

The parents’ rights camp believes this “will make it harder for local school boards to remove pornographic books and sexualized curriculum,” per the California Family Council and Capitol Resource Institute.

The movement also opposes Burbank Sen. Anthony Portantino’s SB 596, which would make it a misdemeanor offense to “subject a school employee to threats or harassment for reasons related to their official duties while they are away from a school site or after school hours.”

Zachreson, and other newly elected trustees like him, is not just a school board member — he’s one of many activists participating in a broad, collaborative coalition of elected officials, lawyers, pastors, stay-at-home parents and lobbyists actively trying to change state legislation.

“Parents realized where there were power voids,” Zachreson told The Bee in an interview last week. He cites the California Teachers Association, the California School Board Association, and the state Department of Education for actively excluding parents from important policy decisions. School boards in Southern California, including Yorba Linda, where one board voted to leave the CSBA (96% of California’s schools are members), are moving in the right direction, he said.

And when it comes to coalition building, he and his fellow activists work with anyone across the political spectrum — including lawyer and activist Erin Friday, who spoke on Monday’s rally about saving her daughter from “trans ideology.” Friday is a Democrat and told The Bee she’s also not religious.

In other words: it’s not about politics or parish, it’s about parenting.

“This is not a right-left issue,” she said at the podium to a cheering crowd. “It’s easy to say it’s a right wing religious issue, but it’s a human issue, a family issue.”

Jon Fenske, center, campaigns for the Dry Creek Elementary School Board in Placer County in 2022.
Jon Fenske, center, campaigns for the Dry Creek Elementary School Board in Placer County in 2022.

In red Placer County, it’s a larger movement to, as Dry Creek Elementary School Board Trustee Jon Fenske put it, “protect the innocence of children.”

Fenske ran with two other newbies in 2022: Jean Pagnone and Jason Walker. The three “J Team” candidates ran a joint campaign and successfully “flipped” the five-person school board to a majority pro-parent governing body.

“If we did not have (these) changes in Dry Creek, we wouldn’t have these discussions about parents’ rights,” Fenske told The Bee last week. “I’ve been called a ‘homophobe book banner,’ but I’m just trying to do what’s best for the kids.”