What happens when conservative school boards gain power at districts around the country

·12 min read

WAUKESHA, Wis. – The Waukesha School District believes in diversity and values individual differences, according to its mission statement. But new rules against classroom displays suggest otherwise, teachers say.

Decorations signaling inclusion and acceptance are now forbidden. LGBTQ+ signs, rainbow flags, Black Lives Matter posters and "safe space" signs are off-limits because they're political and encourage advocacy, the suburban Milwaukee district told teachers this fall.

Nationwide, other districts have followed suit – particularly those led by conservative boards. Besieged by parent complaints about everything from critical race theory to questions about sexuality, boards are undoing efforts schools have made to include children of color and LGBTQ students and to teach about the full spectrum of the American experience.

Central York High School teacher Patricia Jackson joins students Olivia Pituch, Renee Ellis, Edha Gupta and Christina Ellis for a demonstration Sept. 20 in Springettsbury Township, Pennsylvania. The district removed anti-racist books from reading lists before restoring them after student protests.
Central York High School teacher Patricia Jackson joins students Olivia Pituch, Renee Ellis, Edha Gupta and Christina Ellis for a demonstration Sept. 20 in Springettsbury Township, Pennsylvania. The district removed anti-racist books from reading lists before restoring them after student protests.

Some are overseeing the dissolution of diversity and equity committees and downplaying students' preferred personal pronouns. Others have jettisoned Black authors from reading lists and removed references to racial oppression and inequality in high school English literature curriculum.

It started with parents observing their own kids' learning amid the coronavirus pandemic and grew as they became angry over rules about masks and vaccines. Parents flooded school board meetings, sometimes becoming disruptive or even threatening.

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And they ran for school board, many of them backed by national conservative organizations – and often, they won. Real changes to kids' experiences at school have followed.

Thousands more board seats will be up for grabs in November, giving people opposed to mask mandates, critical race theory and library books seen as too sexually explicit a chance to reshape their local schools. In Wisconsin, Louisiana and Virginia, conservatives have gathered enough signatures to force recall elections of board members.

Running for office and representing constituents' concerns is the heart of a functioning democracy, of course. But many worry the newest wave of activism is erasing crucial supports for schoolchildren not old enough to vote themselves. Equity and inclusion efforts help ensure underrepresented students feel safe and seen, researchers and child psychologists say – two factors that are crucial for academic learning.

"I know there are differing opinions on (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs, but the majority of schools and school leaders believe those efforts around equity are important," said Chip Slaven, interim CEO of the National School Boards Association.

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Waukesha School District students and teachers protest the district's ban on inclusive signage in classrooms, such as Pride flags and Black Lives Matter posters, before a school board meeting on Sept. 15.
Waukesha School District students and teachers protest the district's ban on inclusive signage in classrooms, such as Pride flags and Black Lives Matter posters, before a school board meeting on Sept. 15.

Many conservatives believe addressing equity in that fashion amounts to liberal indoctrination – politics that should be removed from public schools.

"The Black Lives Matter organization is tied to a larger political movement, and with CRT, its logical end is more Marxist – more linked to central power, more government control and getting rid of the Constitution," said Sean Themea, chief of staff for Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student activist group based in Austin, Texas.

Public schools are at an inflection point. Conservatives feel that their ideology isn't well-represented in school rules or curricula and that a rebalancing is long overdue. Progressives fear rolling back equity efforts is a harbinger for further controls on teachers and a less tolerant classroom environment.

Restricting curricula and ignoring support for kids who are not white and straight sets back progress for all, they say.

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"This is a story about what’s happening in schools, but it's really about: Whose America is this?" said John L. Jackson Jr., dean of the communication school at the University of Pennsylvania. "As we hyperpoliticize the classroom and curriculum, there's a danger we'll eliminate exactly what students need (in order) to focus and learn."

No 'safe spaces' in Waukesha

In Waukesha, a conservative county directly west of Milwaukee where 60% of voters voted for then-President Donald Trump in 2020, the school board shifted further right in April. Two new conservative members won seats on the nine-person board with Republican Party support. One ran on a platform of no masks and ending COVID-19 quarantines.

After questions about the district's equity team that met monthly, the administration paused the work until it could provide more information to the board, Joe Koch, Waukesha's deputy superintendent, told USA TODAY.

"The intent is to come back to it," he said.

In August, the board voted to end a federally funded universal free meals program extended during the pandemic because some students weren't that poor and might become dependent on the assistance. The board reversed that decision after a national uproar and local protests. Board members said they received crude emails and even death threats from liberals.

Then the administration told teachers to remove LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, "safe space" and "thin blue line" American flag signage from classrooms. A thin blue line flag indicates support for police but is also associated with opposition to racial justice.

Even a reprint of the district's own nondiscrimination policy – promising equality no matter students' race, religion, sexual orientation or learning ability – can't be posted because each word is a color of the rainbow, teachers said.

The Waukesha School District's ban on classroom signage considered too political forbids a colorful display of the district's own nondiscrimination policy, teachers say, because the reprint suggests a rainbow flag. This photo of the sign was provided in October 2021.
The Waukesha School District's ban on classroom signage considered too political forbids a colorful display of the district's own nondiscrimination policy, teachers say, because the reprint suggests a rainbow flag. This photo of the sign was provided in October 2021.

"I understand the desire to remove political messaging, but these welcoming and inclusive signs have never been considered controversial in the past," physics teacher Greta Voit told the board in September.

Calling for balance by removing welcoming, affirming and safe-zone signage doesn't make sense, Voit said, because Waukesha lacks balance in its student body. It has significant racial disparities in programming, test score results and expulsion rates.

"According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey for our district, 47% of Hispanics, 45% of students of color and 59% of LGBTQ students don't feel like they belong in school," she told the board.

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Greta Voit, a physics teacher in Waukesha, Wis., protests a district ban on inclusive signage before a school board meeting in September. Teachers can no longer display “safe space” posters, Black Lives Matter signs, thin blue line signs or Pride flags in classrooms, on the grounds they’re too political.
Greta Voit, a physics teacher in Waukesha, Wis., protests a district ban on inclusive signage before a school board meeting in September. Teachers can no longer display “safe space” posters, Black Lives Matter signs, thin blue line signs or Pride flags in classrooms, on the grounds they’re too political.

School board members have not changed the administration's decision, and the president and clerk didn't reply to USA TODAY's requests for comment.

Waukesha also told teachers they cannot mark whether students prefer a different personal pronoun than the one that matches their birth sex. That creates a public record that a parent could request, which might inadvertently "out" the student, Koch said.

Students can still tell a teacher verbally how they wish to be addressed, he said.

Taking the signs down was an attempt to be balanced, Koch said, adding that Waukesha has received numerous complaints from residents on both sides of the debate.

And, he said, Black Lives Matter signs and positive LGBTQ symbols can stay posted in the counselor's office.

But that suggests students should receive affirmation of their identity, race or sexual orientation only in a special office with a counselor, said Jennifer Raymond, a public policy professor at Union Institute & University in Ohio.

"They’re treating it like it’s a mental illness," she said. "We can talk about this behind closed doors, in private, but we can't talk about it publicly because it might support something."

Waukesha students Autumn Gilligan, Gigi Mickschl, Kayla Kohn, Desi Levenhagen, Allyson Kulinski and Miah Miner display a rainbow flag during a school board meeting Oct. 13, 2021 in Waukesha, Wis. It was the second month of public comments about a new rule that bans teachers from displaying "controversial" decorations in classrooms.
Waukesha students Autumn Gilligan, Gigi Mickschl, Kayla Kohn, Desi Levenhagen, Allyson Kulinski and Miah Miner display a rainbow flag during a school board meeting Oct. 13, 2021 in Waukesha, Wis. It was the second month of public comments about a new rule that bans teachers from displaying "controversial" decorations in classrooms.

'Slave trade' on Snapchat follows ban on Black Lives Matter signs

In Newberg, Oregon, 30 miles southwest of Portland in the heart of wine country, the school board in August also banned employees from displaying Pride or Black Lives Matter images or symbols on the grounds they could be considered “political, quasi-political or controversial" topics.

Moriah Reid, Newberg High’s 2019 valedictorian, told the board she has never heard students say Black Lives Matter logos or Pride flags were a distraction to their learning.

"This culture war threatens the lives of students," she said.

Two weeks after the 4-3 vote in favor of the ban, the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union told Newberg the ban is unconstitutional because educational providers cannot discriminate against people on the basis of race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Newberg teachers union says it's preparing a lawsuit against the district. The ACLU threatened a lawsuit but hasn't filed one.

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After the ban passed, a pair of incidents rocked the community.

First, a white Newberg High School student was found to be part of a “Slave Trade” Snapchat group in which students nationwide posted photos of Black classmates to discuss how much they'd sell them for at auction. The student posted a picture of two Black classmates with the caption: "100$ each. They like picking cotton," according to local media.

The district said it's investigating the incident.

Then on Sept. 17, an elementary special education assistant went to work in blackface, saying she was channeling civil rights icon Rosa Parks to protest the statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Lauren Pefferle, the assistant, was fired, according to local media. Pefferle told Lars Larson, a conservative talk radio host, she had no regrets about her actions.

"I feel segregated because I am unvaccinated," she told Larson.

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School districts have added diversity and equity training for years to foster a more tolerant environment and to better position marginalized people for success.

Trump's presidential election in 2016 changed the dynamics around racial equity and tolerance in America. In September 2020, Trump ordered an end to diversity and equity training for federal contractors. That came after Christopher Rufo of the conservative Manhattan Institute appeared repeatedly on Tucker Carlson's Fox News talk show to equate equity and social justice with critical race theory.

The decades-old law school theory has become a catch-all term on the right for anti-American sentiment. Rufo called it "a cult indoctrination" embedded in the federal government that's "being weaponized against the American people."

Public schools are not routinely teaching specifics of the theory, but conservatives equate it with making white students feel bad about the sins their ancestors committed when slavery and Jim Crow laws were in place.

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Critical race theory is only the latest culture clash to play out in public schools. Historically, school boards have seen tension over fears of socialist education, resistance to racial integration, and debates over how to teach evolution and human sexuality.

"This is another version of a gut-level reaction to broad cultural changes that punches the nearest, but not necessarily most logical, target: school curriculum and school boards," said Adam Laats, an education and history professor at Binghamton University and author of "The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education."

"You can’t go anywhere to publicly complain about broad changes in society," he added. "But you can go to a school board meeting at 6 p.m. and yell at Larry."

The new twist amid the hostile board meetings and GOP organizing campaigns is the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories such as QAnon, said Mike Rothschild, author of a new book about the movement.

As social media companies cracked down on misinformation, conservatives sought unifying messages that wouldn't be banned, Rothschild said. That has morphed into a fight against the onslaught of progressivism.

"This isn’t: 'We have a disagreement about the way math is taught.' They think it's a battle between good and evil," Rothschild said. "Pushing diversity and race theory down kids' throats is 'evil.' They’re on the side of freedom."

As they gear up for the next round of elections, Republicans can rally voters to the polls by inflaming emotions around critical race theory and branding mask and vaccine mandates as dangerous features of Democratic control.

"We've lost 11 out of the past 12 statewide races – what are we doing to bring new people in?" Wisconsin Republican Kevin Nicholson asked residents in a suburban Milwaukee hotel ballroom in September. Nicholson plans to run for governor or U.S. Senate in 2022.

Wisconsin Republican Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson in Madison, Wisc., on Jan. 30, 2018.
Wisconsin Republican Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson in Madison, Wisc., on Jan. 30, 2018.

The free conference – "Whip the Wokies" – was hosted by the Wisconsin Conservative Digest, which compiles conservative news. The 501(c)(4) nonprofit Nicholson runs, No Better Friend, has drawn hundreds of Wisconsinites to similar events to discuss critical race theory and other conservative issues.

Critical race theory, Nicholson said from the stage, "is the institution of Marxism, vis-à-vis race. It’s an attempt to create chaos, to undercut people's faith in their society, and to turn them against each other on the basis of race," he said. "It's a direct attempt on the left to undercut the values of the republic.”

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Removing Black authors in Pennsylvania

In September, the school board in Central York, Pennsylvania, lifted an almost yearlong "freeze" on anti-racist books and resources with diverse perspectives.

High school students protested daily this fall for reinstating the materials, eventually with success.

Racial justice resources had been promoted by the district's diversity committee in the wake of protests after George Floyd's murder last year in Minneapolis. The board then froze the resources to "balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature," according to a statement.

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In southeastern Pennsylvania near Philadelphia, another district walked back its inclusion policies this fall.

Republicans have maintained a majority on the Pennridge School Board in Bucks County since 2017, and its politics have become increasingly tense. This fall, the board voted to replace its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives with a new committee led in part by the board's vice president – who has publicly denied systemic racism.

The local NAACP and the ACLU of Pennsylvania condemned the move.

The Pennridge School Board voted 6-1 on Aug. 23, to pause the district's diversity, equity and inclusion activities.
The Pennridge School Board voted 6-1 on Aug. 23, to pause the district's diversity, equity and inclusion activities.

A Pennridge curriculum team also removed words from ninth grade English curriculum that referred to racial oppression and inequality and eliminated two books by Black authors.

A local conservative parents' group claimed success for the changes, according to a post by Cyril Mychalejko, a local progressive writer.

School board members did not respond to inquiries for comment from USA TODAY.

Pennridge Superintendent David Bolton said "appropriate adjustments" were made to the curriculum after feedback from the board and community. And the board's new committee will better address the district's diversity needs, he added.

He also said students in each grade have access to a diverse lineup of authors. He did not respond to USA TODAY's request to see the list.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named the host of the "Whip the Wokies" event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was hosted by the Wisconsin Conservative Digest.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Critical Race Theory catalyst for rise of conservative school boards

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