There was a time when local board of education meetings were mostly drowsy affairs made up of windy reports by the superintendent and tributes to retiring teachers, with the occasional contentious issue raised — including teacher pay, and what to do about aging facilities or lagging test scores. Granted, such proceedings could be lively, but, in general, there was usually a lot of overall agreement on the bigger picture among concerned parties, including the superintendent and members of the school board and PTA groups, along with teachers unions and other education advocates. All wanted to see the best possible outcome for students, and they largely agreed on what that was, if not necessarily on the policies to achieve it. In other words, you’d be forgiven for missing a meeting or 10.
But this year’s midterm races have made clear that not everyone is rowing in the same direction in education. Throughout the state, candidates running for non-partisan school board posts did so with the fervor, financing and, in some cases, extremist views associated with high-stakes legislative and executive political campaigns.
There are a number of reasons for this, beginning with the shift away from appointed school boards to elected ones, with many boards now evolved into hybrid combinations of the two — including the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, which this year became the last board in Maryland to leave the all-appointed model. Add to this the heightened emotions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schooling, and the sparks of frustration turned into an election season wildfire.
This year, some candidates on the ballot, against all better judgment, oppose mask and vaccine mandates, insist that certain books should be banned from the classroom, want limitations on how slavery might be discussed in school and virulently reject common sense accommodations for transgender students.
These candidates, in counties including Carroll and Frederick, were clearly echoing conservative Republican talking points and emphasizing culture wars over academic achievement. Groups including Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project Political Action Committee flexed their organizing muscles through them, claiming to promote “patriotism and pride in American history,” but their real agenda is to perpetuate a white, male perspective at the cost of other interpretations.
It’s one thing to advance such views on social media or in yard signs, it’s quite another to populate school boards with members anxious to take curriculum back to the 1950s. How many voters cast their ballots without a full understanding of where their school board candidates stood on these issues? How many voters were even aware that they’d face important choices on the governance of public education, which could directly affect their own children, given the much higher-profile races for governor, attorney general, comptroller, members of Congress, local county executives and councils and the like?
The lesson here is that boards of education shouldn’t be ignored going forward, despite their sleepy history. Our collective assignment for the coming term is to more closely monitor and track the decisions made by our newly elected panels. In the months ahead, communities must be prepared to defend their educators and their values from any potential assault launched under the mantle of “parental rights” of all things.
Many parents surely understand the stakes here. School systems burdened by the kind of “Don’t Say Gay” oversight now hitting the nation’s GOP enclaves are going to see their children shamed, and their teaching talent driven out in droves. But the rest of us must pay attention as well. The quality of schools undergirds the financial success of communities. Just look at Howard County’s high test scores and correlating housing prices. People who surrender their public schools to a vocal minority seeking to mold children into the same vanilla model may one day wake up to discover the real estate market for single family homes isn’t quite what it used to be, not to mention an unrecognizable child.
With this election, unlike any other in recent history, we have lost the luxury of treating school board meetings as someone else’s homework. In this grading scale, participation matters most.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.