Ever since the United States adopted a public school system that is run by local elected school boards, we’ve witnessed disputes about curriculum. There’s no avoiding such problems given the importance of education and vast differences of opinion about how it should be accomplished. The political nature of the system assures contention. State involvement exacerbates the conflicts.
Currently, Americans are engaged in the latest grudge matches centering on local educational matters. The highest-profile fights are in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis implemented a rule banning curriculum that deals with sexual orientation or gender identity. In California, the state has mandated “sexual health curriculum” since 2016 and more recently approved a social-studies curriculum with a gay-rights element.
While critics have overstated the significance of both laws, it’s clear state politicians with partisan agendas have imposed their visions on the classroom. At the local level, school boards typically have been dominated by left-leaning teachers’ unions, but conservatives have been electing their own candidates to office to push back against gender and racial policies.
The latest California fracas involves efforts by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to stop right-leaning Southern California school boards from implementing their agenda. Before we get into the details, remember this is nothing new.
“In the first place, God made idiots,” quipped author Mark Twain in 1897. “That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” The Scopes “monkey trial” was in 1925. The state of Tennessee prosecuted a local teacher for violating a law that forbid the teaching of evolution in public schools. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected such bans.
This month, Bonta announced an investigation of the Chino Valley Unified School District’s policy adopted last month that requires school officials to notify parents if their child identifies as transgender. Thurmond, who had little to say when his union allies were delaying post-COVID school re-openings, spoke at the July board meeting and was ejected from the meeting as parents yelled “kick him out.”
For his part, Newsom had threatened the Temecula Valley Unified School district with a $1.5-million fine after it rejected that above-mentioned social-studies curriculum because it included materials that mentioned Harvey Milk, the state’s first openly gay elected official. After bitter words between the board president and the governor, the board approved the curriculum last month to avoid a legal battle.
We believe that Newsom, Bonta and Thurmond are overstepping their bounds, whatever the merits of the local boards’ decisions. The latest state test scores show dramatic declines in academic achievement. These officials have more important education-related matters to address. The only people who benefit from these battles are politicians, not students.
California Democrats are engaging in a transparent attempt to score political points with their progressive base. But conservatives are relishing these battles, also. Politico found that Bonta’s investigation is “is exactly the kind of thing the conservative board (in Chino) wanted.” Republican lawmakers have taken up the issue in the state Capitol.
Such hot-button cultural grandstanding is not improving education. The best approach is to reduce politics in the school systems by expanding public school choice and private options so that parents can decide where to send their kids — rather than fighting endless political battles over policies and curriculum.