When ‘culture wars’ rip through California school boards, should the state intervene?

Parents, students, and staff of Chino Valley Unified School District hold up signs in favor of protecting LGBTQ+ policies at Don Antonio Lugo High School on June 15, 2023. Photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, The Sun/SCNG

Last week’s tussles between state officials and a pair of Southern California school boards may have died down, but they’ve thrown a spotlight on deeper tensions over who makes decisions for local schools — a rift that’s likely to grow as the tensions between cultural groups escalate.

Both incidents, which garnered national attention, centered on LGBTQ issues and the state’s ability to rein in local boards that it says may have violated California’s education and civil rights laws.

“We can expect to see more of this as these right-wing groups now follow a scripted playbook and there’s a new level of organization,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy. “And certainly as long as we have an ambitious governor, we can expect to see these battles repeated.”

Last week, Chino police escorted the state’s top education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, from a school board meeting after he urged the board to reject a plan he viewed as harmful LGBTQ students. The plan, based on a stalled Assembly bill, called for school staff to notify parents if a child identifies as a gender they weren’t assigned at birth. The board ended up approving the proposal 4-1.

Earlier in the month, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to fine Temecula Valley Unified $1.5 million for rejecting a state-approved textbook that included a supplemental lesson on Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. Newsom said the state would order the new textbooks on its own and bill the district. Last week, the board relented and agreed to purchase the new textbooks but review the material related to gay rights, replacing it with a curriculum that reflects “the board’s commitment to exclude sexualized topics of instruction from the elementary school grade levels.”

Enforcing the education code

State officials have several enforcement options when they believe districts have run afoul of the education code. Those include fines, like the one Newsom threatened in Temecula Valley; publicly voicing disapproval, such as Thurmond’s comments in Chino Valley; and investigation and litigation, which Attorney General Rob Bonta said he would pursue in Temecula Valley. The California Department of Education also has a complaint process, which anyone can use if they believe their district isn’t complying with state law.

There’s also legislation. Recently, Thurmond and Newsom have thrown their support behind AB 1078, which would raise the threshold for school districts to ban books, from a simple board majority to a two-thirds majority. The bill would also strengthen the FAIR Act, a state law that requires districts to include the contributions of African American, Native American, Mexican American, LGBTQ and other under-represented groups in history and social studies curriculum.

The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblymember Corey Jackson of Moreno Valley, said legislation like AB 1078 is more important than ever as the state seeks tougher tools to punish districts that stray from civil rights laws.

“These culture wars are being used to generate anger to achieve political goals,” Jackson said. “We have to close as many loopholes as possible.” 

The crux of the issue, Jackson said, is local control, the decade-old policy that gives school districts a large degree of autonomy in how they operate. Put forth by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, the Local Control Funding Formula was meant to decentralize state education, allowing districts to tailor their spending policies to the unique needs of their students.

In some cases, Jackson said, local control has gone too far.

“I know my history too well to have faith in local control,” Jackson said. “If a school district discriminates against students, puts politics ahead of education, I honestly don’t have any limits when it comes to limiting local control. … Once you start creating a climate that is not welcoming to all students you’re mandated to serve, districts need to know: We are coming for you.”

Nuances of local control

Under the previous funding system, schools received money through grants earmarked for specific programs. Under local control, district funding comes through a formula based on how many low-income students, English learners and foster youth are enrolled. School boards, not the state, decide how to spend the money, allowing them a degree of autonomy they didn’t have previously.

But some districts fear that with bills like Jackson’s and other recent moves, the state might be taking back some of that control. Recently, the state has added several categorical grants and mandated programs and increased its interest in local school board matters, such as in Temecula Valley and Chino Valley. That’s one reason the California School Boards Association has so far opposed Jackson’s bill, saying it would pose an unnecessary hardship for the vast majority of school districts that comply with the law, and that the state already has adequate safeguards.

“We are greatly concerned with how (the bill) is drawn from the experience of two or three school districts to apply statewide,” the association wrote to the chair of the Senate Education Committee, noting that California has nearly 1,000 school districts.

Troy Flint, the school board association’s spokesperson, said districts are hoping that the trend does not continue, even as the culture wars intensify.

“There has been increased encroachment on local control from a budgetary, policy and administrative perspective,” he said. “School districts and county offices of education believe that their knowledge base and relationships, as members of the community, are essential in developing and implementing policies that make sense for their particular student populations. So naturally, they are very protective of local control.”

A spokesman for Newsom’s office said that the governor is committed to local control, and the incident in Temecula Valley was an isolated, egregious example of a district flouting the law. 

“Local control is not – and has never been – a license to willfully violate the law,” said Ben Chida, the governor’s chief deputy cabinet secretary and senior education policy advisor.

Steve Zimmer, California’s deputy superintendent for student support services, reiterated the state’s support for local control.

“The Superintendent and I are both former school board members. We believe strongly in local control. Local control is a core value of the California public education system,” Zimmer said. “But there have to be checks and balances.”

Increasing vitriol

Clovis Unified parents and students protest mask and vaccine mandates in February 2022.

Regardless, school boards are likely to remain an epicenter of conflict, especially as the presidential election nears, said Julie Marsh, professor of education policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

“I don’t think it’s going to die down. School boards have become a pawn in a broader national campaign,” Marsh said.

“All of this is bringing to a head a classic conflict in education — what’s the role of the state? Local control has to be for everyone, but in some districts we’re now seeing a need for guardrails.”

She worries about the growing lack of civility and threats of violence. In his response to  Temecula Valley, Newsom described three of the board members as “radicalized zealots” and “extremists.” In Chino Valley, board President Sonja Shaw accused Thurmond of “proposing things that pervert children.”

Some of the vitriol began during the pandemic, when angry parents in some parts of the state protested school closures, mask mandates, and vaccines. For some parents, the anger grew to encompass how schools teach subjects related to race, sex, and other “culture war” issues.

Capitalizing on some of the dissatisfaction, the state Republican party last year launched the “Parent Revolt” campaign, urging frustrated parents to run for their local school boards. Shaw, the Chino Valley board president, was elected as part of that wave.

Angry rhetoric undoubtedly plays a role in the high turnover rate among superintendents, and the fact that some school boards can’t fill their vacancies, Marsh said. It also deters members of the public from speaking out, for fear of threats or intimidation.

“This is not unique to California and it’s not unique to school boards,” she said.

“We’re very concerned about the extreme emotion, the tone, the polarization, the personal attacks. We need some kind of legislation to protect civility in public meetings.”

Fuller agreed that the rhetoric can have a corrosive effect on schools and other institutions. While the governor and state superintendent were right to step in, perhaps they could have settled the conflict behind the scenes, instead of drawing more attention to the matter.

“They could have deployed their influence to expand understanding and engage people with whom they disagree. Instead they became antagonistic to gain political attention,” Fuller said. “They could have settled the issue quietly, rather than spurring it on. There are compelling reasons for the state to intervene in some cases, but why not first try to negotiate an agreement.”

Meanwhile, the battle over the rights of LGBTQ students is likely to continue. Zimmer  said the state is looking at various options to pressure Chino Valley to overturn its policy related to LGBTQ students.

The state is also urging students in that district to seek help if they need it. The state’s Department of Education offers numerous resources for LGBTQ students, families and schools.

“We’re very clear that their dignity and humanity matters, and they have a right to a welcoming, safe school environment,” Zimmer said. “Superintendent Thurmond stands behind them and will continue to fight for them.”

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