It’s an odd numbered year, and if you live anywhere in Pennsylvania with the exception of Philadelphia, school board offices are on the primary and general election ballots this year.
And, as in previous elections, it appears the Democrats and Republicans are once again cross-filing in many of these school districts. That means that registered Democrats will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots, and ditto for the Republicans.
In 2021, however, the Republicans did a better job with voters in the Democratic primary than the other way around.
School board restrictions on classroom attendance during the pandemic drove many voters to reject Democratic candidates, but Republican messaging, particularly around the topics of race, ethnicity, and the LGBTQ+ community, played an important role in conservative victories in Pennsylvania. MAGA candidates portrayed white students being subjected to lessons about white inferiority to people of color, and they claimed young children were being groomed by educators to become victims of sexual predators.
Conservatives treated the occasional over-zealous book or teacher, not as outliers, but as typical examples of what occurs in “liberal” school districts. Once elected, however, these new Republican school directors wasted no time in enacting policies designed to marginalize vulnerable students. Recent book bans suggested for high school libraries have been a part of the Republican agenda in such districts as Central Bucks, Central York, Kutztown and Perkiomen Valley.
A ban on educators engaging in loosely defined “advocacy activities” in the Central Bucks School District has alarmed many district employees. The recent kerfuffle there over a school librarian who was ordered to remove a displayed quotation by author Elie Wiesel was of particular concern, considering that the quotation stated,
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
While various Republican school districts have been concerned with restricting information, the Pennridge district in Bucks County is considering the adoption of the “1776 Curriculum”, a 3,000 page document emanating out of Hillsdale College, a small conservative institution in Michigan. Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University historian who has been critical of liberal interpretations of U.S. history, declared that “The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum fundamentally distorts modern American history into a crusade of righteous conservative patriots against heretical big-government liberals…It has no place in any school system that values education over indoctrination.”
Meanwhile, a host of rightwing astroturf organizations have proliferated during the past few years, not only to aid Republican school boards in diminishing democracy, but to attack school district diversity and equity policies promoted by more enlightened school boards and administrators. While groups such as No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty have circulated lists of publications that right-wing school boards have consulted in their book banning decisions, Parents Defending Education has sued the Lower Merion School District, alleging discrimination of white children because they are not allowed to participate in certain “affinity groups” (like the Asian Club) because of their skin color. And while No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty, and Parents Defending Education promote themselves as grassroots organizations, they all have financial connections to billionaire Charles Koch.
The Independence Law Center, a legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which is a statewide branch of the Family Research Council, aided the Central Bucks School Board in the formulation of its book ban policy. The Family Research Council has been designated an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It would also be negligent to omit local organizations like Back to School PA, which propelled many of these right-wing school board members into office in 2021. Back to School PA received its money from mega-donors, like venture capitalist Paul Martino, as well as from Jeffery-Yass-funded organizations such as the Commonwealth Childrens Choice Fund and Students First. Jefferey Yass is Pennsylvania’s richest resident.
While identifying children who have been victimized by lessons covering topics regarding race and LGBTQ+ issues has proven to be elusive, we do know that hate crimes are on the rise at the same time that this right-winged zeitgeist to ban books in school libraries is at an all-time high.
And none of us should take comfort in believing that we are not affected by these attacks on free speech because we do not reside in any of the affected school districts. Last June, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed three youth oriented anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that it called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, that would do little more than disrupt the everyday functioning within school districts, since any parent could contest the decisions of the school board and the superintendent.
So, now that you have an idea of what the problems are, here is how to address them.
On Wednesday, April 12, at 7 PM, the Blue Pennsylvania Committee of Philly Neighborhood Networks is hosting an evening, entitled “DEFEND STUDENTS’ RIGHTS: END HARRASSMENT AND CENSORSHIP!”. We will be joined by Ronna Dewey, from Red Wine, and Blue – a national women’s organization that has been at the forefront of countering anti-Democracy movements in the schools, and Democratic school board candidates in districts impacted by book bans and other attacks on vulnerable populations. We will conclude with a call to action – how and where you can donate your time, talent, and money to these candidates and their campaigns. Interested? SIGN UP HERE.