NYC Public School Boards: New Home of the GOP’s Far-Right Agenda?

by Tamuira Reid

School Boards across the country have become radicalized, energized, weaponized. They have become the new political battleground where extremist right-wing ideologues test the political waters. The plan is to infiltrate the schools, use them as the megaphone to broadcast the GOP’s agenda, with lots of soapboxing and grandstanding thrown in.

Last week, The City news dropped a bomb of a piece, “City Education Council Elections Bring Polarizing National Issues to Local School Districts”, exposing local educational advocacy organization, PLACE NYC’s history of endorsing GOP candidates and racists (George Santos and Lee Zeldin, for instance). Yet, for those of us familiar with PLACE’s history via our relationship with public schools as parents, the reporting didn’t read even close to a hit piece; many of us found it to be gentle-handed, forgiving, kinda vanilla.

What did seem to take the public school old-timers crowd by surprise was that PLACE is far from the only ‘educational advocacy organization of its kind to sprout wings across the country. They are just one of a growing coalition of parent-led organizations who are hellbent on the idea of parental control over our public schools, including everyone and everything inside of them. This national “Parental Rights Movement” – driven by self-proclaimed groups of “mama bears”, of which Moms4Liberty is the star – isn’t about elevating the needs of all students, but controlling exactly how and exactly what they are taught. It’s about banning books and censoring curricula that dare discuss race and gender. It’s about vilifying teachers’ unions and Dr. Fauci and anything with the word “equity” in it. It’s about the privatization of a public good. Our schools are being infiltrated by “mama bears” who are dead-set on gutting the public school system from the inside out. And they’ve got friends.

PLACE is known widely across the city as a private interest group that relentlessly ‘advocates’ for the gifted and talented, accelerated learners they have at home, often to the detriment of other learners. Through mega-outreach and careful branding, they’ve managed to get a slew of endorsed candidates on our school boards. I have witnessed my share of said member’s antics as sitting members of my district’s Community Education Council. I’ve watched as they have thrown tantrums bigger than a tired two year-old strung out on sugar simply because they didn’t get everything they demanded. And I’ve watched as they’ve shamelessly harassed a beloved superintendent and his family for the same reason. They have verbally attacked speakers during public comment sessions, smeared our struggling community schools in the news, and used ultimatums when reason and flexible thinking would have sufficed. They have vilified frightened teachers at the height of a global pandemic, even as these same teachers often put our kids’ needs ahead of their own. They demanded the reinstatement of high-stakes testing and screening of fourth graders for middle school admissions while thousands of NYC school children grappled with the loss of a parent, and in some cases, both.

I used to think school boards were benign entities, a group of parents pushing papers, dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, while gulping cheap coffee and chomping on cookies. Middle management at best, but with little power and influence over actionable educational policy. I have never been more wrong in my life. And this is the problem with liberals like me, in cities like mine; we let our guard down. We mobilize at the call of the war cry instead of continually and steadfastly moving the needle forward. We fail to remember that the status quo is not a ground state. We are stuck playing defense.

The system in D2, NYC’s largest district, has been one of extreme insulation, protected by a seemingly impenetrable army of elitist parents. The political aspirations of its school board membership range from state senate to city council – starting in cafeteria PTA and School Leadership Team meetings, and reaching all the way to Albany.

The common motivator, however, amongst national school board takeovers isn’t this NYC-specific segregationist goal of using screened admissions to label and sort public school students based on their perceived abilities, but instead is a hyper-focus on gender identity, further marginalizing LBGTQ+ youth, particularly those identifying as trans or non-binary. This hyper-focus shifts the nation’s attention away from issues where the GOP is getting slammed, like gun reform, for starters. Smart, albeit grotesque, strategy.

We are now living in an era where if you are a teacher who happens to stand-up for trans students, if you acknowledge them by using their preferred pronouns, by stocking school libraries with books that speak to their gender identity, you are labeled a “groomer” by these educational extremists. A pedophile. Even a Marxist. You are “indoctrinating” students into your “woke” LBGTQ+ religion. Something is seriously twisted in the fabric of this country when we spend more time defending LBGTQ+ students against attacks from these mama bears than talking about the guns that are killing them.

It is no secret that when school board members categorically demonize trans people as “mentally ill,” predatory, criminalistic, that hate and intolerance towards this historically marginalized and ruthlessly targeted group goes up. So, when a school board candidate publicly makes statements like, “Girls and young women are being swept up in a social contagion which has them believing they are men” and “What the hell is gender identity anyway? It’s all made up nonsense and we should stop pretending it’s real” how can we trust them to advocate on behalf of all students, especially for those they argue don’t exist in the first place?

Trans people exist and have throughout history. But, by positioning gender diversity as some sort of new phenomenon, a social contagion that must be stopped at all costs, anti-trans attacks have become the bedrock of the GOP’s electoral strategy. Republican legislators from coast to coast have championed an unprecedented number of bills that move to regulate existing supports for trans youth in our public schools. These bills are companion pieces to broader, sweeping legislation that work to flat-out ban access to essential, gender affirming healthcare for trans people from their doctors.

How did we get here? And how do we get out?

There is a tendency within my own NYC progressive, liberal base to get too sure of ourselves. It’s New York. We’re good. But, if we are so good, how did we manage to get blindsided by this highly mobilized, strategic, right-wing coalition of haters in our own home? They walked right in, set-up shop in our schools, and began to spin their silvery web around our kids because we were sleeping on the job. What would Florida look like on New York…I know I, for one, don’t want to find out. I’d like to never find out. NYC public school parents need to be as massively proactive about what they believe in as these bears, and sleep with one eye open from now on.