The National Association of School Boards chooses to be part of the problem (Notice)

As we all know, democracy is threatened by hooligans who use violence or threats of violence against citizens or elected officials. There is no excuse, period, for this kind of behavior. We should all stand side by side behind this principle, no matter who the target is or what their policy is.

But democracy is also threatened by those who use such threats as an excuse to stifle democratic dissent or silence vigorous debate. Many left-wing education officials told us this regularly during the Trump administration, when they insisted that violence on the streets of Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; or Seattle must not become an excuse to delegitimize those who vehemently but non-violently denounce police conduct or call for criminal justice reform.

Well, as right-wing parents voice their concerns about critical race theory, school mask policies, gender policies, and more, these same education officials have an opportunity to promote healthy democratic discourse. . School boards in particular, which are the very face of democratic education, should actively offer themselves as forums where we can work through these burning conflicts. Yet rather than seize the opportunity to be part of the solution, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) – representing the more than 90,000 school board members that govern the country’s 14,000 public school districts – chose to do so. part of the problem.

In a public letter to the Biden administration, the NSBA said that “acts of malice, violence and threats against public school officials have increased” and said that “the classification of these heinous actions could be tantamount to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes. ”He then called on the Biden administration to use the post 9/11 PATRIOT Act to investigate and prosecute parents implicated in these alleged acts of domestic terror.

The problem is, when providing its examples of “malicious acts, violence and threats” on the part of thousands of school boards across the country, the NSBA has chosen to assemble a lot of forceful but harmless dissent with a small number of real threats. In fact, of the 24 handpicked incidents that the NSBA cited as amounting to domestic terrorism or hate crimes, 16 consisted of entirely tense verbal exchanges between parents and school board members in which there was never even a threat of physical violence.

Indeed, most of the NSBA’s examples were simply cases of angry parents disrupting school board meetings by opposing district policies or programs; speak beyond their authorized speaking time; yelling at school board members; chanting political slogans, waving placards and organizing pickets; or be expelled from meetings for refusing to wear masks. None of this would be mentioned in the same breath as domestic terrorism or hate crimes, I guess, if parents had a different set of requirements.

To be clear, the NSBA missive included a few instances where violence was in fact threatened. Again, this is inexcusable, and these people should be prosecuted with the full force of the law. Period. But states and communities are already equipped to do so. And, to repeat myself, most of what the NSBA has called “domestic terrorism and hate crimes” is actually democracy in action.

It is hard to imagine a more destructive response from an entity that purports to champion democratic education. The NSBA didn’t just waste a good time for learning; he chose to blur the line between authorized and suspicious speech and suggest that unruly protesters should be targeted by the FBI.

As Andy Rotherham observed more than Eduwonk, “There is currently a complicated, sometimes politically toxic, conversation about schools. Problems range from masks and vaccinations to how and what to teach about American history and. . . there are those – on the left and on the right – who prefer to close these debates rather than start them. Rotherham continued, “The invocation of ‘domestic terrorism’ will fuel the impetus to close rather than get out of it. Protecting your members is one thing, but playing games and open letters to the media is not the only way to engage government officials.

What to do with all this? For starters, I hope Attorney General Merrick Garland will come to his senses and recoil from his ominous threat to reunite task force and working with states to address the worrying NSBA charge. It’s hard to think of anything more calculated to deepen our divisions than the idea that the FBI is treating parents like national terrorists for disrupting a school board meeting.

Garland is about to set an immensely ugly precedent. For those who don’t see the problem right away, consider what it would be like if a Republican took over the White House in 2024 and a Republican Attorney General announced in January 2025 that those whose police criticism was deemed excessive would do. now under investigation. and prosecuted under the PATRIOT law.

I quite like the answer my AEI colleague Max Eden offered To News week. If the NSBA has abandoned its commitment to democratic education, there is no reason for states or communities that believe in this ideal to continue to fund the association. As Eden wrote, “The NSBA is largely funded by dues collected from affiliated associations of state school boards, paid by local school boards out of public funds.” Unless the NSBA changes course, suggests Eden, “When state legislatures return to session, they should consider legislation prohibiting taxpayer dollars from going to state school board associations unless these associations do not disaffiliate from the NSBA and stop funding the NSBA ”. Work for me.

You know Pedro Noguera and I recently wrote a book who trod this very ground. In it, we have explored how those with very different views about schools and schooling could fruitfully engage with difficult and emotional issues. We have spoken at length about how education leaders can promote such constructive and civil debate. But I guess we could have saved ourselves a lot of time by simply telling the educators and officials involved, “See what the NSBA is doing? Do the opposite.

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