Okay. Before we start a little bit of personal history. My mother was an elected school board member and in my small hometown outside of Boston, and this was back in the mid-nineties. That meant she spent long nights at meetings and salary fights with teachers unions or with parents angry over a lot of things. Fast forward to today and I have a kindergartner and I can’t get these images out of my head of parents raging at school board members last year.
I thank you your time is up. Your time is up. Your time is up. My time is never up because I am a parent.
This wave of parent activists were upset about how schools handled the pandemic, handled teaching gender identity, handled issues of race.
Diversity is a code word for anti-white.
Since when did the public school system take it upon itself to become the moral authority from which our children learn their values?
After so much deception, radical politics and eruptions of violence, we are pulling our son today from this school district. Who will be taking responsibility?
But the thing is, it wasn’t some pandemic induced moment. It’s the latest chapter in a long running movement. And the historians who study this stuff say school battles are really just proxy fights for what it means to be American. So I wanted to know more about these activist parents, what drove them to activism? And now that they have power what do they plan to do with it?
We need more critical thinking, and we need to be teaching our kids to think for themselves and to have their own opinions. And we need to be supportive of that.
Unless a parent thinks it’s inappropriate, then they can make a phone call to a tip line. Right, and say, I didn’t like the way they went down.
And that’s a discussion to be had between the school board and the parent. And it’s uncomfortable, but we need to be having discussions.
I’m Audie Cornish. This is The Assignment.
I’m not going to pretend that the parents rights movement is new. I grew up outside of Boston in the decade after the school bussing crisis when parents angry over mandatory integration fueled riots in the late seventies and I was part of a voluntary bussing program. So I get it. Covering education over the years, I found that most of these stories were really about power.
The analogy that works for me is the family dinner.
Adam Laats is a historian of education at Binghamton University, and he studies the power struggle over what belongs in the classroom.
If we think about public schools as America’s dinner table, where everyone comes and has to sit down and has to get along for a certain amount of time. It makes sense that this is where all the underlying tensions, all the long festering angers get expressed from time to time.
And without going too far down the historian rabbit hole. One of the most interesting of those times he told us about wasn’t Boston in 1974, but Kanawha County in 1974. That’s in West Virginia. And that’s where a school board fight about so-called multicultural textbooks spiraled into a boycott.
But the violence continued…
And then shattered windows. Chairs scattered about what was left of Mrs. Katherine Albright’s first grade room at Midway Elementary School at Campbell’s Creek, West Virginia.
All right. But let me back up, because like I said, it all started with textbooks, 325 of them.
By the way, I feel it’s a God given responsibility for me to educate my children.
Now, that’s from a school board meeting, as on June 27th, 1974, in Kanawha County.
We feel that in no way can this type of literature benefit and further our children’s education. We do not want any teacher to assign any of this material at any time for any of our children to read.
West Virginia. It recently tried to modernize its curriculum. And remember, this was a tumultuous time in the U.S. with civil rights and women’s rights and the Vietnam War all in the mix and around the country. There was a progressive push not only to integrate classrooms, but also to integrate reading lists.
The word they used at the time a more multicultural set of authors for literature. So, for example, they intentionally included more black authors, but they also included authors that wrote nontraditional poetry. So like E.E. Cummings.
The school board had been prepared to approve these new books suggested by the state, but there was one member who objected and her name was Alice Moore.
We’ve got to let them know that the parents want a voice on what their children are studying in schools.
Sweet Alice says she came to be known in the controversy. She was an experienced conservative activist and she ran for school board because she wanted to make schools more traditional, more conservative, in her words, more American and patriotic.
After Alice Moore objected to the new curriculum, rumors spread through the county and there was no Facebook at the time, but there were paper fliers passed around by parent groups, and these fliers claimed the new books promoted reverse racism and criminality. Let’s call it Fake News, 1974.
So in June, the school board meeting was packed and it was in a gymnasium and the windows of the gymnasium were packed. People were sticking their their heads in to try to hear and see.
There were more than a thousand people parents, teachers, pastors, representatives from groups like the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. And then here comes the part that’s going to sound familiar.
We absolutely refuse to have the liberal point of view pushed upon our children. We, the parents, are the taxpayers. We pay your salaries. We elected you to office. The undersigned, citizens and taxpayers of Kanawha County hereby petition the Board of Education to deny the use of certain textbooks in the schools of this county.
If you listen close, you can hear the boos on the tape there. The audience cuts in so often that the chairman keeps threatening to clear the room. After 3 hours of back and forth, they decide to buy most of the textbooks. And the vote is 3 to 2. There was no way that fight was going to end just like that, not with the history of this county.
Has a real strong, powerful tradition of labor activism. So when school politics got heated, the people in Kanawha County, you know, as as labor activists, but also as miners, they had not only traditions of of boycotts and picket lines, but they had also things like dynamite. And they used it.
Things more or less moved in that chronological order. You had nearly 10,000 people stay home during the boycotts. Kids, bus drivers. Truckers? Yes. Coal miners. And then someone graffitied Nazi symbols onto school buildings. Then some people took shots at school busses on their way to pick up the students who were still going to school. And then the bombs planted at three elementary schools and dynamite thrown into a school board building.
In Kanawha County, West Virginia. There was violence today in the continuing demonstrations against the use of controversial textbooks in the schools. The Charleston Gazette said in an editorial today the county is near anarchy.
Okay. So we aren’t at this point yet, but the argument about parents rights, it’s back and the argument about political indoctrination in the classroom is back. And as more progressive ideas about race and gender take hold in the mainstream, some conservatives have felt their grasp on the definition of what it means to be an American slipped. And in the past few years, we’ve seen an increasing number of parents elected to school boards who want to focus on their right to determine how we should teach our nation’s history and how and if schools should talk about race and gender. So next, we’re going to hear from two people at the center of it.
It makes it sound like we’re going to go back to Jim Crow laws or something like that. It just sounds like this negative connotation when actually all we want to do is have school, be a place where you’re focused on reading, writing, arithmetic.
I think I speak for most parents right now that have decided to stand up and speak out at school board meetings being called domestic terrorist. You know, I’m a mom. I’m a small business owner. I just want to be able to advocate for my children.
That is April Carney. She’s about to be sworn onto her local school board in Duval County, Florida. She and a bunch of other people earned the endorsement of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is not subtle about where he stands on culture war issues in the classroom.
Florida is the state where “woke” goes to die.
Amy Cawvey was also recently elected to her local school board. This was in Lansing, Kansas, and she’s gotten criticism for some of the stances she’s taken as well.
Immediately, since I had questioned critical race theory and I had spoke at the school board, I was immediately, you know, being called a racist on message, things that I was a racist and it got pretty nasty. But we just I just tried to stay strong. I worried about my daughter. I worried that they would maybe call her a racist at the high school because of that.
Amy Cawvey has been on the board since January. Her governor, who is a Democrat, actually vetoed a parents rights bill there, and then her district passed their own version anyway. So this year, both April in Florida and Amy in Kansas, well, they started the school year in, let’s say, changed environments.
I actually think we had one of our best starts to the school year yet, so I’m very happy with that.
And April, what about you?
I’d have to agree. I think that we are off to a great start. I think there is a very comfortable, transparent feeling going on the beginning of the school year this year.
I feel like you guys are both on the edge of smiling. Are you’re feeling good?
Vaguely victorious. Neither of these two women had run for office before they ran for school board. But then 2020 hit and school closures gave them a new perspective.
This is April. I have to say, you know, we were we were only closed for a short period of time here in Florida from March till the end of that school year. And I have to say, that was just enough for me to get a tidbit of how hard it is to be an educator. It was a struggle. It was frustrating. I said to my husband, I said, you know, I really hope we go back to school next year because I don’t want to ruin my relationship with my two girls. You know, I’m not an educator. That’s not what I do for a living. And so I think it put parents in a pickle.
Amy, I hear you nodding. I don’t know if you have a question for April or a story to share with your 16 year old.
For her, it was the social isolation from not being in school and then the depression that sunk in. It really affected the mental health, I think, of the kids.
So but then all of a sudden you’re home, you’re feeling a little bit helpless. What makes you decide, you know what I need to, like, do something about what I am seeing. I see problems and I want to do something about it.
This is April. For me, it was actually when we opened back up the following year, we went through a whole process. Our our district went through a whole process of online board meetings with the superintendent. I didn’t feel like I was being listened to when I would stand up at school board meetings and speak for my 3 minutes. So, you know, if you have a school board meeting where 65 parents stand up and say, we no longer want our child to be forced to wear a mask, and then they vote against you. That’s how you feel like you’re not being listened to.
I also spoke at our school board meeting, too, before I was elected, and they sent out the the survey to the parents to ask if they wanted their children to go back to in-school learning. And over 80% responded, saying that they did want their kids to go back and then they weren’t going to vote for them to go back five days a week. They just disregarded that.
Amy also spoke up at another school board meeting about critical race theory. The school district was arguing that they were not using the legal theory taught at the college level, but that they wanted to take a comprehensive look at slavery in the U.S.. Amy, worried that would include materials from the New York Times 1619 project. And then there was this one book in particular that really bothered her. It was being used at the school approved social justice club.
It was This Book Is Anti-Racist and it had clear CRT ideals in that book.
Yeah, I think this is the book by Tiffany Jewell. This Book Is Anti-Racist and the full title is 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action and Do the Work.
It’s very much an activist book on how to teach your child to do that in different ways.
And which part of it to you is the most objectionable?
Well, it was a partisan book that the country is inherently racist, informed on racist ideals, and that if you’re not anti-racist, that you’re racist. I mean, it was a very strong book that I think what I want is to keep that out of the classroom, let’s focus on the core curriculum.
There are so many things now that fall under that category, like one of the criticisms about some of the bills about what to teach in classrooms is that they’re so wide open to interpretation. Like, what is the circumstance where someone can talk about race or racism in the classroom and who decides that?
One part with ours is that our parents, if they can object to a learning material in our Parent Bill of Rights. If in the material, they feel that that harms their beliefs, values or principles. So in some instances, it may be that the lesson is still taught that but their child does a different lesson. And part of our parents Bill of Rights also does say that we expect the teacher and educator of each child that they will endeavor to present the facts without distortion, bias or personal prejudice.
And who decides that? So if if there’s a history of slavery in the country, is that a fact?
I mean, you should be teaching about slavery, of course, but you could you know, you wouldn’t, I guess, when you would throw in your own personal bias or prejudice is when you would say that for instance, how the 1619 project did.
Yeah. April, I don’t know if you want to help here. Obviously, in Florida, this has been talked about a lot. What’s your sense of what’s the dividing line?
I think that in the classroom, when you’re opening for discussion, you’re presenting the facts. I think that you have to be able as an educator, to talk about both sides of the topic. Right. I mean, I think that you need to be able to sit there and moderate your students and open them up to critical thinking. What do you feel about this? What do you think was wrong that happened, you know, during slavery in our country? Do you feel that we are growing from that experience? Do you feel the opposite? I think that that’s the issue.
But under these parent bills of rights, like, can they do that? Or have you created a scenario where raising those kinds of questions is subject to challenge by a parent who feels they’re inappropriate to ask?
I don’t feel that that’s the case. I think that the issue at hand is that there’s only one side that’s being spoken about. It’s not being presented in a well rounded manner.
Right. You’ve got to teach the history without teaching any of that other kind of context or how do you think about it?
Well, it just that falls into how it is being taught, whether it’s being taught with bias. Are you teaching American history? With the overarching theme that this is a racist country, it’s still a racist country? Or are you teaching just what has happened and let the child form their own ideas on what has happened throughout history and the changes that have been made and that have occurred, good or bad, since then, and let them form their own opinions through critical thinking.
The perception is that people in your position are trying to roll back certain policies. Whether that is discussions around social issues, etc.. Do you see yourself as rolling back access?
No, I don’t. I think unless you’re talking about just maybe over the last five or six years.
That’s what I’m referring to.
But I mean, I’m talking about the activism in the classroom where the teachers bring in their own political…
So the answer, it sounds like, is yes. Yeah, anticipate roll back.
I thought you meant like, roll it back. I don’t know.
So let me ask at this point, would you like to see a rolling back of classroom discussions based on the current events of the last five years? So LGBT issues, for one, certainly how race and history are discussed in the classroom is certainly another.
I think what we would hope to be done is just to adhere to the standards of providing each side without bias. So if you want–
But do you see why I’m asking? Like if if you feel like something has gone to excess it sounds to me like the remedy is to pull back.
Or you can say that they haven’t been following. What, um… let’s see… you got people going on the extremes you know, so…
And you want to roll those people back?
Yeah, I got a lot of rolling back as the right term. And I’m, I’m I have to agree with Amy. It’s about getting back to basics and teaching the standards.
So getting back is the term you’d prefer to use?
Yeah, I think it’s back to basics. We need, like I said, we have so much learning loss that’s happened because of the pandemic.
Right. But either way, it’s a it’s a going back of something you want to draw back on what’s happened.
Yeah, I think we need to focus on what’s important and that’s, you know, educating our children to be able to graduate from high school.
Why are you guys scared to say this? And I’m not picking on you. I’m genuinely confused. If you’ve both seen and excess, you’ve seen something go too far. Why the fear around saying, let’s pull back from a thing that’s gone too far?
Well, it makes it sound like you want to roll back to the times when, you know, like, we’re going to go back to Jim Crow laws or something like that. It just sounds like this negative connotation when actually all we want to do is have school, be a place where you’re focused on reading, writing, arithmetic. We’re focusing on all of these other issues that can be addressed at home with the parents.
Well, thank you for letting me dig into that. I always want to make sure that I’m totally clear on what’s being said to me. So I’m misconstruing things. I don’t want to lose sight of kids in this. I asked students what they thought of political battles finding their way into the classroom. I gave them no direction on what political battle that might be, and here is one of them.
How is it that my existence is a threat to other people? Because my existence, my identity, my sexuality, my gender, that’s me. And the same goes for everybody else in this world. And no one else should have the right to try to silence me or silence anyone else, no matter how young, how old. It’s such an important part of myself, and I know that for other trans kids it is an important thing for them too. And I think the fact that we can’t even express that in schools where we’re supposed to be safe, where we are encouraged to grow and be ourselves, I just think that that is completely unacceptable.
What do you hear in the voice of a student like that?
I think that we’re putting these kids under a microscope. And I actually think that by drawing more attention to the struggles they’re going through, it’s actually putting more pressure on them. I have a friend of mine who whose son is gay and has come home and said, Mom it’s all day, every day. It’s nonstop. I feel like I’m being singled out, and I really just want to be with my peers and go about my school day. And so I think there’s a way to be inclusive without making it a spectacle. And I think that’s what it’s become. And in turn, it’s actually having a negative effect on these on these kids that are struggling with their gender identity. And I think if there was less focus on it during the school day and more focus on academics and just being a kid, I think it might lessen lessen the pressure for her. I feel I feel for her. I do empathize with her.
Here’s what else students are hearing. For instance, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Right. He was speaking before the Moms for Liberty Summit over the summer in July. And here’s a sample of that speech.
We also drew a line in the sand and said, you know, in the state of Florida, a parent should be able to send their kid to kindergarten without having woke gender ideology shoved down their throat. We’re not going to have some first grader be told that, you know, yeah, your parents named you Johnny. You were born a boy, but maybe you’re really a girl.
What’s your response to that? And I’ll start with you, April, because you were among the candidates that he supported.
I think that a five year old who still believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny doesn’t need to be taught about gender ideology. I think once you go through puberty and you start to figure out who you are and your hormones start to even out, then yes, if that’s how you’re feeling and if it was my child, I’d be completely accepting of that child. But I think at that age it’s not necessary in the classroom. House Bill 1557 is about age appropriate curriculum. Not one place in that bill does it mention anything about singling out children for their, you know, persuasion?
It’s I mean, it doesn’t help if the governor goes out and is like, we’re going to stop this ideology from being shoved down your throats. It’s just being woke. Like that language is not I mean, correct me if I’m wrong. Does that language feel as careful as you guys are being?
You know, I think I think he’s speaking for a lot of parents that are tired. Yeah. I just think that I think that he’s you know, he’s a dad, too. He’s got three young children. And there’s a there’s a lot of folks out there that just do not agree with what’s going on. And we can be accepting and inclusive of everyone without putting such a microscope over it. And that’s what’s happened. And it’s being picked up by the media and it’s being picked up on social media and it’s being portrayed and pushed and pushed and pushed. And that’s all you see.
What is? I just want to make sure I’m following.
That lifestyle, the lifestyle of the LGBTQ community. It’s if that’s what you choose to do and that’s how you feel in your heart and that’s who you are, that’s completely acceptable. But it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has to be just like you.
Can I stop you for a second? Just, I want to ask you in particular, because you’re in Florida, what people are seeing is a governor backing. Right. Some two dozen candidates. And I you can correct me if I’m wrong. You actually had to say that you sort of agree with his agenda. This is something he’s speaking about nationally. It does not seem like it’s just about helping out parents. He’s backing candidates. It seems very political.
Well, I think that, you know, the reason why he and the first lady decided to do this is because people just simply weren’t paying attention to down ballot races.
But it’s not that it’s apolitical. Like we are looking at a political movement.
Yeah. I mean. Well, I think it’s it’s a parent movement is what it is.
Amy, can I ask you about this as well? You ran explicitly as a conservative.
Yes. The idea that politics were not already in that and that it’s bringing it in. I would disagree with because it has already been in there, the NEA, the teachers unions across the country are highly political.
Right. This is the National Education Association. So to you, it is about bringing I mean, you have an ideology as well. You’re not… You’re saying that you’re not pretending you don’t know.
I’m not I’m not pretending I don’t. But what I would like in that ideology as a conservative viewpoint of that is to keep the politics out of schools. I know that I ran as a conservative. But that’s one of the conservative views, is that.
You can see how that’s hard to square, right? Like just as an average voter. You have lots of political people saying they’re being apolitical and they all want control of your students and syllabus. Right. Like it seems it seems all political.
I can see how you might feel that way on the other side, but I feel…
Not other side, but like objectively, right? Like if someone says I am a conservative, I want to run for this position that’s usually considered nonpartisan because I believe that my ideology brings something to this, it is explicitly political.
Well, it…the reason why I would say that I was a conservative is because that way it it shows your values and your views on points, so those conservatives would have a voice. But as a part of a school board, I need to listen to all sides. And that can come back on on us, too. Like you have to watch for both sides being brought into the classroom. I don’t want the Republican side, if you want to call it that, or the Democrat side brought in. I want just the facts.
My mom ran for a school committee. This was a huge part of my growing up, so I’m sort of intimately aware of how these battles can play out. Right. And I had school friends whose parents were teachers and they were in the union and it was a whole thing. What I learned from that time, though, is so much of this is about control. Who is in control? Who gets to draw the lines? Who gets to say what is appropriate or not appropriate? Do you feel like, and especially after we started this conversation where you said in some ways you felt helpless. Do you feel like you have more control now?
This is Amy. As far as myself, I’m still only one vote out of seven. But I do feel like at least I can assure that parents have a voice. And when they bring those concerns to me, I do have that control where I can make that known to the board and…
And specifically conservative parents. Right. I mean, that was part of your campaign to say I can be a voice for you.
It is the conservative. But I’ve also had two or three recent issues that came up. These people, they were not for what I ran for, but they had some other issues that needed to be addressed. And I went to bat for them. I knew they didn’t vote for me. I knew they didn’t agree with me on a lot of these issues. In fact, one had spoke out on that. But I’m happy to say I can set that aside because I have a job to do, you know, as a board member. And it’s about the kids. And I did that.
And honestly, I think that when you decide to run for public office like I did, do I have my own personal values? Absolutely. Does that mean that I’m going to be biased when it comes to the overall district and what’s best for our teachers and students? Absolutely not. And I am so glad that I’m going to get the opportunity to serve our community and that we’re going to be able to have more robust conversations as a school board, because now we’re going to have more diversity of thought. And I truly believe that when you have a more balanced school board, that those conversations will be more productive.
Going forward, what do you feel about school board races, which in the past were at least perceived as being kind of uneventful and maybe apolitical? How do you feel about the fact that they will become more explicitly partisan?
I would be fine with it being either way. And let’s face it, the country is divided. I mean, our presidential elections were very divided. Our Senate is almost evenly divided. Right. There’s division all over the country. And I don’t think it’s any shock that there’s some in the school boards too now.
April, do you feel similarly? Is it okay to have a more hyper partisan environment at the school level?
To some extent, yes, because I think, again, as I mentioned about people not paying attention to down ballot races, we can’t just focus on the presidential election anymore. What happens on the local level is what’s most important, and it affects the most important citizens of this country, and that’s our children. And so are there a lot of informed voters out there? Yes, there are a lot that are not. Absolutely. And so to some extent, to make it a more partisan race, it helps those that are low information voters make a decision based upon what they believe. And again, it also —
It’s sort of depressing, like as a parent, I’ve got, no I mean, I’ve got kids under the age of five and I turn on the news, and I look out in the world, and I do see, like, conflicts and history and they need a bunch of critical thinking skills, which I very much hope to give them. But it sounds like you guys are saying, like, don’t do that in school.
Oh, no, I’m a I’m a huge…
And that’s kind of sending that out in the world, being like, wait, do we talk about LGBT issues and what do you think about racism?
I ran off of having more critical thinking in the classroom. I think that’s where we’re lacking. We need more critical thinking and we need to be teaching our kids to think for themselves and to have their own opinions. And we need to be supportive of that.
Unless a parent thinks it’s inappropriate, then they can make a phone call to a tip line. Right? And say, I didn’t like the way that went down.
Well, and that’s a discussion to be had between the school board and the parent. But we need to be having these discussions. And it’s it needs to happen and it’s uncomfortable, but we need to be having discussions. I welcome parents commentary. We have to be able to listen to one another so that we can come together. It’s the only way it’s ever going to happen.
That was April Carney of Duval County, Florida, and Amy Cawvey of Lansing, Kansas. The assignment is a production of CNN audio. Our producers are Alex Stern, Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai, Isoke Samuel and Allison Park. Our senior producer is Haley Thomas. Our supervising producer is Steve Lickteig. Mixing and Sound Design by David Schulman. Artwork designed by Nicole Pesaru and Jamus Andrest. And our technical director is Dan Dzula. Support from Adam Levy, Osman Noor, Sonya Htoon, Erin Mathewson, Katie Hinman, Lindsay Abrams. Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Rafeena Ahmad and Lisa Namerow. Special thanks to Theo Balcomb. Abbie Swanson is our executive producer. I’m Audie Cornish. Thanks for listening.