by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
In recent weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper and state education officials have issued statements to respond to reports of parent protests, disruptive incidents, and politicized speeches at school board meetings in a handful of urban and suburban school districts in North Carolina.
At a September press conference, Cooper remarked, “Many are concerned about the fevered pitch that many school board meetings have reached in recent weeks. I am, too. Threats, bullying, intimidation. None of this belongs in our public schools, particularly by adults. Remember – our children are watching.” A week later, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis, Vice Chairman Alan Duncan, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt issued a statement echoing Cooper’s worry about potential violence at school board meetings and urging civility and cooperation.
While rising tension between school officials and parents is real, I do not believe it is cause for concern. On the contrary, civic participation is the cornerstone of civil society. And we should applaud parents who have the courage to address issues that are important to their families. This may include speaking out against coronavirus mitigation strategies, instructional materials containing elements of critical race theory or related social justice ideologies, or sexually explicit books in libraries. These issues are contentious because they highlight meaningful disagreements about values and core beliefs.
Like most local problems, parental discontent with public schools is best addressed by formulating local solutions. The United States Constitution does not contain a “mad parent” clause that empowers the federal government to intervene in mundane state and local matters. But we live in a time when Uncle Sam has morphed into Aunt Karen.
Many organizations based in Washington, D.C., exist solely to support legislative or executive meddling in state and local affairs. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is one such group. The NSBA is an organization that bills itself as representing all locally elected school board officials, but its advocacy agenda aligns with teacher unions and left-wing public school advocacy organizations. The organization demands substantial increases in federal funds for public schools, calls for restrictions to school choice programs, seeks pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and boasts of their identify-focused diversity and equity efforts.
So, it was no surprise that the NSBA recently declared that “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat” due to a “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation,” presumably from parents dissatisfied with the actions of school board members and administrators. NSBA officials asked the Biden administration to intervene, reasoning that “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
You read that right. NSBA wants certain speech and behavior at school board meetings classified as “domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
The scope of the NSBA request is extraordinarily creative. The organization’s leadership desired involvement by the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI’s National Security Branch and Counterterrorism Division, and “any other federal agency with relevant jurisdictional authority and oversight.” It might as well include the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives just for good measure.
One could argue that the federal government lacks jurisdiction, but there is no shortage of statutes that provide cover to federal agencies who wish to usurp local and state authority. In this spirit, NSBA officials contend that the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the PATRIOT Act, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights statute, and the Conspiracy Against Rights statute offer the statutory basis for federal intervening … in school board meetings.
Shockingly, the NSBA got their wish. Attorney General Merrick Garland “directed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to meet with federal, state, tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders “to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend.” The statement did not describe why isolated incidents at school board meetings necessitated the expenditure of U.S. Department of Justice resources or the application of various federal laws. Nevertheless, the agency will “announce a series of measures designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel” shortly.
U.S. Senator Josh Hawley correctly pointed out that there is “no place for the federal government to interfere with regular democratic activity,” and Department of Justice officials “have provided no evidence of actual, genuine threats of violence.” Given the backlash to Garland’s memo, the Biden administration would be wise to back off.
To this end, Gov. Cooper and state education officials should send a joint letter to the Department of Justice declining federal “assistance” unless confronted with irrepressible violence at school board meetings.