by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
As school boards resumed in-person meetings this year, dissatisfied parents have become more willing to attend board meetings and use designated comment periods to object to arbitrary and often unwarranted school board policies. The mainstream media may insists on mischaracterizing and mocking courageous parents who speak out at school board meetings, but we should celebrate this new wave of parental engagement because civic participation is the cornerstone of civil society.
But some elected officials worry that “the fevered pitch that many school board meetings have reached in recent weeks,” as Gov. Roy Cooper described it, is cause for concern. Adults rarely threaten, bully, and intimidate school board members in ways that require law enforcement to get involved. Yet rising tension between school officials and parents is not a figment of our imagination or a creation of our conflict-obsessed media. Rather, school boards have become yet another site of cultural and political conflict. But I think there is more to it than that.
To better understand the current environment, my colleague Bob Luebke and I asked Locke’s communications staff to pose an open-ended question to members of a John Locke Foundation Facebook group: “Parents, why are you frustrated with your child’s neighborhood school?” As of the publication of this article, we received only a handful of replies to the question in our admittedly unscientific survey. But the responses received thus far reveal a growing suspicion that school board members have lost sight of their core statutory responsibility to “provide students with the opportunity to receive a sound basic education and to make all policy decisions with that objective in mind.”
For example, one common theme was a lack of focus on raising academic achievement for all students. Responses in this vein include:
In other words, parents simply want public schools to focus on academics. I don’t blame them. According to 2020-21 testing results, a year of pandemic schooling lowered test scores across the board. Proficiency rates in English, math, and science plummeted in nearly every subject and grade level. Across all subjects and grade levels, 45.4% of North Carolina students failed to earn grade-level proficiency, or Level 3 and above. Only 29.6% met the “career and college ready” standard, or Level 4 and above.
Moreover, parents say that they are unhappy about face covering and vaccination policies.
Parents’ frustrations are understandable. For example, if you wonder why parents are skeptical of COVID-19 policies established for the 2021-22 school year, consider the missteps, mistakes, and misstatements of highly visible doctors, researchers, and government officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci. These medical pundits refused to admit that many directives were based on strategy and speculation rather than science.
Fauci was against masks before he was for them. He admitted to “moving the goalposts” on the vaccination threshold needed to achieve herd immunity. Fauci insisted on the necessity of six feet of social distancing in schools but eventually proclaimed that three feet was sufficient. He championed deep cleaning, but research found that closing schools to conduct a thorough cleaning was a “distraction.” Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.
Parents correctly perceived similar inconsistencies with the justifications used to implement other coronavirus policies. School board members refuse to acknowledge that research exploring the relationship between masks and viral transmission is incomplete. For example, studies that fail to include a control group assume a causal relationship when one may not exist. Furthermore, there is credible scientific evidence that face coverings may harm some children and impair the educational process. An acknowledgment that there are costs and unsettled questions associated with masking would go a long way to restoring trust with parents.
In fact, the erosion of trust between public schools and families feeds the perception that board members, school administrators, and educators are not listening to parents’ legitimate concerns. And frustrations multiply when reform-minded taxpayers realize that they have limited options. They can elect a new school board majority during the conventional election cycle. (North Carolina does not have a statewide law that allows communities to conduct recall elections for school board members.) Otherwise, parents can ditch the district system altogether and enroll their children in a school of choice. Surely the governing board of a charter or private school with a few hundred children will be more attentive to the needs of families than a school board overseeing a school district with several thousand children.