When school boards are politicized, kids stand to lose, USF expert says


Long considered nonpartisan, school board candidates have increasingly aligned themselves with Democrats or Republicans.

Dr. Dana Thompson-Dorsey is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of South Florida. She spoke to WUSF’s Kerry Sheridan about how politics seeps into the classroom.

KERRY SHERIDAN: We saw many candidates endorsed by Governor DeSantis winning their elections yesterday. What do you think of the trend of political endorsements in school boards?

DANA THOMPSON-DORSEY: More and more, we’re seeing politicians endorsing school board members in different races. And in fact, for some of the races yesterday, I saw the Democratic Party endorsing particular candidates as well. And what I find extremely problematic is that we are now politicizing education to such an extent that it seems to be more about teaching an ideology in schools and classrooms than ensuring that that children receive a high quality education.

And when I say high quality, I mean learning about history and different facts, learning about different cultures and backgrounds like you would in a world culture or history class, learning about civics and what it is to your duty to be a good citizen and to vote, learning to write and read, and learning the different types of novels and stories to read.

And now we are emphasizing a particular belief or ideology based on politics, where certain books are banned. So you can’t read about different stories or perspectives. Or teachers are told they can’t teach the facts of history that don’t involve slavery and white supremacy, or patriarchy, those different things that our country was unfortunately built on, founded on, embedded in our laws, policies, federal and state constitutions.

Our democratic values ​​should be an important part of our upbringing, as the Supreme Court justices even said in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The importance of education, of what it means to our democracy and our values, we now see being overtaken by political ideologies.

KS: Does the composition of a school board matter? Can it have an effect on schools and learning if a board is made up of one political orientation or another?

DTD: Absolutely yes, absolutely. Most school board members are ordinary citizens. There aren’t too many school boards full of educators or people who have been educators, so they don’t necessarily understand education except the perspective they would like education to be.

And that’s really sad and unfortunate, because now you have people coming in with their particular political beliefs and trying to force that into our schools and our classrooms and then also deprofessionalizing the teaching profession for teachers who are went to school for years to receive their baccalaureate, their masters, sometimes their doctorate, to educate our children as well as possible.

And K-12, they’re now being told they can’t do what they’ve been taught. They can’t teach the content that they’ve spent so much time studying, that they have to stay away from those things that are actually true because of people’s particular beliefs or sensitivities.

KS: Some parents who have spoken out at school board meetings since the pandemic have said they felt like they weren’t being heard. Is there any chance that if a school board is made up of like-minded people, some of that frustration might go away?

TDT: Parents need to be heard, I want to be clear, I don’t think anyone needs to be silenced in this process. When we talk about public schools, in particular, they belong to the public. And that would be parents and students included. So I don’t think students or parents should be silent when talking about education.

But I also think we have to recognize the global society that we live in, and not everyone has the same political beliefs, or comes from the same cultural backgrounds, of course, racial, ethnic, from the same country, from the same language points of view. When we speak of democracy, it is these different ideas that are shared. That’s why we have the first amendment.

The founding fathers who wrote the Constitution, well, obviously I don’t agree with everything they did, because it was written at a time when slavery was taxed and legal. I get why they made free speech and, you know, paramount in this country and made it the first amendment. And that is precisely what they said, because everyone should have the opportunity to be heard and our voice should be raised.

And so even if we agree to disagree, what we should agree on is that different perspectives need to be taught, need to be shared. And people should be able to share their different views on them, even students, they should get to know them.

And that means learning about the United States, even those truths that aren’t so pretty, that are ugly, that are from those early years, 500 years ago and earlier, but also from more recent times where we we still see people’s civil rights being violated on a regular basis. When we talk about the right to vote, and when we even talk about abortion and controlling a woman’s right to choose or what to do with her body. And so we need to have these discussions and no point of view should be excluded and it is all parents, all students, all citizens, all people who are educated in our schools.


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