For some school boards, parents are the enemy

December 20, 2023 | By JIM MANLEY
TJ protest Harvard Supreme Court

This article first appeared in the wall 2023 edition of Sword&Scales.

This year California legislators tried to create new criminal penalties for parents who “harass” school board officials or disrupt school board meetings. The legislators drafted a vague bill that defined harassment as two or more acts directed at an education official. Potentially, if you sent two emails that caused a school board member to suffer “substantial emotional distress,” you’d fall under the bill’s definition.

Pacific Legal Foundation and others questioned the bill—but in September, it passed California’s legislature by a wide margin.

Then it got to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. The governor refused to sign it.

“[W]e need to be cautious about exacerbating tensions,” Newsom explained as he vetoed the bill. As written, he pointed out, the bill could “be perceived as stifling parents’ voices in the decision-making process.”

“We don’t need more gas on this fire,” he added.

An equity agenda

Here’s what Newsom meant by “this fire.”

In recent years, parents across the country have felt increasingly villainized by school boards and education officials.

In some districts, tensions began with the fight to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents, upset about kids losing months of schooling, were met with largely unsympathetic education officials. An entire school board in Northern California resigned after they were caught complaining about parents “want[ing] their babysitters back.”

“Part of the problem,” a teacher said in a 2021 op-ed for NBC News, “is that parents think they have the right to control teaching and learning because their children are the ones being educated. But it actually (gasp!) doesn’t work that way … It’s sort of like entering a surgical unit thinking you can interfere with an operation simply because the patient is your child.”

The big fight between parents and school districts today isn’t about COVID. It’s about equity.

On one side are education officials who want to change policies—including admissions, discipline, and grading policies—to make outcomes more level across racial groups. On the other side are parents who don’t want students treated differently according to race.

“They’re obsessed with equity,” one Virginia mom complained about the Fairfax County School Board in an interview for Pacific Legal Foundation’s short documentary, Fortune in the Book. When the school board replaced Thomas Jefferson High School’s race-blind admissions test with a process aimed at increasing black and Hispanic enrollment, parents were furious: It seemed to signal that officials were prioritizing identity politics over academic merit. Once the top-ranked public high school in the country, the Fairfax County school’s ranking recently dropped to #5.

Many parents began attending school board meetings to voice their concern. Some, including Asra Nomani, formed the Coalition for TJ, which sued the school board with PLF’s help. The case is currently on petition to the Supreme Court; if accepted, it will likely be heard in the spring.

Before Fairfax pushed the new admissions changes, Asra considered herself “a good PTSA mom.” But when she objected to the school board’s agenda, she was treated like an enemy. After she gave an impassioned speech at a school board meeting, security personnel made a beeline for her. When PLF interviewed Asra for our documentary, she wore a shirt with bejeweled lettering: “I’m a mom, not a domestic terrorist.” (The shirt was inspired by the National School Boards Association’s 2021 letter to President Joe Biden comparing parent-led protests to domestic terrorism. The association later apologized.)

Thomas Jefferson High School parents have good reason to be frustrated right now. Because of the school’s fixation on leveling achievement, school officials decided not to distribute National Merit commendations that would have made some students eligible for scholarships. Asra, a journalist who formerly reported for The Wall Street Journal, obtained employee emails in a Freedom of Information Act request. Her research uncovered the school’s motivation for holding back the commendations: Apparently, employees didn’t want to hurt the feelings of students who didn’t receive a certificate.

When one mom tried to track down her son’s certificate, a school counselor falsely told her there was no formal paperwork. Norma Margulies, a Fairfax parent who immigrated from Peru, said the school district “seems to value obfuscation and deception.”

The Mother Science

What’s ironic is that school districts are usually desperate for parents to be involved in their kids’ education.

“The most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are not family income or social status, but the extent to which the family … becomes involved in the child’s education at school,” according to the National Parent Teacher Association. The more parents are engaged and involved in what’s going on at school, the better each classroom performs as a whole.

It’s not about parental pressure. It’s about students feeling like parents care. There’s no substitute for that feeling. It’s the single best engine for driving kids to want to learn.

Studies show that parents helping with homework isn’t even what makes the major difference—it’s parents attending school events, volunteering, and becoming part of the school community.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville calls association “the mother science.” The progress of all other sciences depends on people freely working together toward shared goals, de Tocqueville argued. That’s civil society. Not all problems can (or should) be solved through top-down political processes. Some need to be solved by people on the ground leaning in, getting involved, and forging connections with other community members.

That’s what usually happens at schools like Thomas Jefferson: Engaged parents create a healthy community around the school—not through top-down dictates but through spontaneous order. That kind of parental involvement makes the school as a whole perform better.

But recent equity-driven policy changes are coming through top-down political processes—through expensive consultants, school board policymaking, and questionably parsed language that sorts students into “privileged” and “underprivileged” identity groups, then adjusts the rules to control group-level outcomes.

“They have a maniacal focus on equal outcomes for all students at all costs,” Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin told 7News after the National Merit scandal broke in Fairfax County. “And at the heart of the American dream is excelling, is advancing, is stretching and recognizing that we have students that have different capabilities.”

That’s what parents want for their children.

“Real equity is actually teaching Johnny how to read, write, how to do math,” one mother argued at a Minnesota school board meeting to discuss new equity and inclusion policies. “How to think, not what to think.”

New activists

Asra Nomani didn’t find out about her son’s National Merit commendation until two years after it was awarded. Thomas Jefferson never bothered informing her or her son.

In media interviews, Asra called it a “sabotaging of children.”

“We all want every student to thrive in society and in our schools,” she added. “But we do not do that by denying kids opportunities. I think that’s something that we should all agree upon.”

For better or worse, school boards have turned parents like Asra into activists. When parents are excluded from the decision-making process at schools—when they’re told they’re not experts in equity, or they’re privileged, or they’re on the wrong side of history—they organize together to make themselves heard.

“I am not an activist by nature,” Wai Wah Chin, a New York City mother of four, told guests in her keynote address at PLF’s 50th anniversary gala. Yet when New York education officials started complaining there were too many Asian students at the city’s specialized high schools, Wai Wah co-founded the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York and organized a campaign against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s changes to specialized high school admissions. All four of Wai Wah’s children attended Stuyvesant, one of the city’s best public schools. To Wai Wah, and other parents like her, schools’ shift in focus from education to equity is worth organizing against.

“There’s so many parents who have never been engaged in politics before,” Wai Wah told PLF. Some, like her, are immigrants. (Wai Wah’s family immigrated from China when she was a young child.) For these parents, Wai Wah said, “it means a lot to them to be able to come to America to take a test and be judged on their own merit—not to be judged by their class affiliation, or their parents, or their ethnicity.”

With PLF’s help, Wai Wah’s organization is challenging the New York admissions changes in court. Wai Wah went from being “not an activist” to becoming a well-known champion for New York students. She’s now so well-connected with other parents that she helped Students for Fair Admissions connect with plaintiffs to challenge Harvard and UNC’s affirmative action policies—a challenge that was successful at the Supreme Court in June.

“When something happens, do you stand up?” Wai Wah asked. “Or do you just say, ‘Okay, well, it’s not my battle.’”

When schools are at stake, she said, “it’s everybody’s battle.”

What drives parents

If school’s equity-first policymaking revolves around race-based statistics, well-paid consultants, and a belief that all outcomes can be made equal, parents are driven by the opposite—parental love, the mother of all mother sciences, which is inherently unequal.

“To give yourself over in love to a little child, the most economically useless creature in the world, is to forget yourself and your immediate purposes,” Anthony Esolen writes in Nostalgia. Esolen then decries “those who would use children to further their political purposes.”

When this magazine went to print, California’s legislature still had the time—and technically, the votes— to override Governor Gavin Newsom’s veto on the bill that would criminalize some parents’ behavior.

But legislators may not go through with the override. Voters are parents, too.

The Supreme Court held in 2000 that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children … is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.” In Students for Fair Admissions, the Court also ruled that race-based college admissions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

In addition to petitioning the Court to hear the Thomas Jefferson High School case, PLF drafted model legislation that would require the governing bodies of public schools to publicly post all their training and curricular materials concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion, so that parents aren’t left in the dark.

Parents want to know that their kids will be judged for who they are, not what racial category they were born into. They want to know that their kids will be given space to succeed, to fail, to be themselves.

To be free.