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Turn School Boards Over to the Kids in the Classroom Seats



Students are being hurt on multiple fronts by parents, politicians, and unions in the fight to control public education in California, writes Joe Mathews. (AP File)
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California kids, do you follow the news about the culture wars over local school boards?

Photo of Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews


If you do, you’ll see these wars portrayed as political contests between groups that want to take education in different direction: progressives and right-wingers, and fights between parents’ groups and teachers’ unions.

But you won’t hear much about the role of students in these debates. Because there isn’t one.

There’s a big reason why you’re being left out by these adults. The adults in your lives, for all their performative disagreements over your schools, share a unity of purpose in the education wars:

They want to trample on your already very limited rights as students.

They just attack you from different flanks.

On the right, conservative parents and their political allies seek to take away your right to read what you want. Groups with Orwellian names — like Moms for Liberty — are pursuing bans on books and curricula.  Banning books limits what your teachers can teach, and which of your questions they can answer. The right is particularly interested in limiting what teachers can tell you about hot-button topics like race and sex.

The right is also demanding that teachers violate your privacy and make official reports, including to your parents, if you dare deviate from old-fashioned gender norms. Figuring out your identity is hard enough — between gossipy classmates and social media — without teachers being required to inform on you.

To its credit, the left is fighting these privacy intrusions. But the left has its own ways of limiting your freedoms and your educational horizons.

Teachers Unions, Dem Politicians Gang up on Students, Too

Remember that teachers unions and Democratic politicians violated your right to an education by closing the schools during the pandemic. Those same leaders haven’t done enough to help you recover the learning you lost in the pandemic, even though most of you are testing below grade level and many of you are chronically absent from school.

And inside your schools, the left is determined to keep you on their prescribed path by protecting outdated curriculum while adding requirements that match their political preferences — like ethnic studies. Meanwhile, schools rarely provide the technology courses you want. Unbelievably, just 40% of high schools in California, home of Silicon Valley, even offer computer science.

This isn’t a budget problem. Spending on schools is way up, but the new money ends up going to the salaries of adults.

If you still think your teachers, staff, and elected officials respect you, let me disabuse you of that notion.

Politicians and School Leaders Oppose ‘High Quality’ Education Initiative

During the pandemic, the Los Angeles Unified Schools superintendent faced litigation charging that he was violating students’ right to a good education. He responded by saying that students only had the right to a free education. It didn’t have to be good or even useful.

Shockingly, California’s leaders and schools have embraced the superintendent’s position as their own — opposing  a ballot initiative that would give you the right to a “high-quality” education. Here is the language: “The state and its school districts shall provide all public school students with high-quality public schools that equip them with the tools necessary to participate fully in our economy, our society, and our democracy.”

In opposing that promise, the educational establishment claims that a “high-quality” education requirement will produce a barrage of lawsuits and demands from you.

For your sake, I sure hope they are right.

In this context, students should go unapologetically on the offensive. If adults punish you for being combative, laugh in their faces — and remind them of their own combative educational wars.

Students Should Have Right to Vote in School Board Elections

You might try a one-day-a-week student strike, like the climate activist Greta Thunberg, and spend that time finding lawyers to sue your school districts. (Lawsuits, and their costs, are what really move school administrators.)

Or you could demand democracy from the Democrats who rule California. Since students know more about schools than most adults, why shouldn’t you have the right to vote and run in school board elections?

Indeed, school boards have been so captured — by teachers’ unions and parent groups —t hat there’s a strong case for turning school boards entirely over to students, who could check adult interests.

Adults are also constantly talking about the need to teach civics — while rarely funding actual civics classes. Turning school boards over to kids would be the greatest civics lesson possible.

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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