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

Voting booths are lined up in a polling place in St. Petersburg
Mary Shedden
WUSF Public Media
Long considered non-partisan, school board candidates have increasingly aligned themselves with Democrats or Republicans.

Of the 30 candidates endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis,19 won their races Aug. 23, and another six are headed to the general election in November.

Long considered non-partisan, 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 is filtering into the classroom.

KERRY SHERIDAN: We saw many of the candidates endorsed by Gov. DeSantis win their elections yesterday. What do you make of the trend of political endorsements in schools boards?

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

a head shot of Dana Thompson-Dorsey wearing gold earrings and smiling with wavy hair
Dana Thompson-Dorsey

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

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

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

KS: Does the makeup 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 regular, everyday citizens. There aren't too many school boards that are filled with educators or people who have been educators, so they don't necessarily understand education, except for the perspective of what they would like education to be.

And that is truly sad and unfortunate, because now you have people who are coming in with their particular political beliefs and trying to force that in our schools and classrooms and then also de-professionalizing the teaching profession for those teachers who have gone to school for years to receive their bachelor's degree, master's degree, sometimes doctoral degree, to best educate our children.

And in pre-K to 12 school they are now being told that they can't do what they've learned. 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 of truth, of fact, because of people's particular beliefs or sensitivities.

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

TDT: Parents should be heard, I do want to make that clear, I don't think that anyone should be silenced in this process. When we talk about public schools, specifically, it belongs to the public. And that would be parents and students included. So I don't think students or parents should be quieted when talking about education.

But I also think we need to recognize the global society in which we live, and everybody does not have the same political beliefs, nor do they come from the same cultural backgrounds, of course, racial, ethnic background, from the same country, language perspectives. When we talk about democracy, it's those different ideas being shared. That's why we have the First Amendment.

The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution, well, obviously, I don't agree with everything that they did, because that was written during a time where slavery was enforced and was legal. I do understand why they made the freedom of expression paramount in this country and made it the First Amendment. And that's specifically what they said, because everyone should have an opportunity to be heard and our voice should be elevated.

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

And that means learning about the United States, even those truths that are not so pretty, that are ugly, that are from those early years, 500 years ago and earlier, but also from more recent times where we still see people's civil rights being violated on a regular basis. When we talk about voting rights, and when we talk about even 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 one point of view should be shut out and that's all parents, all students, all citizens, all people who are being educated in our schools.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.