Virginia

School boards must separate church and state

The daily progress

When schools reopen today, every Virginia public school system should have a policy for handling sexually explicit material in libraries and curriculum. In libraries, at a minimum, these materials must be segregated from the rest of the collection and denied to students unless they have parental permission to borrow them. In classrooms, teachers must at least inform parents in advance that they plan to use material that is deemed explicit and provide alternative learning materials to students whose parents object.

This is the basic policy decreed by Glenn Youngkin, Governor of Virginia. But the Republican-wannabe president of 2024 will happily allow communities to censor materials more strictly. He does so out of respect for small groups of religious activists in individual school systems who oppose depictions of racism and sexual identity in books and other media, which are reviewed by educational experts before they are approved.

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This is the first step in a potentially pivotal year of public education debates being sponsored by wealthy private groups hoping to seize control of local school boards and let their conservative Christian beliefs dictate policy.

Conservative activists took over the Spotsylvania County School Board last year and turned that system into a dysfunctional mess that included:

– Fired an experienced superintendent and replaced him with someone with no public education experience and paid the replacement of $245,000 per year.

– Hold meetings with little or no public announcement.

– Censoring award-winning literature in libraries and classrooms and calling for actual book burning.

-Adoption of a rule to limit the number of speakers on certain topics to five.

– Asking staff to turn off the microphone on the speakers.

– Alleged use of public funds to send school board members to a Conservative group retreat.

Those who think this is an isolated problem should look at a similar effort to stack school boards from Loudon County in northern Virginia to the city of Virginia Beach 200 miles south.

The Christian nationalist movement arrived in Albemarle County less than a year ago in the form of a lawsuit brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a $78 million annual national group that is using it to bring private religion into public life. ADF accused the Albemarle County school system’s anti-racism program of being racist itself because it characterized white students as bigots and because a handful of parents said the program violated their children’s constitutionally protected religious beliefs. A district judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying it offered no evidence that the children involved were harmed. The case remains on appeal, with the ADF collecting the bills.

Meanwhile, the group filed other lawsuits in hopes of finding judges who would accept, for example, an argument that Harrisonburg schools’ policies supporting students who identify as transgender unconstitutionally withheld information from parents who disagree with this.

Two months ago, in early November, the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments from ADF that a West Point public school teacher could not be fired for refusing to address a student with transgender pronouns because it was against the religion of the teacher.

For Sarah Harris, a former high school teacher and parent of Albemarle County students, conservative attempts to take over school boards are a call to action. After ADF sued Albemarle, Harris and other Albemarle parents formed Albemarle Forward to support teachers and the school system. They saw a system that taught tolerance to their children.

With the majority of the county’s school board members up for re-election in November 2023, Harris and others are organizing what is arguably the most contentious school board election of their lives. “This could be a big race, bigger than our county is used to,” she said.

Harris believes Youngkin’s call for new guidelines is leading people to think that “teachers are trying to teach sexually explicit material.”

“We have to push back hard and say that didn’t happen,” Harris said.

She added that Albemarle’s anti-racism policies are also non-racist toward whites and anti-religious.

The challenge in the coming year for Harris and all Virginians who support public education will be to uncover the misinformation and emotional manipulation that accompany what Harris rightly called “outrageous allegations designed to incite fear.” stoke”.

If she needs a cautionary tale to show the Albemarle constituents just how crazy things can get, all she has to do is point east toward Spotsylvania.

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