Will national wedge issues cripple local education leadership?
This fall, school and district leaders will encounter kids at vastly different levels of academic readiness and needs for mental health intervention, and parents and teachers with varying concerns over safety. Though many schools will follow similar strategies, the specific problems schools will face will lead them in different directions.
This puts a premium on leadership, not only at the school level but also at the district level. Superintendents and school boards must support school-level problem-solving and buffer teachers and principals from distracting regulations and pressures. They can offer help when needed but should stay out of the way of schools that are responding effectively to student needs.
Recently, however, national culture war issues are adding new and sometimes overwhelming burdens for leaders who need to focus on education. Crowds inflamed by opposition to masks and other pandemic safety measures, rights of transgender students, or critical race theory are disrupting and intimidating school boards and threatening administrators. This has led to board meeting cancellations and resignations in localities as diverse as Louisville, KY; Cincinnati, OH; Fort Worth, TX; Loudoun County, VA; and Washougal, WA. At the same time, for many reasons, superintendents have resigned or been fired in dozens of districts, large and small.
Demonstrators are often concerned local citizens, but in at least one state—Arizona—the same demonstrators are showing up in different localities. Board members and superintendents who haven’t yet experienced wedge-issue disruption are likely to do so in the future, thanks to the work of Fox News and other national outrage machines. It doesn’t help for district leaders to say they have other priorities and are not adopting new policies on, say, transgender athletes participating in girls’ sports or teaching about white supremacy. The protestors don’t trust anyone to tell the truth. They also know that district policies don’t really control what happens in classrooms, and they want to intimidate teachers.
Citizens have the right to act on their convictions but not to make officials fear for their safety or shut down open meetings. These adult differences must be worked out in the large arenas of public opinion, state and national legislatures, and elections. Except for pandemic safety issues, which schools must manage, K–12 education is the wrong forum for culture war factions to fight through their differences.
Some of the cultural warriors might know this, yet favor undermining public education’s performance and legitimacy. But they might find that other schools they favor, including charters, independents, and religious, are torn by the same forces.
Will grassroots mobilization on wedge issues cripple school and district leadership throughout the country, or will some places be able to resist it and focus on teaching and learning? Outrage sells, so national news outlets, commentators, and political opportunists will keep pumping it up. State legislatures in Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia have only polarized issues further around transgender issues, as have 18 states around the history of race relations in the United States.
But senior public officials, especially the secretary of education, governors, and state school superintendents can also help. They can absorb some of the heat by insisting that schools focus on restoring learning opportunities students lost during the pandemic, saying loud and clear that inequality is a problem to be worked on—not defined away—and that schools can’t promote equity for anyone if they don’t teach effectively. To date, only a few senior officials, led by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, have stepped up in this way.
Mayors and state superintendents can also publicly back up the superintendents, like Sonja Santileses in Baltimore and Eric Gordon in Cleveland, who refuse to be distracted from their main jobs of restoring education for all children. Such actions won’t make the political storms go away but they can buttress K–12 leaders against the high winds coming their way.
Paul T. Hill is Founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at the University of Washington Bothell. His current work focuses on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance; school choice and innovation; finance and productivity; and improving rural schools.
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