Politics of masks, critical race theory fueling heated school board elections

School board races are usually quiet contests centered around local issues like budgets. But this year, many of these boards are engulfed in nationalized, cultural hot-button fights over issues like mask mandates and teaching critical race theory. Anger at school boards has resulted in heated meetings and threats of violence — and federal intervention. Judy Woodruff reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    School board races are normally quiet contests centered around local issues like budgets. But, this year, many of these boards are engulfed in nationalized, cultural hot-button fights, among the issues mask mandates and Critical Race Theory, an academic framework around America's legacy of racism and segregation.

    But that term has become a catch-all for lessons on diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom. Anger at school boards has resulted in heated meetings and threats of violence.

    Today, Attorney General Merrick Garland faced a barrage of criticism from Republican senators for his department's involvement in protecting school officials.

    Garland said the moment called for federal monitoring.

  • Merrick Garland, U.S. Attorney General :

    I think all of us have seen these reports of violence and threats of violence. That is what the Justice Department is concerned about. It's not only in the context of violence and threats of violence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a look at how this is playing out across the country, I'm joined by Grant Gerlock of Iowa Public Radio. He joins us from Des Moines. Jenny Brundin of Colorado Public Radio, she's based in Denver. And, in Columbus, Ohio, Jo Ingles of Ohio Public Radio and Television.

    It's so good to see the three of you. Thank you for joining us.

    Jo Ingles, I want to start with you.

    What does school board races in Ohio look like this year compared to previous years?

    Jo Ingles, Ohio Public Radio and Television: Well, they're intense.

    The Ohio School Boards Association says we have more than 2, 600 candidates for school board this year. Now, compare that with four years ago, Judy, it's a 50 percent increase. And the races are hotly contested in most areas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And skipping over to Colorado and to Jenny Brundin — and I want to say, before we hear from you, I want to play some of the commentary at — this was an October school board candidate forum in Colorado Springs. This is just an excerpt.

  • Woman:

    We don't need to indoctrinate or legislate programs to expect respect.

  • Woman:

    No school should ever have the ability to make health care decisions for any family.

    Man DEI is. It is CRT, and it is, at its core level, Marxism.

  • Man:

    I am not a fan of DEI. They're very good, nice, flowery words, but equity is not a word that we — that is really American.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Jenny Brundin, as we said, this is just a sampling.

    But tell us, how typical are the issues that these candidates are raising?

  • Jenny Brundin, Colorado Public Radio:

    Yes, I would say I have sat in on quite a few school board forums. And, for the most part, the traditional issues, that is, student achievement, how to close the achievement gap, school budgets, those are the main issues.

    But when you get into some of the more conservative areas around Colorado Springs and indeed in a few races closer to the Denver area, you do hear more questions and answers about masks, about Critical Race Theory.

    And, as you saw there, they were mentioning DEI. That's diversity, equity and inclusion. And many parents are conflating that with so-called Critical Race Theory and are upset about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it sounds like it's coming up a fair amount.

    I want to move over to Iowa now and to Grant Gerlock.

    And, Grant, now we have a short clip. This is what some citizens were saying to school board members in September in Ankeny. This is a suburb of Des Moines.

  • Man:

    We know where you live! We're going to stalk you! We're coming to your house!

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, for those who couldn't hear, he was saying: "We're going to come to your house, we're going to stalk you."

    It sounds like a pretty fevered pitch there.

  • Grant Gerlock, Iowa Public Radio:

    Yes, especially at that meeting.

    That's where the school board voted to put in place a mask mandate for all students, which hadn't been in place before. In fact, there had been a state law prohibiting schools from putting mask mandates in place. After that was blocked by a federal court ruling, schools came back and several of them have put mandates in place.

    But, in Ankeny, that's been a controversial issue going back to last school year. And it really came to a head that night and led to those harassing statements from that person in the crowd. And he has been associated with a group who has been very vocal against mask mandates and in some cases is spreading false information about masks and conspiracy theories and that type of thing.

    They have been pretty prominent in the school board races, too. It's just carried over, those controversies about the mandates carrying over into the school board race as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jo Ingles, you were telling us that even — that in some parts of Ohio, school board members have actually been threatened.

    We have heard a little of that in that clip there from Iowa, but what are you seeing in Ohio across the state?

  • Jo Ingles:

    Yes, some school board members report they have been threatened.

    We have seen a lot of bad behavior at local school board meetings. And it's the same thing as everyone else is saying. It centers around COVID protocols, masks, and it also centers around the teaching of diversity in the schools.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jenny Brundin, tell us what you're seeing in Colorado. And I know it's hard to ask you not to generalize, because I'm asking you to talk about an entire state, but talk about the issues that are being raised, but also the fact you were saying you're seeing new people running for school boards, people who had never really been involved in public education before.

  • Jenny Brundin:

    In Colorado law, indeed, there is a law saying that schools need to focus on the history, culture and social contributions of a variety of minority groups. And so schools are actually following the law, but it's been twisted a little bit by parent groups.

    But, yes, in general, the main issues are student achievement, the critical mental health crisis that youth are in, and also the critical shortage of teachers, school bus drivers. Those are some of the issues coming up.

    But, like you said, newcomers. We're seeing a lot of newcomers. Traditionally, people who run for the school board have sat on accountability committees and parent-teacher organizations for many years.

    And we're seeing lots of newcomers, people that are just parents who maybe tuned in during the pandemic, and have also been swept up in the national politics and some of these flash point issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And staying with you, Jenny Brundin, for a minute, you said some of what the newcomers, the candidates are saying is twisting what's in the curriculum? What did you mean by that?

  • Jenny Brundin:

    Yes.

    I have spent a lot of time looking at curriculum. And many school districts now are undergoing a process of making their curriculum more inclusive and representative to reflect the student body, so, for example, reading a piece of English that might be written by an African American person, so tinkering with the curriculum so that it looks more like the student body, which is what Colorado law calls for.

    And I think, when you have some groups of parents that are reading about Critical Race Theory and are reading about diversity, equity and inclusion, in whatever form they're reading it, it's basically — their view is somehow that teachers are teaching kids to dislike white people and that students of color are the victims and white people are the oppressors.

    And everything I have read in curriculum and talking to many teachers, that is not what is being taught, but there are a sizable segment of the population, parents, who believe this is happening.

    And I should also say I have sat in on many, many, many school board meetings, and there are dozens and dozens of parents who applaud the equity efforts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Grant Gerlock, what about in Iowa? I mean, what is your sense of how proportionate the criticism is?

  • Grant Gerlock:

    Oh, well, all this sounds very familiar, what I'm hearing from Ohio and Colorado, whether it's on masking or it's on teaching racism and equity in schools.

    For the most part, it's only a handful of districts across the state where these are really coming to a strong contentious point ahead of these school board elections. Oftentimes, I have noticed it's been in some of the fast-growing suburban areas.

    And these are areas where they're growing quickly, the populations are changing, the demographics are changing, more students of color in the school districts. And, sometimes, it's students themselves who are trying to drive these conversations about race and equity in their schools.

    Parents are hearing about it, maybe coming late to the conversation, and coming, in many cases, from this frame of the national debate about CRT or the buzzwords around these issues.

    And it's creating this dichotomy going into the school board election where we have national issues that are breaking in on local conversations about these issues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is such a not only important story for us to cover, but one that we want to keep an eye on as we get closer, not only to this year's elections, but, of course, midterm elections next year.

    But we want to thank the three of you very much, Jo Ingles in Ohio, Jenny Brundin in Colorado, and Grant Gerlock joining us from Iowa.

    Thank you all very much. We appreciate it.

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