Critical race theory made headlines, but wasn’t the top issue for school boards

Anti-vaccine mandate protesters gather during a public school board meeting in Portland, Oregon, to discuss a proposed vaccine mandate for students. COVID-19 and school safety issues outpaced CRT and gender identity as top issues for school boards, according to a poll by researchers at Northeastern and partner institutions. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

What’s become of the friendly neighborhood school board meeting?

In Connecticut, a high school board member was socked in the face during a heated discussion about a Native American mascot. In Iowa, the police were called after parents got into it over racial slurs that were read aloud from books. Even the Proud Boys, the nationalist group, are getting involved in local school issues.

The normally staid community meetings have become fist-flying fodder for cable news. Given the outsized media coverage of school board agendas of late, it may seem as if cultural wedge issues such as transgender student-athletes and critical race theory were the driving forces that school board voters cared most about. But a new survey finds that is not the case.

‘Biases in national politics seem to be more acute in local politics,’ says David Lazer, distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

At the top of the list were two issues—COVID-19 vaccine mandates and school safety, which includes cops in schools and student discipline. They were tied as the main concerns of 14% of parents who participated in a study conducted by the Covid States Project, a collaborative effort by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

The national online poll of over 5,000 school board voters found that pandemic-related concerns as a whole (vaccines, masks, and remote vs. in-person instruction) were the chief motivating issues of 3 in 10 voters, the highest recorded in the survey. 

What’s stoking their concerns?

“There’s this perception among some people that vaccines and masks for kids could be doing more harm than good, while for others, vaccines and masks are crucial for keeping kids safe,” explains Alauna Safarpour, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern’s Network Science Institute who worked on the study. “Opinions on both sides are quite strong.”

School board meetings, she adds, are a form of civic engagement that pose a paradox—they offer citizens a chance to have a say on major issues such as taxes or new building construction. And yet, few people bother to participate.

“The saying that ‘all politics is local’ is almost tongue-in-cheek given how few people participate in local politics,” Safarpour says.

Indeed, almost 1 in 5 respondents say they voted in a school board election in the past year, and just 4% said they attended a school board meeting in the past 6 months.

Who are they exactly?

Those with higher levels of income and education were more likely to say they voted in a school board election. In fact, respondents who earned more than $75,000 a year were more likely to report voting than those with incomes below that level, the survey found.

Older people participate in a lot more school board elections; but among younger people, there is a significant difference in participation (25% vs 17%) between parents and nonparents.

Political partisans are more likely to participate in school board elections, with 26% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans saying they took part in a school election in the past year. Only 11% of independents did so.

“Biases in national politics seem to be more acute in local politics,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences at Northeastern, and one of the study’s authors. 

Among other issues that school board voters said they cared about, race-related topics were tied with teacher pay at 6%, followed by transgender students’ bathroom preference and their participation on sports teams.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, introduced legislation that would allow parents to sue schools teaching critical race theory in the classroom. “We have the responsibility to stand for the truth, for what is right,” he said at a press briefing to discuss the Stop WOKE Act, which comes months after the state banned the teaching of CRT in public schools.

Critics of the legislation, however, accuse DeSantis of dividing Floridians and ignoring more urgent matters. “Stop creating fake problems,” a state lawmaker tweeted.

Northeastern’s Safarpour says schools have historically been at the center of major race issues.

“In a broader sense, it is not unheard of to have schools erupt as a flashpoint around issues of race and racism. We saw this with school desegregation, busing, and now we’re seeing it with the debate around CRT,” she says.

Similar controversies are playing out as schools navigate vaccine politics, she adds. “We’ve seen schools really lead the charge for mandating vaccines, and when it comes to K through 12 students, it can be highly controversial.”

Schools have taken on a higher level of prominence in the culture wars as local journalism outlets have faded away, adds Lazer. “Issues that pop up in communities belong more in national discussions,” he says. “But now there are things that are happening that even local people locally don’t know about because the local media have been eviscerated.”

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