This time, the standardized test is not for students, but voters.
Across Western New York on Tuesday, school board elections will determine whether voters want to protect schooling from the disruptive influence of national politics or throw open the doors to distractions such as overwrought arguments on masks, race and other political derangements.
It is a dangerous moment, and, if it happens, it won’t be by accident. Right-wing manipulators have been hard at work trying to inject America’s national nervous breakdown where it can do the most damage: on school boards and, through them, in classrooms. One local group wants to create “massive upheaval,” partly by inundating schools and the State Education Department with lawsuits. That, to at least one of the group’s members, serves the cause of “freedom.”
It doesn’t. It serves the cause of chaos, and chaos, in addition to being expensive, undercuts education.
One of the national leaders of this malicious effort was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. Conservative activist Christopher Rufo was instrumental in creating a backlash against critical race theory and, more recently, against Disney, over its objections to a controversial new law in Florida. His method, as he acknowledged in 2021, is misdirection: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’ ” he wrote on Twitter last year.
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That strategy is at play in Western New York, as some on the far right turn frustration over masking requirements into a campaign issue for school boards. Masking rules were mainly driven by the state as a strategy to keep education as safe as possible in the midst of a historic global pandemic. Gov. Kathy Hochul devolved that responsibility to localities and, today, no Western New York school district has a masking policy in place.
What masking opponents ignore is the gravity of the threat. The country this week crossed the grim threshold of 1 million Covid-19 deaths and, at one time, New York was the virus’s ground zero. To the nihilists, that doesn’t matter.
Masking is merely the camel’s nose under the tent in these elections. Critical race theory, sexuality and even library books have become animating causes of the effort to infect local schools with the nation’s political dysfunction. With that, the radical right can prepare – dare we say, groom – candidates for higher elected offices.
This is not a conservative vs. liberal fight. It is the far right against everyone else. Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes concluded as much to The Times. Speaking of Rufo’s association with the conservative Manhattan Institute, Sykes observed that “It gives him this veneer of being a conservative scholar. He basically says, ‘Anything you don’t like about race becomes C.R.T.’ Now, all of your anxieties about sexuality or gender become grooming.”
That’s the risk as radical candidates seek to turn Western New York’s classrooms into petri dishes of political radicalism. They push for causes such as “parent-partnered curriculum” and “medical freedom,” sweet talk for “controlling what other people’s children can learn” and “the right to spread infections.”
Here’s how far out on the fringe these activists are willing to go. Hamburg School Board candidates Kelly Hunter and Jackie Best are among four people who have petitioned the state education commissioner to remove the Hamburg superintendent and three principals, claiming denial of education to their children for not wearing masks.
But here’s the background: A state judge had just invalidated the state mask policy, but the education commissioner – the same education commissioner – had specifically instructed school districts to continue to require masks, as an appeal was expected. Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell followed those sensible instructions. For the record, Cornell has also pushed the state to relax masking requirements and he advocated for the test-to-stay program that helped keep students in class. His has been a voice of reason and moderation.
But Hunter, who, with her boyfriend Robby Dinero, launched a group called the Fight for Your Family Initiative has, purposely or not, adopted the Rufo strategy. Here’s part of a Facebook message she posted in January:
“Our fastest path is massive civil disobedience and continuing to be loud, speak up, take over board of education seats this spring, and create massive upheaval. Take off your mask. Commit to not wearing it … anywhere.”
Anger and chaos are the goals, even if based on ignorance and distortion. That raises a question: For what are these candidates hoping to prepare today’s students? What kind of education do they portend?
There is a real possibility that candidates such as these will prevail. School board elections are notoriously low-turnout affairs. That typically benefits the candidates with the most passionate – or inflamed – supporters.
This is no moment to give in to exhaustion with right-wing conspiracy theorists. These people would have cheerfully let teachers, students and their families become ill – possibly gravely – rather than put on a mask. What other aberrant ideas would they seek to inflict on the region’s classrooms?
School board ballots are peppered with these candidates this year. Be careful whom you support on Tuesday. Your children – and your wallets – may pay a grievous price.
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