Talking Points

How school boards became the front line in the war for democracy

It's a scary time to serve on your local school board. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) on Wednesday asked President Biden for federal help to deal with the growing threats board members face as they encounter angry criticism over mask mandates and critical race theory in public schools. "America's public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat," the association warned. 

The fear of violence is real. So is the volume of hostility, even when it doesn't become violent. In Iowa last week, an angry activist shouted at members: "We know where you live! We're going to stalk you! We're coming to your house!" In Missouri earlier this month, fist fights broke out after the board voted to approve a mask requirement. And in Pennsylvania in August, the GOP nominee for an elected county position threatened to remove local school board members with "20 strong men." These kinds of stories have become routine

Some officials are ready to walk away. "My family no longer feels safe," one Wisconsin board member announced this month. "It isn't in my family's best interest for me to try to appease a vocal group that continues to try to intimidate, harass, insult, and throw civility to the side."

Officials or not, most Americans believe that democracy is under attack, and those fears are often focused on state and national issues: the Jan. 6 insurrection, new restrictions on voting, or the never-ending audits of the 2020 election. But the democratic process starts at the local level. There are many little-known and ill-paid elected local officials whose motivations have little to do with ideology or ambition. They simply have a desire for public service. Very few of these people get rich or powerful on the school board, but they do give a lot of time and energy to serve. Attempts to intimidate them in their work or scare them away from pursuing office altogether erode American democracy at a fundamental level. 

That's not to say school board critics should simply shut up. As the NSBA said in its letter, input from parents and community members is "at the forefront of good school board governance and promotion of free speech." But threats of violence cross an obvious line. Democracy is endangered nationally, yes — but we shouldn't ignore what's happening in our own backyards.