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Midterm elections: How politics are infiltrating public school systems

(WASHINGTON) — School board meetings have become more heated in recent years — from discussions on how to address gender identity to a surge in the outright banning of some books in some school districts.

A recent poll conducted by FiveThirtyEight found that 48% of likely midterm voters either somewhat or strongly agree that high schools are trying to teach liberal propaganda.

Furthermore, politically loaded phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “ANTIFA” and “critical race theory” can incite reactions among some parents and educators.

“Those are nice words, fancy words, but really under a hidden agenda,” Trisha Chen, a parent in Forsyth County, which is in the Atlanta metropolitan area, said during a May 2021 school board meeting. “…The same playbook has been played in the communist society — to divide and conquer, make the population to hate each other.”

During a July 2021 school board meeting for Carmel Clay School District in Indiana where assigning books containing explicit content was addressed, one parent, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Education NOT indoctrination,” passionately told educators that they have failed their students and “must be held accountable.”

“You have lost sight of your responsibilities to educate our children,” the mother, who demanded transparency in school curriculums, said. “Parents are learning, watching and taking action.”

The concerns about politics infiltrating the classroom are now being addressed by candidates campaigning for seats on school boards.

Dawnyelle Singleton resigned from her full-time job in June to focus on campaigning for a spot on board for Sarasota County Schools, she told ABC News. If elected, Singleton would become the first Black person to serve on the county’s school board, she said.

Singleton, a Sarasota native with a career in education, said the misinformation in public schools “continues to spread.”

Two of the most divisive issues Singleton said, were mask mandates at the height of the pandemic, as well as critical race theory. She said there were “a lot of big feelings on both sides” among parents.

“Public schools are under attack,” she said. “Our teachers and administrators are being undermined left and right, and our democracy is at stake.”

While school boards usually attempt to operate in a nonpartisan fashion, they are quickly becoming more political, Singleton said.

“We’ve definitely seen that in the local landscape,” she said. “And over the past two years, it has been very politicized, and it should not be.”

“Politics have no place on the school board,” she added.

Bridget Ziegler, who is running for reelection on the Sarasota County School board, told ABC News that school board meetings have “changed dramatically” in recent years and often include a dynamic not conducive to productivity.

“Civil discourse is a good thing if it’s done civilly,” Ziegler said. “But so often, it ends up in this unproductive moment in time at the board.”

Ziegler said that going forward it will be “immensely important” to have diversity among school board members.

“Some of the division that we’re seeing is there is a consistent feeling that parents voice: every parent is not being heard and recognized and taking with validity,” she said.

Budding legislation like the Parental Rights in Education bill, in Florida — also called informally by some as the “Don’t say gay” bill — could deepen the divide by limiting what can be taught in school, especially around race and gender issues. Another 26 states have pre-filled or introduced similar bills, according to FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University.

The findings of the FiveThirtyEight poll, released Monday, show that 59% of those surveyed say that students should learn about systemic racism, and another 51% said they should learn about critical race theory.

Less than half of those polled said students should learn about different gender identities beyond male and female.

As the political landscape surrounding school boards becomes more heated, so do the campaigns. Both Singleton and Ziegler have reached more than $140,000 in donations each as they vie to be elected.

The importance of these elections is even more evident as school boards struggle to fill teaching positions. Sarasota County had 81 job openings ahead of the start of the school year.

A survey polling Sarasota County teachers over the summer shed light on just how low morale is — with 80% of respondents saying that recent legislation has had a negative impact on student performance, and 77% stating they believe that the parents’ rights movement has led to negative development for teachers.

Many also believe that teachers are incorporating indoctrination in schools, Singleton said.

“Teachers barely have time to teach what they’re supposed to teach, let alone sneaking in anything else,” she said.

The discourse may be detracting from the priority of school boards. Third grade “satisfactory” reading levels in Sarasota County have shown a downward trend, according to the district.

Educators and those who shape the curriculum should be putting the focus on the students and their education, Ziegler and Singleton said.

“A child’s only job is to go to school and get good grades, and parents shouldn’t have to worry about the schooling and the education that their child is receiving,” Singleton said. “And I’d like to see us get back to that.”

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