Last week’s tussles between state officials and a pair of Southern California school boards may have died down, but they’ve thrown a spotlight on deeper tensions over who makes decisions for local schools — a rift that’s likely to grow as the culture wars escalate.
Both incidents, which garnered national attention, centered on LGBTQ issues and the state’s ability to rein in local boards that it says may have violated California’s education and civil rights laws.
“We can expect to see more of this as these right-wing groups now follow a scripted playbook and there’s a new level of organization,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy. “And certainly as long as we have an ambitious governor, we can expect to see these battles repeated.”
Last week, Chino police escorted the state’s top education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, from a school board meeting after he urged the board to reject a plan he viewed as harmful to LGBTQ students. The plan, based on a stalled Assembly bill, called for school staff to notify parents if a child identifies as a gender they weren’t assigned at birth. The board ended up approving the proposal 4-1.
Earlier in the month, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to fine Temecula Valley Unified $1.5 million for rejecting a state-approved textbook that included a supplemental lesson on Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. Newsom said the state would order the new textbooks on its own and bill the district. Last week, the board relented and agreed to purchase the new textbooks but review the material related to gay rights, replacing it with a curriculum that reflects “the board’s commitment to exclude sexualized topics of instruction from the elementary school grade levels.”
Enforcing the Education Code
State officials have several enforcement options when they believe districts have run afoul of the education code. Those include fines, like the one Newsom threatened in Temecula Valley; publicly voicing disapproval, such as Thurmond’s comments in Chino Valley; and investigation and litigation, which Attorney General Rob Bonta said he would pursue in Temecula Valley. The California Department of Education also has a complaint process, which anyone can use if they believe their district isn’t complying with state law.
There’s also legislation. Recently, Thurmond and Newsom have thrown their support behind AB 1078, which would raise the threshold for school districts to ban books, from a simple board majority to a two-thirds majority. The bill would also strengthen the FAIR Act, a state law that requires districts to include the contributions of African American, Native American, Mexican American, LGBTQ, and other under-represented groups in history and social studies curriculum.
The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblymember Corey Jackson of Moreno Valley, said legislation like AB 1078 is more important than ever as the state seeks tougher tools to punish districts that stray from civil rights laws.
“These culture wars are being used to generate anger to achieve political goals,” Jackson said. “We have to close as many loopholes as possible.”
The crux of the issue, Jackson said, is local control, the decade-old policy that gives school districts a large degree of autonomy in how they operate. Put forth by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, the Local Control Funding Formula was meant to decentralize state education, allowing districts to tailor their spending policies to the unique needs of their students.
In some cases, Jackson said, local control has gone too far.