Agence France-Presse, December 29, 2021
As Joshua Waldorf was running for a third term on the Pennsbury school board in November, one particularly heated debate triggered a flood of vitriolic messages to his inbox — one of them urging him to shoot himself.
In a shift mirrored in cities across America, his local council overseeing schools in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia had unwittingly become a battleground in the politicized culture wars roiling the nation.
The hateful messages aimed at Waldorf were just one example of the flow of anonymous slurs and threats directed at him and fellow members of the nine-seat board in past months — as their once studious meetings turned to angry shouting matches.
In much of the United States, locally elected school boards are tasked with governing a community’s public schools — deciding who to hire as superintendent to manage day-to-day operations, which textbooks to buy, and what education policies to enact.
But over the past year, with the country in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and a historic reckoning over race relations, the boards have had to rule on far more charged issues — prompting intense backlash from parents often bitterly divided along political lines.
After hiring a specialist in “equity, diversity, and education” last year, the board came under fire from parents convinced they had “far left radical agenda to indoctrinate students.”
School boards from coast to coast have had similar experiences, reflecting “a national polarization now seeping into other levels of government,” according to Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
In Pennsbury, things took a turn for the worse after the board appointed Dr. Cherrissa Gibson — a local assistant principal — to a newly created role overseeing diversity and equity in the district’s 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school.
Her first audit in April 2021 found “an underrepresentation of professional staff of color,” as well as a disproportionate level of discipline targeting Black students.
Situated in the woodsy outer suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsbury has about 10,000 students, of whom 75 percent are white, seven percent are Black, eight percent are Asian, and four percent are Hispanic, according to the district’s website.
But opponents, like 54-year-old Simon Campbell, believe such initiatives only sharpen divisions.
“Basically kids are being taught that if you’re Black … you are impoverished and need help from the government,” he told AFP. “If you’re white, then you are an oppressor.”