July 28, 2021

It’s Gonna Be A Wild One

By Bellwether

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“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

“What have you got? 

As a new coalition of the pissed off emerges in school districts around the country, this may well be their rallying cry.

I suspect a lot of people will turn off from this William McGurn column in the WSJ ($) because of the woke / anti-woke framing, its take on things, and because it’s in the WSJ. I’d suggest you don’t. McGurn puts his finger on something we’re seeing around the country – recall efforts for local school board members and insurgent campaigns against them based on a variety of issues that underneath the specifics boil down to dissatisfaction and frustration. It’s a coalition of the pissed off.

Whether or not you agree with the various issues in play – timelines for school reopening last year, mask rules, back to school plans for this year, admissions policies for selective public high schools, school renaming*, “CRT,” and just general board responsiveness to public input, isn’t the point.

Rather, the point is this is happening. This trend (and already some surprising school board members in normally sleepy precincts have lost reelection) is one worth watching. There are recall efforts all over the place. In Virginia where I live, you have recalls in big districts like Fairfax, Loudoun, and Richmond but also smaller school divisions not on the national map. In places like Falls Church that had a divisive debate over school renaming and reopening incumbent board members are just choosing not to run again and frustrated parents are organizing to replace them.

In other words, all these people with various grievances are finding each other and agreeing on just how pissed at the system they are even if they don’t agree on a bunch of other stuff. This will impact superintendents, school operations, and likely provide counter-organizing further bringing national culture wars to local communities.

And it’s a trend that is broader than conservatives or Republicans. Despite some money, in some cases, from various conservative wellsprings it’s a mistake to dismiss this out of hand as just right wing astroturf. The McGurn column talks about San Francisco, for instance. I’m not likening this new coalition of the pissed off to the Trump coalition in 2016 or 2020, there are some key differences in composition. But, like the Trump coalitions, the same tendency among critics to identify some issue and then ascribe it broadly in a monocausal way is taking hold here in the education space. Ample evidence shows some Trump voters were motivated by racism but ample evidence also show’s that’s not true of all Trump voters. In this case, with the coalition of the pissed, it’s the same thing. Some of the “CRT” debate, for instance, is straight up racism. But not all the concerns parents are raising can be put in that bucket.

Parsing what’s happening seems important because this is a growing phenomenon that seems likely, absent a substantial political pivot, to have some staying power this cycle.

*An interesting subsurface aspect here is people who aren’t really upset about the names, per se, but are frustrated with boards prioritizing it when schools were not open for live instruction.

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