Long known as unflashy arbiters of budgets and boundaries, some city and suburban school boards are shedding their stodgy reputation and staking out ardent positions on political and social issues. Skeptics question the utility or appropriateness of those declarations, but some boards view decrying gender and racial inequity as part of their professional duty.
“History is written by the victors, and a lot of times, the individual struggles of folks . . . are not really addressed in the classroom,” said Raaheela Ahmed, a school board member in Prince George’s County. “There’s a responsibility there to make sure our students are successful, and that requires, sometimes, things outside of the traditional.”
Ahmed led the board’s campaign this year to issue a resolution encouraging Prince George’s schools to reflect on “critical issues of social justice” as part of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools.
It was intended, she said, to underscore challenges faced by people of color in the 132,000-
student school system, and to spur conversation rather than have students silently endure difficulties.
“I hope they take away a knowledge that people care,” Ahmed said.
The board last year passed resolutions affirming support for immigrant, Muslim and transgender students. Ahmed said that she is unaware of similar actions taken by previous boards but that she feels the edicts have become necessary in the Trump era.
Mike Ford, an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, said such proclamations are “still the exception and not the rule.” But, he said, they are becoming more common in the country’s urban and suburban schools. That is a notable development, he said, because school boards generally shy away from taking positions on potentially contentious issues.
“There’s kind of a natural hesitancy for them to come out and take a stand,” Ford said.
Thomas Alsbury, a professor at Northwest University in Washington state, said that of the nation’s roughly 13,500 school districts, about 250 are larger, urban school systems where officials have increasingly issued declarations on social issues. And they tend to be in more liberal corners of the nation.
School boards, like the judiciary, were developed as nonpartisan bodies, said Alsbury, an expert on school board governance. So school districts, he said, should be cautious about issuing declarations on matters that may polarize the community or ignite bickering among school board members. That could detract from their primary purpose: ensuring that students are well educated.
“Boards need to be very careful in making these kinds of declarations, lest they link themselves to a particular party,” he said. “School board members represent, within a school district, many different opinions.”
But Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said she views the declarations as an attempt to preserve positive learning environments — not as a matter of favoring liberal or conservative politics.
“These are statements that can easily be interpreted as political, but they are actually an effort, in my view, to carve out the school as a neutral space where students can be accepted as who they are,” Ben-Porath said.
The declarations are mostly symbolic, given that school districts don’t wield much power when it comes to setting immigration policy or other matters dictated by the federal government. But, she said, they represent an admirable attempt by school districts to set a welcoming tone for all students.
“It’s an effort to say, ‘We don’t make immigration policy. We don’t make our own sexual harassment policies, but we’re looking for a way to express our commitment to inclusion, equity,’ ” she said.
For Brian Ricca, superintendent of Montpelier Public Schools, a district of about 1,200 students in the capital of Vermont, teaching students to express themselves meaningfully is an important part of education.
“Gone are the days where teachers are the keepers of content,” Ricca said. “If we only went where it was safe and comfortable, we would never grow.”
A Black Lives Matter flag is flying outside Montpelier High School for Black History Month following a school board vote. It signifies, Ricca said, a “public attempt to recognize that, systemically, our black students, our students of color . . . are having a different educational experience as our white students, and that’s not okay.”
Black students, who constitute about 5 percent of the high school, began highlighting racially insensitive and hurtful remarks they encountered about a year ago. During a class in which students saw a photo of an African American person who was lynched, a white student leaned over to a black classmate and said, “nice necklace,” according to Ricca.
School districts, he said, shouldn’t avoid conversations because they are difficult.
“If we’re not engaging our students in the very thing that we see our leaders struggling to engage in conversation with, we are furthering the problem — we are not becoming part of the solution,” he said.
But not everyone believes it is the role of school boards to bestow support on social causes.
“It’s proclamation making,” said Elizabeth Schultz, a Fairfax County School Board member. “It’s not solution delivering.” The Fairfax panel last year endorsed a county statement supporting diversity and inclusion.
Spending school board time crafting resolutions, she said, distracts from more pressing issues, such as dealing with crumbling school infrastructure or meeting the needs of students with dyslexia.
“I’ve likened this before to a rocking horse,” Schultz said. “You can be rocking back and forth in a rocking horse and that’s a lot of movement, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually going anywhere.”
President Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration mobilized school districts with large immigrant populations last year. Some advised parents concerned about deportation to understand their rights and to consider who might care for a child if a parent is deported. Other districts declared their schools sanctuaries for immigrants, hoping that would keep at bay federal immigration agents who did not have a warrant or permission to enter.
As did other communities, the Minneapolis Board of Education passed a resolution reaffirming educational opportunities for all students regardless of immigration status.
A statement from Superintendent Ed Graff followed in early 2017 and proclaimed that the school district “proudly welcomes diverse children from all over the world, from every religion and from every racial and economic background.”
The missive, Graff said in an interview, offered clarity to families tangled in uncertainty.
“It helped them get a clear understanding of where the district was in support of their children,” Graff said. “They know where we stand.”
In September, Arlington school leaders disavowed Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program , which shielded from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
In a wide-ranging statement issued to parents, students and the community in mid-January, Arlington school board members acknowledged how the #MeToo movement “unveiled the continued problems of gender equality and harassment.”
They also reflected on the “wide array of conversations about immigration, diversity and respect” that unfolded in the early weeks of the year. Board members, who declined to comment further, said in the statement that they were troubled by the messages of intolerance conveyed toward Salvadoran, Haitian and African immigrants. They were dismayed at the lack of progress to protect “dreamers.”
They offered, as a counterpoint to the tenor of recent political debate, the “life, work and aspirations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” whose national holiday was marked the same week.
“We are reminded,” the school board wrote, “about the importance of not measuring individuals or groups of people by their color, gender, religion, disability or nationality but instead by the content of their character.”