I was serving as chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB), which authorizes and oversees the scores of charter schools in the nation’s capital. At the time it had seven unpaid members, appointed by the mayor. And among the most challenging of our roles was ensuring academic accountability, by closing persistently underperforming schools.
School closures are always difficult, disruptive by nature. And no matter how dismal a school’s performance, many parents and students fight ferociously to keep their schools open. The parents who came out that night were mostly working people, primarily Black and brown. Facing the loss of a community, uncertainty about the safety of their kids, insecurity about what lay ahead given a dearth of quality alternatives, they let us know, loud and clear, that they would do whatever they could to get the members of the PCSB to change our minds.
I’ve been reminded of that night as reports of escalating hostility and threats of violence at school board meetings across the nation — stemming from fights over masking policies and school curriculums — have recently made headlines. I thought of those parents after the National School Boards Association addressed a letter to President Biden requesting assistance from federal law enforcement in investigating threats, and after Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the FBI would coordinate with local leaders and law enforcement to address a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.”
Violence or the imminent threat of it, we can all agree, is beyond the pale. But I worry about the Justice Department’s actions seeming to imply that angry, even disruptive and intimidating parents should be silenced.
As the Justice Department proceeds, I would urge it to do so carefully. For it is also important that our civic institutions and the public servants who lead them model respect for the freedoms of assembly and expression that define us as Americans.
In an opinion written nearly 100 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis set forth the contours of these freedoms. Our founders believed that “freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; … that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people,” Brandeis wrote.
“Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion,” he added, the founders “eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form.”
The freedoms of speech and assembly place at their center a vocal citizenry. In my years of public service, I frequently saw that kind of energized, often well-organized argument: as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, handling contentious judicial nominations; as counsel to California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) during implementation of a controversial statewide testing program; and as chief legal officer of the U.S. Education Department during implementation of the George W. Bush administration’s rollout of the contentious No Child Left Behind law.
In every instance, these efforts were met with vehement, often less than civil dissent. But none of the other forces of opposition matched the ferocity of parents, at the local level, fearing for their children’s futures.
Those furious parents changed my perspective.
I initially came to the PCSB with a philosophical zeal for the idea that choice in education was the answer to what ailed our urban public schools. The relentlessness and disruptiveness of distressed parents taught me that choice is only part of the solution.
It’s no exaggeration to say their outrage made me a better public servant. They unmoored me from my ideology. I still believe in education choice, but I appreciate better that not all parents prioritize the same things. I understand more strongly the value of transparency. I have a more acute sense of the importance of engaging, and educating, stakeholders.
I learned these lessons from parents willing to engage our board, sometimes stridently, often quite personally — and, yes, even disruptively. So a word of caution to those who would blithely cast angry parents as a threat, or the act of disrupting open public meetings as domestic terrorism. In the vast territory of civic anger and frustration lies the opportunity for growth and enlightenment, and better decision-making among public servants willing to listen.