Home » Religious Right Takes Over South Carolina School Board

Religious Right Takes Over South Carolina School Board

Now, after two years of “Critical Race Theory” and “LGBTQ grooming” hysteria accompanied by threats from Proud Boys and other extremists, we finally are getting to see what the American public education system is going to look like after our local school boards are taken over by MAGA conspiracists and far-right ideologues. And what it looks like is an overt attempt to utterly dismantle public schools so they can be displaced by private operations.

The newly elected board supermajority in Berkeley County, South Carolina—dominated by trustees affiliated with the far-right Moms for Liberty organization as candidates—met for the first time on Wednesday night and promptly fired the school district’s first Black superintendent and its Black staff attorney, prompting the teachers gathered in the meeting room to walk out en masse. The board—which had earlier heard concerns about the massive teacher shortage the district currently faces—clearly was pleased with that response. It appeared that was what they had hoped for.

The board’s new supermajority didn’t waste any time after being sworn in to begin ransacking the ailing school district, the state’s fourth largest, which began the school year in late August short of 120 teachers, a product of a 39% increase in teacher vacancies statewide. First, it fired the district’s in-house legal counsel, Dr. Tiffany Richardson, a Black woman, and replaced her services with those provided by a local lawyer who charges the district $350 hourly.

Then, it shoved the district’s first Black superintendent, Deon Jackson, summarily out the door with no public justification. After the 6-3 vote was finalized, Jackson got out of his seat and left the room—and the audience that had packed the meeting room, comprised largely of teachers, got up and walked out with him.

Former board chair David Barrow asked Mac McQuillin, his replacement, to explain the terminations.

“I’m not going to discuss personnel matters,” McQuillin snapped.

Board member Yvonne Bradley—one of three to vote against the firings—told the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are being fooled by these six. Unbelievable—what the chairman would do. It is so unbelievable how this is going.”

Before the votes occurred, the board had heard a plea from one of the district’s teachers to pay attention to the massive problem the district has attracting and retaining teachers. “We are in a teacher shortage—140 teacher openings right now in Berkeley County,” she said. “Many high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools are missing science, math, and English teachers.” It appeared to have no effect on the board, however, which had no discussions of the issue, since it was focused on removing two key African Americans, both highly regarded by teachers and staff, from the district’s administration.

Former School District Representative Kirstin Bogard told WCIV-TV that she would not be surprised if there was a mass exodus of teachers after the dismissals. “I can tell you social media is already rumbling, and they’re rumbling with these teachers and I am afraid for what is to come in the next 48 hours,” Bogard said, adding that many of the district’s parents were happy with Jackson.

“He cared, he cared about our kids. He cared about our employees and he cared about all our buildings and what was going on in within. He was there every single day. He was there every single day inside those buildings. Being a part of it, hands on, he didn’t just sit in an office. That’s not what Deon Jackson did,” Bogard said.

“What we witnessed last night was more like vandalism than leadership,” wrote local journalist Paul Bowers.

Later in the meeting, after most of the people in the room had departed, the board moved to ban teaching critical race theory “in any form,” but eventually held off after Barrow pushed back. He asked McQuillin if he could define critical race theory; McQuillin promptly trotted out a bogus definition provided by the far-right Goldwater Institute and read it aloud:

Critical Race Theory is a perspective on modern life—a worldview—that believes all the events and ideas around us in politics, education, entertainment and the media, the workplace, and beyond must be explained in terms of racial identities.

Under Critical Race Theory, every policy idea, election, textbook, movie, news report, work environment, and local concern cannot be judged according to effectiveness, quality, or accuracy but according to whether minority individuals and issues are afforded more influence in everyday life. Even George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the U.S. Constitution itself are subject to being canceled out of American culture—such as being removed from the names of public schools—for failing to live up to the standards set under Critical Race Theory.

Of course, this has literally nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, which in fact is not a “perspective” but an academic framework based on the idea—one well-grounded in factual history—that racial discrimination and inequality are built into the American systems of law and governance as well as its culture. It says nothing about “canceling” or “judging” people, and is agnostic about affording minorities “more influence.” Moreover, even if the district uses this fake definition, banning its teaching would still be a naked violation of the free-speech protections provided by the First Amendment.

But we have known for some time that the CRT hysteria is fundamentally irrational, a function of the right’s longstanding need to fabricate enemies.  Most of all, it’s just one of an array of weapons used by the antidemocratic far right to displace American democratic institutions—including public education.

The Moms for Liberty Facebook account boasted about the damage their endorsees had inflicted: “6 new board members clean house first night on the job.”

Based in Florida, Moms for Liberty has risen to the forefront of the far-right agenda to undermine public education by making hysterical attacks on teachers and administrators in the guise of concern about CRT and “grooming.” As Mother Jones’ Kiera Butler explained in a recent profile:

“Parents’ rights” is Moms for Liberty’s rallying cry. But they don’t mean every right. They’re decidedly unconcerned about a parent’s right to ensure that their gender nonconforming child is safe at school, for instance, or that their immunocompromised child is protected from Covid. Rather, the Moms who are for Liberty have mobilized around parental concerns that are decidedly conservative. They want to excise lessons on systemic racism, LGBTQ-friendly books, accommodations for transgender students, and Covid mitigations like vaccine and mask mandates. They want to defend the Second Amendment rights that have allowed school shooters to obtain weapons.

The organization works hard to present a normative face to the public, but its innate conspiracist extremism means that the far-right nature of their activism quickly emerges. Typically, it organizes gatherings under the guise of opposing “pornography in schools” or the “harmful effects of CRT.” But people who join up are quickly immersed in an alternative universe where members downplay the significance of the Jan. 6 insurrection and call its perpetrators “political prisoners,” where organizers accuse the “mainstream media” of assisting Nazis during the Holocaust, or where “Biden’s open borders” were the cause of the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas. It becomes clearer when supporters show up for board meetings carrying a yellow Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me” banner.

“I’m not worried about someone grooming my son to be a drag queen,” a mother in North Carolina told Mother Jones. “I’m worried about someone grooming my son to be a white nationalist.”

Moms for Liberty’s far-right orientation was made apparent when members of the organization began making appeals to far-right “constitutional” sheriffs to begin arresting librarians for them. In Florida, the sheriff of Indian County assigned a deputy to investigate a complaint filed against a local library for carrying books—she listed 150 of them—she deemed unacceptable: “ALL of the books currently in the libraries that have sex, rape, drugs etc etc in them that need to be removed immediately so they don’t get into the hands of anymore students in our district,” she wrote. Among them were books like The Kite Runner, Beloved, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Hate You Give, How to be an Antiracist, and the children’s book Draw Me a Star by Eric Carle., as well as another children’s book about baseball in Japanese-American internment camps (which, like a number of the books on the list, has no references to sexuality whatsoever).

The deputy assigned to the case ultimately determined that “no crime was committed.” But the message had been sent, including in a letter from the sheriff to the librarian in which he explained that “the totality of the circumstances do not allow us to make an arrest in this case,” but added, “We do not feel that this content is appropriate for young children even though it does not rise to the level of a crime.” He recommended “stricter oversight” for children’s books.

Moms for Liberty had reason to celebrate this week. Newsweek (in an unapologetically enthusiastic story) reported that some 61% of their 67 endorsed Florida candidates won. Elsewhere, the group expects roughly half of its 200-plus endorsed candidates would win election. Prior to last week’s victories, Moms for Liberty candidates had already won 105 school board races.

The outcome of the Berkeley County takeover, however, strongly points to a broader agenda goal of the so-called “parents’ rights” movement. “If you listen carefully,” writes Butler, “you may hear hints of a far more radical goal: getting rid of public schools altogether.” If the Berkeley County board succeeds in driving away so many teachers that the district can no longer function, that’s an ideal outcome for their purposes:

They talk openly about “school choice,” the education trend popularized by former US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose tenure was marked by her crusade to funnel public funds into private religious schools. During one session, after a presenter had detailed the myriad ways in which public schools were indoctrinating students with dangerous ideas, a frazzled attendee asked, “How do we stop it? How do we stop this from going through our schools when they lie to our face?” The presenter sighed. “My answer is always to leave,” she said. “The only way you stop it is leaving.”

Certainly, their first goal—to drive ordinary people away from the democratic process out of fear of having to deal with the extremists’ vicious and frequently threatening behavior. Paulina Testerman, who formed an organization in Florida called Support Our Schools to counter Moms For Liberty, told NBC News her group has had difficulty recruiting school board candidates of its own. Most of the rejections, she said, are due to well-grounded fears that they will be swept into the center of hostile board meetings, facing down groups like Moms for Liberty and the Proud Boys.

“So what’s happening is these people are winning,” she said. “They’re chasing off great candidates because of the chaos they are creating.”

Republished with permission from Daily Kos.


November 2022