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America’s educational culture wars hit San Ramon Valley Unified

America’s educational culture wars hit San Ramon Valley Unified

A school board meeting in Danville was packed Tuesday night, with grim faces and waving pride flags spilling from the meeting’s doors. Dozens of parents, students and community members packed the building, with dozens more crowded outside.

But the attendees weren’t there for a common cause. They were just the latest to be split by America’s educational culture war, one that has seized school board meetings and stoked divisions nationwide.

“Parents are not the issue here. Fear and hatred are the issue,” said Alan Manewitz, speaking at the school board meeting’s public comment period. “We need to learn, just like we learned as children, that there aren’t any monsters under the bed.”

Tuesday’s fire was ignited by the arrival of — and response to — Moms for Liberty, a conservative education group grounded in parent’s rights. In the two years since the group was founded, it has pushed against nearly every educational pressure point, from public health mandates in schools, to book banning, to lessons on race and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom. And now, their influence has spread to Contra Costa County.

Earlier this summer, Moms for Liberty encouraged community members to rally against LGBTQ+ programming at the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. And in the board meeting on Tuesday night, it was clear that parents, teachers and others had listened — on both sides of the aisle.

“It may be too late for California, but many people here have come to do their best to support parents and children who do not want to go down this road of insanity,” said Marlane Huttaker, speaking during the public comment period.

Community members and supporters of the LBGTQ+ everything gather outside the San Ramon Valley School Unified School District Education Center during a board of education meeting in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

As debates on pandemic-era safety measures swept the country, so too did Moms for Liberty. Two years after its inception in Florida, 300 chapters have sprung up in 45 states nationwide. In the years since, the group has gathered headlines — whether it be after pushing to abolish the country’s department of education, or after using a quote from Adolf Hitler in a community newsletter.

There are now 14 chapters in California, with Bay Area groups in not just Contra Costa, but Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The Contra Costa group seems to be the youngest — and over the last few months, very active.

Earlier this summer, a Moms for Liberty poster began circulating on social media with the headline Support School Reform & Stop the Sexualization of Kids. It listed several LGBTQ+ programs implemented by the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, such as “secret” LGBTQ+ alliance clubs, the expansion of curriculum to include LGBTQ+ education, and gender transition counseling on school grounds.

Though the LGBTQ+ clubs do exist across the district, San Ramon Valley Unified spokesperson Ilana Israel Samuels said they are part of “broader effort to ensure that historically marginalized communities felt represented,” along with the Jewish Student Union, the Black Student Union, and others. The district does not provide gender transition counseling, Samuels said, nor does it have an expanded curriculum for LGBTQ+ education.

Still, another leaflet made its way through the community over the summer, one that singled out an elementary school principal for her role in advocating for such programming. It also outed the principal’s child’s gender identity, and encouraged the community to “stop the agenda” through a district-wide walkout on August 15.

Emilia Briton, left, and her daughter Morgan Briton-Lake, 9, of San Ramon, register to speak during a board of education meeting at the San Ramon Valley School Unified School District Education Center in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. Community members and supporters of the LBGTQ+ and Moms for Liberty attended the meting. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A person holds up a poster during a board of education meeting at the San Ramon Valley School Unified School District Education Center in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. Community members and supporters of the LBGTQ+ and Moms for Liberty attended the meting.  (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Zailey Fogelman, of San Ramon, speaks during a board of education meeting at the San Ramon Valley School Unified School District Education Center in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. Community members and supporters of the LBGTQ+ and Moms for Liberty attended the meting. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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Neither the Moms for Liberty national or Contra Costa County chapters responded to repeated requests for comment on these fliers or their hopes for changing the district. But in the weeks that followed the release of the social media posts and leaflets, comments poured into the district’s parent Facebook group, with many referencing the Southern Poverty Law Center’s classification of Moms for Liberty as an extremist, anti-government group last year.

Despite the digital pushback, as of mid-August, the Contra Costa Moms for Liberty Facebook group had a member count of nearly 1,000 — along with 120,000 members nationwide, according to the group’s website.

In just two years, the group has earned the admiration of the right’s most prominent politicians, with former president Donald Trump calling Moms for Liberty “the best thing that’s ever happened to America” earlier this summer. It’s also gained a substantial amount of influence, endorsing politicians and backing school board members across the country.

In 2022, Moms for Liberty endorsed 500 local school board candidates, including 49 in California alone. Of the nine endorsed candidates in Santa Clara County, only Franklin-McKinley Unified’s Marc Cooper won his seat. Still, across the nation, more than half of the candidates Moms for Liberty endorsed won their races. Seventeen school boards flipped to a “parent rights” majority, the term Moms for Liberty uses to describe those against “woke indoctrination.”

“They’ve been able to leverage their relationships with politicians, media personnel, and extremist groups that they’re in connection with to put them in influential places,” said Maya Henson Carey, a research analyst tracking Moms for Liberty at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They really are a reactionary minority, but they’ve now been put in a place where they can make these sweeping changes for the majority of people and students, even when the majority doesn’t hold their views.”

But Moms for Liberty is not alone. The group is at the helm of a larger trend affecting school districts nationwide — and over the past two years, 147 “parental rights” bills were introduced in state legislatures, according to a legal tracker by education think tank FutureEd.

Ace Christman, of San Ramon and community member of LBGTQ+, speaks during a board of education meeting at the San Ramon Valley School Unified School District Education Center in Danville, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

On the other hand, those on the other side of the aisle have introduced a multitude of bills of their own. After a school district in Southern California dissolved a social studies curriculum that mentioned LGBTQ+ icon Harvey Milk, a bill was introduced to require a two-thirds vote for a school board to remove any instructional material. Another California bill would require school staff to be trained on supporting LGBTQ+ students, and develop policies to protect the privacy of those students.

Multiple individuals echoed their concerns about elementary school children being involved in LGBTQ+ initiatives, and still others questioned the district’s involvement in topics of sexuality and gender — especially at a young age. One speaker accused San Ramon Valley Unified of pushing “pornography, wokeness, and LGBT ideology” on students; still others slammed those speakers for closing the door on the district’s LGBTQ+ students.

“I hear ignorant adults telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about my own feelings. And it really sucks to be told that I’m not smart enough to know about my own sexuality,” said a student, speaking at the school board meeting.

That back-and-forth is not uncommon. Increasingly, school board meetings — which have traditionally been home to dull stretches of speakers and presentations — have become the outlet for these debates. In an analysis of school board meetings from May of 2021 to November of 2022, non-profit newsroom ProPublica found nearly 60 incidents at school board meetings that led to arrests or criminal charges, many of them revolving around fights over mask mandates, diversity and inclusion efforts, and books with LGBTQ+ content.

“There was a time when many people weren’t paying attention to school board elections,” said Carey. “And that’s where (Moms for Liberty) intentionally made an avenue for themselves. I think that’s concerning.”