The COVID-19 pandemic’s shuttering of classrooms in March 2020 triggered a sea change in the nationwide debate over the direction of public schools.
That debate has only flourished since, even after many schools that had long been closed to in-person instruction reopened, with reports showing parents flocking to local school board meetings to weigh in on operational and curriculum-related decisions.
Building Education for Students Together is vying to capitalize on that momentum. The grassroots education reform organization launched its BEST Academy in January aiming to increase parental involvement in their children’s districts by teaching them how to run successful campaigns for local school boards.
“We can have all these special interest groups, we can have all these nonprofits and these policy experts that know what needs to be done, but until we really engage our parents, we’re just going to keep spinning our wheels,” Laura Zorc, BEST’s executive director, told the Washington Examiner.
The academy provides a six-week training program for prospective school board candidates, with course materials covering topics such as school district organization and campaign operations.
Zorc, herself a former local school board member in Florida and a parent of three school-aged children, got her start in education activism in 2013, when she began advocating against the adoption of Common Core standards.
“I would go to my school board meetings and speak out against it. I wasn’t getting a reply. It was the traditional three minutes, and they sat there, and then they would say, ‘Next,’ to the next person,” Zorc said.
Zorc emphasized the importance of parents recognizing that most decisions affecting public school students are made locally. Pandemic school closures were a spark that kindled this interest among parents in having a say, she said, adding that BEST’s initiatives were necessary to fill the gaps in the national educational reform movement.
“Nobody is focusing the attention on empowering, educating, and getting our parents engaged because they’re the ones that need to be really transforming the system,” she said. “We’re trying to empower parents to know that it’s your job, it’s your roles and responsibilities of a parent to get to those school board meetings, and, and listen to the decisions they’re making for your kids.”
“These school districts, these school systems, they all say they want parental involvement, they want parents to be engaged,” she added. “They have these state initiatives about parent engagement, but they really don’t want parents being engaged because once parents get engaged, they want to push them back.”
Beyond affecting pandemic-related decisions, one of the issues BEST is organizing against is the teaching of critical race theory and associated equity concepts, such as white privilege, in schools.
“It’s very frustrating for parents because when they go to the school boards and they try to tell their administrators this is being taught … the administrators say, ‘Oh, we don’t have critical race theory,'” Zorc said.
Zorc, citing conversations with sitting school board members, suggested that the presence of those materials in curricula and teacher trainings in some districts began as good faith efforts to be more diverse and inclusive, but that the content of the conversation evolved after George Floyd was killed and associated protests ensued.
“When a school district hires a contractor to come in and look at how can we be more inclusive, more equitable, that was not on their radar that that was that underlining intent,” Zorc said.
“They thought that they were being good school board members and being inclusive and trying to understand our local community,” she added.
Nearly 60 candidates located in states across the country have enrolled in the BEST Academy program so far, and organizers hope to have 100 running by 2021’s end to champion these issues.
Terry Clark of Lakeland, Florida, is one of BEST Academy’s enrollees and plans to launch his campaign in September for school board in Polk County, where his grandchildren go to school.
Clark ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2017 and hadn’t planned on giving the school board another go, but he said the environment is different this time.
“We didn’t have support groups like this before,” said Clark, who added that he ran more or less “out of the dark” with his first campaign.
He said he plans to emphasize an educational priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican, and push for improved civics and social studies education, the necessity of which Clark said was made clear in the past year.
“If there’s one good thing that’s come out of COVID, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the parents have been able to see what’s being taught and what’s not being taught.”