Want to keep a secular democracy? Speak up at school board meetings

On March 9th, 2023, at a routine Peoria Unified School District (PUSD) board meeting, a flock of parents showed up, wearing shirts with phrases like “protect our children.” Throughout the meeting, parents hurled insults at the board, superintendent, and administration, violating the public comment code of conduct.

One parent was livid, claiming that a teacher was caught using school email to “push her pronouns” and to recognize transgender day “secretly” without notifying parents and the community. The parent wanted the teacher, who they called out by name, fired for this evidently unconscionable action.

Long-time PUSD teachers were shocked by the behavior, as there is a formal process for filing human resource complaints. Outing LGBTQ+ staff, students, and faculty places them in dangerous positions for their safety.

School boards have become fertile grounds for bigoted speech to rage unchecked and unchallenged. It’s part of a decades-long strategy of the Christian nationalist movement to exert greater control over school curricula, and to impose their values on public education platforms.

On the same day as the PUSD meeting, protests erupted after the Washington School District board voted 5-0 to not renew their contract with the Arizona Christian University as a legal matter regarding secular public schools and to protect their LGBTQ+ students.

In Arizona, Governor Ducey passed the nation’s most comprehensive private school voucher law: parents of more than 1.2 million school-age children get 90 percent of the state money that would otherwise go to their local public school and use it to cover costs for private school.

Despite the option to use these vouchers to fund private, religiously affiliated education, these parents—many of whom are out of district—are nevertheless highly motivated to realize their sectarian vision in public schools, too. In fact, PUSD governing board member Rebecca Hill is a home school parent.

The agenda item drawing a majority of the crowd concerned bathroom rights for transgender students. Parents rose to the platform, contending that their daughters will be sexually assaulted if transgender students were able to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Others were more explicit in their dismissal of transgender identities: “it doesn’t matter if they feel like a girl, they will never, ever be one!”

Attending the PUSD was a profound education. It revealed, plainly, that there is an outspoken minority with a vested interest in overturning social progress not just for their students but also for all public school students—in accordance with their narrow values. Concerningly, had I not chosen to speak up for the transgender students, there would have but two public comments at the meeting defending our most vulnerable community.

The state of American democracy is fragile, making liberal education more important than ever. For the liberal arts is the art of liberty: it educates students how to be free, and most importantly, how to be active and informed citizens. Pluralistic democracies cannot function without the guiding hand of thoughtful, open-minded individuals. Public schools at its best enriches the lives of communities by intermixing people of different backgrounds and teaching them to coexist peacefully.

School board meetings should represent the voices of the most enlightened members of the community, those most committed to the virtues of public education. If all students and teachers see at board meetings is parents making threats, spewing hate, and imposing sectarian religious ideologies, what message does that send to them? What message does it send to our LGBTQ+ students, our first-generation students, our low-income students, our BIPOC students?

To protect secular democracy, and the separation of church and state in public education, please show up to school board meetings—and not just show up, but take a stand at the podium and address the governing board, who make decisions that impact the future of our country.

Public schools are the heart of American democracy. We have a civic responsibility to show up in our communities and proclaim, through our speech and our vote, that in order for the next generation of leaders to shape tomorrow, we must show up for them today.

  • Sami Al-Asady