School board elections have consequences.
The Bucks County League of Women Voters hosted a webinar Tuesday about two potential and burgeoning consequences in Bucks County schools: censorship and book banning.
The LWV’s goal was to educate members about censorship but the event was open to everyone. LWV Bucks County, Education Voters PA and the Education Law Center organized and hosted the webinar. Speakers included activists Susan Spicka, Ashli Giles-Perkins and Amy McGahran.
240 people registered for the event, said Susan Boser, director of social policy at the Indiana County LWV branch.
Spicka, the executive director at Education Voters PA, spoke about upcoming school board elections.
“Pennsylvania has become an increasingly large focus point for extremists who have found that by targeting school boards they are able to impose a political agenda on to a lot of people,” Spicka said.
499 school districts have elections in 2023 and boards have “enormous” power and can do almost anything as long as five of nine members vote together, Spicka said.
Pennsylvania’s school board elections are on November 7.
Outsiders pour lots of money into local school board races to get their candidates elected, Spicka said. If someone notices outsiders are supporting candidates, it’s important to research the funders and determine their agenda.
“When you are driving through your town and you see a yard sign for a candidate, take a second and see who it’s paid for by,” Spicka said.
Giles-Perkins, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, explained what school boards do and different policies in place to ensure transparency.
School boards can approve new classes, like African American history, but must comply with state learning standards, she said.
Schools also have to respect individuals first amendment rights and academic freedom is protected under Keyishian v. Board of Regents Supreme Court case, Giles-Perkins added. Keyishian v. Board of Regents holds that teachers are allowed to be communists and that academic freedom is protected under the first amendment.
There was a rise in book banning cases in the 1980s, mid 1990s and early 2000s and again now, Giles-Perkins said.
Giles-Perkins shared the Education Law Center’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh phone numbers and a back-to-school guide for anyone who wanted extra information or needed help.
Amy McGahran was the third and final speaker. She recapped how the situation in Central Bucks School District became the way it is now, including reading aloud from a transcript of The School Board Wars, an exposé from the New York Times’s podcast The Daily.
Much has happened since the Times’s 2021 report.
Central Bucks allegedly retaliated against teacher Andrew Burgess for helping a transgender student file a federal civil rights complaint, instituted a new library policy that some see as bolstering book bans and introduced policy 123.3, which will discriminate against transgender students in sports, McGahran said.
As of this September, there have been 70 challenges to books in Central Bucks and two books have been removed. Each book review costs a thousand dollars, McGahran added.
McGahran encouraged attendees to vote in the upcoming election, to encourage their friends and family to vote as well and stay informed about candidates using vote411, an educational resource run by the LWV.
Boser likewise encouraged attendees to get informed about school board candidates.
“Be wary about people who have not submitted any information to the website or chose not to respond to the question about diversity and curriculum development,” she said.
Boser also urged attendees to spread information however possible, including speaking out at school board meetings, writing Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor in local newspapers and posting about politics on social media like TikTok.
After Boser and the speakers finished talking, there was a Q&A session. Attendees asking clarifying questions about how school boards work and the laws surrounding them.
Spicka shared one last resource before the Q&A started. Pennsylvanians for Inclusive and Welcoming Schools is a statewide coalition of activist groups which has information and resources from all the coalition members in one place, she said.
“My fear is that there will be many many school boards facing these issues as soon as we hit January,” Spicka said.