The Need for Christian Involvement in Public School Boards
Decisions made by publicly funded school boards are not necessarily something we think about on a regular basis, especially when those decisions do not seem to affect us or our families. Yet, from time to time, those decisions make headlines and raise questions about the role and responsibilities of public school boards. For example, a January 18, 2022 headline read “’No dissent is allowed’: School board bars teacher from raising concerns over transgender books.” This and various other articles have highlighted some concerning details.
At the end of October, the Waterloo Region School Board announced that it was going to review the books in its school libraries and remove any books that they considered “harmful” to students and staff. The board stated that it was a common process to remove and include certain books periodically but would not provide details on their policy or process. The definition of a ‘harmful’ book was not clarified.
One school board trustee reportedly voiced her concerns: “People have a huge connection to literature. Some people are concerned this is going to be a book banning. The concern, from what I’ve been hearing, is the books will just go away and no one will ever know.” The issue for many is that certain books deemed racist, oppressive, or outdated by current cultural standards will be removed and replaced with books that are considered progressive and equitable.
In January, the Waterloo School Board was meeting once again, and a local teacher was presenting to the group. She raised important concerns about the books children are being exposed to in school. Specifically, she mentioned books with sexual content that is not age-appropriate for children and those that make it seem ‘cool’ for children to medically transition from one gender to another. In her presentation she stated that these books would be misleading for children, failing to help them understand the significant consequences of something like medical transition.
Just a few minutes into the presentation, the chair of the school board cut off the teacher’s presentation citing concerns that it violated the Ontario human rights code and discriminated against transgender people. The board determined that she could not continue the presentation by a vote of 5-4. Further, she was told not to communicate with her colleagues or students and was being investigated for her actions. Part of the board meeting can be viewed here.
The teacher in this case was cut off for raising legitimate questions about how attitudes toward sexuality and gender transition affect children – something that multiple experts throughout the world have also expressed concern about.
At the same time, it raises questions about the role of school boards, and how and why Christians can be more engaged in these conversations.
What Does a School Board Do?
At a basic level, school board trustees represent the families that the school board serves. These trustees are elected during municipal elections, but often get little attention compared to those running for mayor or councillor.
It can be confusing to determine whether an issue falls under the jurisdiction of the province or the local school board. In Ontario, for example, a constituent would call their Member of Provincial Parliament to express concerns about the provincially implemented sex-ed curriculum, about teacher’s strikes, or about requirements for teacher training in the province. School board trustees, meanwhile, work to apply provincial directives and policy to local schools, interacting with the Ministry of Education and with local parents and families. School board trustees also set vision and goals for individual schools, and are held accountable as the governing body of local schools to both the government and the constituents in their community. This means that parents can talk to their trustees about specific school-related problems such as how their child is treated, or what their child is learning.
Why Should We Be Involved?
A common, easy response to issues in public school boards is to avoid interaction with our school board trustees. After all, many Reformed Christians send their children to private Christian schools, so the decisions of public school boards do not affect us, right? While board decisions may not affect us directly, they do so indirectly for three primary reasons.
First, school boards influence and interact with provincial education policy. For example, in British Columbia in 2018, various trustee candidates ran on platforms that opposed the Ministry of Education’s requirement that schools include references to sexual orientation and gender identity in school anti-bullying policies. Ultimately, the policy decision was made by the government, but local school boards could still either support or push back against such a policy and determine how it would be implemented locally.
Secondly, in light of the above, how school boards apply provincial policy and implement their own policies has a broader impact on our society. Take the example of literature in the Waterloo school board. Literature can have a direct impact on how we think about an issue, whether or not we realize that impact. Children are even more susceptible to this influence. If a child reads about gender transition being ‘cool,’ this will raise questions in his mind and affect the way he thinks about it. It’s not just about one book, but about the philosophy and worldview which the public schools promote to the next generation.
Finally, when talking about education, we often consider the parents’ role. Part of the trustee’s role is to communicate with parents and to help provide transparency for school board policies and decisions. In the Waterloo school board, part of the concern was around the fact that the removal of books was not clarified to the public, and the details of the meeting with the teacher presentation were not clarified.
One trustee election guide explains that “A school board is not interested only in the opinions of families with children. A school board must recognize that all of society has a stake in public education.” Whether we like it or not, we pay taxes into the public school system, and we have a right and a duty to voice our concerns about that system. Out of love for our neighbour, we also have a calling to be concerned with the worldview and ideologies taught to the youth of our nation.
Ultimately, even if we do not utilize the public education system, we should be concerned about the quality and content of that education. When we have concerns about specific situations or policies, we can express those concerns to local trustees. Another option is to consider running for trustee yourself. If you pay taxes to the board, live within the board’s jurisdiction, and can legally vote, you can run for the position and have the opportunity to impact school developments more directly. The children in our local schools are our kids’ future colleagues, neighbours, and fellow voters. We should care deeply about what they are being taught.