The National School Boards Association PR Disaster, and Why it Happened

On October 11 and 12, Parents Defending Education (PDE) filed public records requests with the leadership of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) asking for emails related to a NSBA letter to President Joseph Biden. The September 29 letter warned the president of the “immediate threat” posed to school boards by parents protesting, among other issues, critical race theory (CRT), hypersexualized literature, and the general icing-out of parents from educational decisions affecting their children. 

Purporting to represent the NSBA, President Viola M. Garcia and CEO Chip Slaven requested federal law enforcement intervention. The danger, they wrote, was dire: “As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” The letter then cited specific instances of disrupted school board meetings.

As a direct result of this letter, Attorney General Merrick Garland publicly called on the FBI to investigate local threats against school boards. He continues to defend and clarify this mobilization.

PDE’s records request revealed, however, that Gracia and Slaven failed to consult their membership prior to sending President Biden their letter.

Within 2 weeks, the backlash against the NSBA leadership was palpable. School Boards associations from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri ended their membership with the NSBA.

On Friday, October 22, the NSBA issued a public apology for their initial letter, saying, “[T]he safety of school board members, other public school officials and educators, and students is our top priority, and there remain important work to be done on this issue. However, there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance.”  A formal review is underway of those processes.

While a formal review is, of course, the correct next step in addressing this PR catastrophe, it will be unlikely to effect any real reforms at the NSBA. 

The initial letter to the president of the United States was the product of many failures, not least of which is the Victorian bourgeois, we-know-better self-congratulation of the upper echelons of public education administration. Like the generals sipping their champagne aboard the HMS Queen during Gallipoli, Garcia and Slaven were so comfortably confirmed in their own correctness that — in the moment — they saw nothing wrong with sending a letter to the President of the United States, representing the entire nation of school boards, calling local disruptions “terrorism.”

Every instance of violent threats cited in Garcia’s and Slaven’s letter also includes accounts of local law enforcement addressing those threats. For national leadership to then call in the FBI and for the attorney general to agree reflects a paternalistic view of the public they purport to serve.

The NSBA’s formal review will predictably institute more levels of bureaucratic checks and balances, which will require future presidents and CEO’s to send drafts of letters to a committee representing. It will not and cannot, however, force an examination of conscience for national leadership. 

When she faced objections of her board members, Viola Garcia sent an email on October 2  defending her unilateral decision to call in the president. She expresses regret that she did not have time to consult the rest of the NSBA, but explained that, “these disruptions are interfering with the REAL [sic] issues facing school boards ensuring we have enough good teachers for all students; serving students with disabilities; and making sure all kids have access to the internet in their homes.”

Yes, Dr. Garcia, those are real issues. But no school board can address those issues without the good will of parents, whose priorities matter and whose concern for their children is real. School boards work for parents, who raise the children, and you merely serve the school boards. If you really believed that, you would never have sent that letter. 

To address our current crisis in education, school administration, parents, and teachers would do better to distance themselves from federal and national institutions. Until that leadership reclaims the ethos of public service, and rejects the ethos of public management, there will be no peace in our public square.

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