California legislators finished the 2022–23 legislative session last week and passed hundreds of bills, many of which await Gavin Newsom’s signature. Several of those bills, all of which passed along party-line voting, show that state Democratic lawmakers simply do not trust parents when it comes to their children’s public schools.
Senate Bill 596 threatens individuals with criminal prosecution if they speak out against school policies. If signed into law, it would be extremely damaging, both for abridging First Amendment rights and for its remarkably vague language, which states that an individual can be arrested for “materially disrupting a school board meeting” or if their communication “serves no legitimate purpose” and “seriously alarms” a school board member or employee. The lack of definitions in this bill also curbs Fifth Amendment rights, as the Fifth Amendment requires that individuals understand the specific nature of criminal conduct to protect them from arbitrary enforcement of laws.
California has many laws protecting individuals from harassment, stalking, and being threatened, and there are already tools in place to prevent school board meetings from becoming disrupted. This bill is not about reasonable protection; rather, it is about protecting schools that do not wish to be held accountable to parents and other community stakeholders, and it is about intimidating parents with the threat of prosecution should they disagree with the choices being made at their children’s schools.
Parents have much to disagree with. Roughly 75 percent of California schoolchildren lack proficiency in math or reading, despite a $128 billion education budget that exceeds the entire budgets of all states other than New York and Texas. If Newsom signs this bill, we will be living in a state in which triggering a school board member or employee can be a crime.
Assembly Bill 1078 would significantly reduce school curricular choice at the local level by requiring school boards to receive approval from California’s State Board of Education before removing any instructional materials or books from classrooms or school libraries or “ceasing to teach any curriculum.” The context surrounding this bill was a battle between the state and the school board in Temecula, California, which chose not to use a social studies textbook because it included a discussion of former San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician.
Temecula’s school board objected to the book because of Milk’s relationship with a 16-year-old male. After the board’s rejection of the textbook, the state’s education department opened an investigation into Temecula’s school board and Governor Gavin Newsom threatened to fine the school district $1.5 million unless they caved. State law requires that schools provide a curriculum that portrays the cultural and racial diversity of California and the contributions of minority men and women, but it does not require teaching about any specific individual. So it appears that Temecula was within its rights to reject the textbook in question, provided it chose an alternative text that aligned with existing law.
The school board ultimately did capitulate, given their limited resources to fight the state. AB 1078 will almost certainly be signed by Newsom to prevent any more Temeculas from developing. AB 1078 is an about-face to former governor Jerry Brown’s approach, which gave school districts significant autonomy based on the presumption that local districts know best how to serve the students within their communities.
The bill’s author, assemblyman Corey Jackson, says the bill is needed to halt the influence of rising White Christian nationalism, based on what happened in Temecula: “It is disheartening to witness the rise of white Christian nationalist extremism, which seeks to erase the invaluable contributions and narratives of marginalized communities.”
As far as I am aware, Mr. Jackson doesn’t know any of those serving on the Temecula school board, so it seems to be an enormous stretch to call them “white Christian nationalist extremists.” But these four words are remarkably effective when it comes to selling a bill to one’s constituents and colleagues in the legislature.
Jackson elaborated on his views regarding local school control: “I know my history too well to have faith in local control,” Jackson said. “If a school district discriminates against students, puts politics ahead of education, I honestly don’t have any limits when it comes to limiting local control. . . . Once you start creating a climate that is not welcoming to all students you’re mandated to serve, districts need to know: We are coming for you.”
Ironically, Mr. Jackson’s concerns about the negative impact of politics on education, and the need to be welcoming to all students, are the exact concerns of many parents who worry that their children are being exposed to material, particularly sexually explicit material, that they view as unsafe.
Taken together SB 596 and AB 1078, both of which were authored by politicians who receive considerable support from teachers’ unions, will squelch the voices of parents within California schools. California faces enormous problems in its public K–12 education system, including the failure to adequately train 75 percent of students, a 30 percent chronic absenteeism rate, and the loss of roughly 300,000 students from public K–12 to private schools, home schooling, and other alternatives to public education since 2020, all of which suggest increasing dissatisfaction among families. One can’t help but get the feeling that these bills are written to preserve an expensive, dreadfully performing educational system by suppressing any reforms or views threatening the politically influential interests that lie at its core.