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Education

In school board meetings across the United States, parents have angrily protested decisions on Covid and racial equity

Levittown (United States) (AFP) - As Joshua Waldorf was running for a third term on the Pennsbury school board in November, one particularly heated debate triggered a flood of vitriolic messages to his inbox -- one of them urging him to shoot himself.

In a shift mirrored in cities across America, his local council overseeing schools in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia had unwittingly become a battleground in the politicized culture wars roiling the nation.

The hateful messages aimed at Waldorf were just one example of the flow of anonymous slurs and threats directed at him and fellow members of the nine-seat board in past months -- as their once studious meetings turned to angry shouting matches.

"I've been pretty consistent in terms of my views," Waldorf, a 58-year-old businessman, told AFP as the board prepared to meet in an elementary school gym in Fallsington, in a leafy neighborhood of family homes. "But I'm being vilified for those that I wasn't 18 months ago."

In much of the United States, locally elected school boards are tasked with governing a community's public schools -- deciding who to hire as superintendent to manage day-to-day operations, which textbooks to buy, and what education policies to enact.

But over the past year, with the country in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and a historic reckoning over race relations, the boards have had to rule on far more charged issues -- prompting intense backlash from parents often bitterly divided along political lines.

For choosing to require all students and staff to wear masks, the Pennsbury School Board -- all Democrats -- were accused of "child abuse," and seeking to "dehumanize" students.

After hiring a specialist in "equity, diversity, and education" last year, the board came under fire from parents convinced they had a "far left radical agenda to indoctrinate students."

'National Polarization'

School boards from coast to coast have had similar experiences, reflecting "a national polarization now seeping into other levels of government," according to Dan Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

"By and large, school board politics in the United States tend to be relatively uneventful and relatively free of emotion," Hopkins told AFP.

But now, he says, "the really contentious questions that occupy national politics are finding their way" into the meetings.

In Pennsbury, things took a turn for the worse after the board appointed Dr. Cherrissa Gibson -- a local assistant principal -- to a newly created role overseeing diversity and equity in the district's 10 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one high school.

Her first audit in April 2021 found "an underrepresentation of professional staff of color," as well as a disproportionate level of discipline targeting Black students.

Situated in the woodsy outer suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsbury has about 10,000 students, of whom 75 percent are white, seven percent are Black, eight percent are Asian, and four percent are Hispanic, according to the district's website.

For Thomas Smith, the district's superintendent, the audit was a way to help "ensure that every student regardless of where they come from, regardless of their gender, or regardless of the color of their skin are treated equally."

But opponents, like 54-year-old Simon Campbell, believe such initiatives only sharpen divisions.

"It is all about trying to stereotype people by race, by gender, and separate them and then customize education based upon those separations," said the former school board member and stock trader.

"Basically kids are being taught that if you're Black ... you are impoverished and need help from the government," he told AFP. "If you're white, then you are an oppressor."

Campbell, who no longer has children in the school district, posts videos of his remarks at school board meetings to YouTube, where he now has more than 30,000 subscribers.

Like other disgruntled parents, he has been invited to appear on conservative radio and television programs to discuss so-called "critical race theory."

The term, which refers to the study of persistent racism in social institutions, has been seized upon by Republicans to broadly attack Democrats' racial equity policies in what has become a lightning rod for conservatives across the country.

'Campaign Of Misinformation'

Christine Toy Dragoni, the outgoing Pennsbury school board president, blames a national "campaign of misinformation" for the intensity of the backlash.

"People are being gaslighted," she told AFP.

The 50-year-old psychotherapist said the deluge of emails began after videos of heated board meeting exchanges went viral online.

Most of the emails wished bad things "happen" to the board members, versus direct threats, but "when they do it repeatedly, you start to worry," said Dragoni.

"Are they going to take the next step and, you know, take action on their words?"

The risk of violence is real: many school districts have been forced to ramp up police presence at board meetings, to remove unruly attendees, as well as to escort members to and from their cars.

Two months ago, US Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI and federal prosecutors to meet with local law enforcement to discuss strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.

Republicans and conservative media seized on the memo, accusing the Biden administration of weaponizing law enforcement to intimidate parents.

"People are within silos," said Waldorf, who won reelection in November, "we've lost the ability to compromise."

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December is the month when we revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a stony-hearted man who finally learns to be more generous and humane. That tale may strike home in the Oval Office, because Joe Biden sometimes resembles the reformed Scrooge in trying to make up for his past harshness.

Biden was the chief author of the 1994 crime bill, which was part of a broad push to increase penalties for lawbreakers. That measure contributed to the mass incarceration boom of the 1990s. At the same time, the law took away one important method of keeping inmates released from prison from returning to prison.

In Congress, tough-on-crime politicians raged against the practice of providing federal college funds known as Pell Grants to prisoners who wanted to pursue higher education. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), portrayed the expense as a waste and an injustice: "Citizens who are struggling to meet their children's skyrocketing tuition costs have a right to be outraged when the child of a police officer in their community can't get a Pell grant but a criminal the police officer sends to prison can."

In fact, giving grants to inmates didn't reduce the funds available to their students. But no matter. The Biden crime bill, proudly signed by Bill Clinton, zeroed out Pell Grants for prison inmates. Better, apparently, that they should spend their time making license plates and pumping iron than solving equations and writing term papers.

Biden has since expressed remorse for his role in passing the crime bill, which he described as "a big mistake." The provision on Pell Grants certainly was. It's hard to think of a policy more self-defeating than preventing prisoners from using their time behind bars to discipline their minds and acquire useful knowledge.

Under Barack Obama, the Education Department found a way to offer such financial aid through an experimental initiative called Second Chance Pell. The department expanded the program under Donald Trump, who also signed legislation repealing the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

The change, tucked into the $900 billion pandemic relief package approved last December, won't take effect until 2023. In the meantime, the Biden administration has expanded Second Chance to cover some 200 colleges, up from 131 today. Thanks to separate legislation, inmates will also get more access to vocational training programs, such as carpentry and masonry.

These changes will sound like gross extravagance to anyone who thinks incarceration should maximize the misery of criminals. The problem with that approach is that 95 percent of those in prison today will return to our midst — having been changed, for better or worse, by their time behind bars.

Law-abiding citizens will be safer if former inmates have credentials that make them employable, giving them a good alternative to robbing convenience stores or dealing drugs.

"The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out," then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2015, launching the Second Chance Pell program. "We lock folks up here, $35-40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year." That $35-40,000, of course, does not include the cost of the harm done to innocent people by freed inmates who revert to crime.

Education is a reliable way to curb recidivism. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that prisoners who take post-secondary courses are 48 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don't — saving five dollars for every dollar invested. They are more likely to find jobs after their release.

It also noted, "Prisons with postsecondary education programs have fewer violent incidents than prisons without them, creating safer working conditions for staff and safer living environments for incarcerated people."

Employers may also profit from these programs. In the tight labor market, more businesses are willing to consider applicants they once would have rejected out of hand. Honest Jobs, which helps people with criminal records, "had 158 companies register for its site from May to July, roughly doubling its ranks of active employers," reports Bloomberg. "New York City-based nonprofit Fortune Society says placements in April through June were up 14 percent from the same period last year."

The worst prisons are fully capable of exacting retribution against their occupants. But correctional institutions are far more valuable if they can also give inmates the means to live law-abiding lives once they have paid their debt to society.

Every felon who leaves prison gets a second chance. The question is: a second chance to do what?

Follow Steve Chapman on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.