July 14, 2024
Sidelined in Sacramento, California conservatives went back to school. They won school board seats last fall and are now working to advance what they see as an agenda that respects parents’ rights.

Sidelined in Sacramento, California conservatives went back to school.

They won school board seats last fall and are now working to advance what they see as an agenda that respects parents’ rights.

Key examples are seen in the Chino Valley, Murrieta Valley and Temecula Valley school districts, which, following long, crowded and contentious public meetings, recently passed policies requiring parents to be notified if their child identifies as transgender. The Orange Unified School District board is considering a similar policy.

A look at the policies shows they share a lot of the same language. That’s no coincidence. A coalition of school board members and their allies drew up the policies and is sharing them statewide.

RELATED: Third Southern California school board OKs policy to tell parents if students are transgender

“Being that we knew as parents we needed to join together, it’s kind of what’s happening organically now with school board members,” said Sonja Shaw, president of the Chino Valley Unified School District board.

“You’re finding your people who are in it for the same reason as you were,” Shaw said. “And I think that’s the most beautiful part.”

Jonathan Zachreson, a conservative school board member in the Northern California city of Roseville, said he has been in contact with Shaw and other Southern California school board members.

“We all talk and work together to do what we can to share what we’ve learned and share resources to better effect change locally,” said Zachreson, who like Shaw was elected in November.

“(It) allows us to adopt similar policies much faster and not to do it in silos and figure things out on our own.”

On a macro level, conservatives hold little political clout in California, where Republicans are a minority in the state legislature, hold no statewide elected office and occupy 12 of the state’s 52 House of Representatives seats.

Last year, the California GOP focused on winning school board seats in the state’s red areas, labeling the effort “Parent Revolt.” In places like southwest Riverside County, conservatives mobilized and helped elect like-minded candidates, including a school board majority in Temecula.

For many of them, the path to the school board started with frustration over their schools’ COVID-19 policies.

“I think this goes back a few years ago, when parents started to come together when the shutdown happened,” Shaw said. “When we each individually started going to our school board meetings, lots of parents formed their own grassroots organizations and advocacies because we knew we had to have a voice.”

RELATED: America’s educational culture wars hit San Ramon Valley Unified

She added: “I was a parent before. I had no desire to run for school board. I didn’t even know what a school board was … And there’s a lot of similar parents who took these seats like myself.”

In March, Inland GOP Assemblymember Bill Essayli, who represents part of western Riverside County, sponsored AB 1314, which would have required all California public schools, once they learn a student is transgender, to notify parents. AB 1314 faltered a month later after a Democratic Assembly committee chair refused to give it a hearing.

From left, Chino Valley Unified School District board President Sonja Shaw, Assemblymember Bill Essayli and Riverside Police Department Sgt. Erik Lindgren attend a school safety town hall near Riverside on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (File photo by Sarah Hofmann, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) 

“(Essayli said) ‘You guys don’t even need my bill. You can forget about what they want to do and the games they want to play,” Shaw said. “You can make your own policy.’”

“It only made sense to try to make up a policy” at Chino Valley.

Shawn Lewis, Essayli’s chief of staff, said via email: “If the Democrat supermajority legislature refuses to hear (AB 1314),” then Essayli “naturally supports and encourages local school boards to adopt that policy locally.”

Shaw said a coalition that includes lawyers, parents and school board members developed the policy that the Chino Valley school enacted in July.

“I have tons of school board members all throughout California reaching out to me and asking me for a copy,” Shaw said.

“And that’s kind of how it just started rolling.”

Murrieta’s school board passed its own transgender notification policy Thursday, Aug. 10. Temecula Valley Unified School District board President Joseph Komrosky attended the Murrieta meeting, and on Wednesday, Aug. 23, his board voted 3-2 to approve its own policy.

Shaw, who has spoken at parents’ rallies in Sacramento, said she met Komrosky, Temecula school board member Jen Wiersma and Murrieta school board member Nick Pardue during a Washington, D.C. trip organized by the California School Boards Association.

Komrosky, Wiersma and Pardue received support and endorsements from the Inland Empire Family PAC and Pastor Tim Thompson, a prominent southwest Riverside County conservative activist.

“We had common ground and we just came together during that meeting and that’s how we developed a relationship,” she said. “So it was kind of cool how that happened.”

Shaw also mentioned her work with the Coalition for Parental Rights, which promotes transgender notification policies. The coalition’s website allows users to download the policy and includes a toolkit for policy supporters to win over the public.

Coalition members include organized conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, the Pacific Justice Institute and the California Policy Center.

Academic observers are skeptical about how grassroots these self-described grassroots partnerships are.

“I think a lot of these individual players and, and people (that have) been elected to school boards are working at the grassroots,” said Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s School of Education.

“(But) I think these folks are not recognizing that they are being driven and manipulated from centrally organized cultural conservatives, that this is not really bubbling up from parents.”

John Rogers, a UCLA education professor who studies conservative activism in public schools, said it’s not as simple as saying: “‘Hey, some parents just became frustrated and increasingly, just as they became more involved, an agenda emerged.’”

“The frustration,” he said, “oftentimes was very much connected to a broader political agenda and oftentimes connected to other forms of political mobilization and other political resources that were supported through state or national actors.”

Rogers added: “You can have some grassroots energy. But that grassroots energy goes much further, the connections are going to be much deeper, the networking is going to be more effective when there’s a lot of resources put in play.”

What’s next for school board conservatives beyond transgender policies?

“There’s not anything specific yet,” Shaw said.

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That said, “Sacramento keeps pushing all these crazy bills through the pipeline,” she said. “We’re going to work and look at the legal policy to push through to put safeguards in place from all the crazy things that they’re pushing and show them no, that’s not what our communities want.”

The policies face pushback from the LGBTQ community and others, who fear they harm children whose parents aren’t accepting of their transgenderism. The Temecula school board’s three conservatives are the target of a recall campaign.

“These cultural warriors are in a very small minority,” Fuller said. And while “they have a very loud voice” in conservative-friendly areas like Temecula, “statewide, this is really a fringe movement and I suspect that moderate parents and centrist Democrats are going to perhaps punish Republicans politically who align with these groups,” he said.

Zachreson said he and his fellow conservatives have bigger plans, including a 2024 ballot measure to enact a transgender notification policy for all California schools. A Sacramento press conference on the proposed measure and two related ballot measures is scheduled for Monday afternoon, Aug. 28.

“There are organizations that have kind of had the run of the show unchecked for decades on education in California,” he said. “And so we really need to rein that back in and provide balance.”