Lessons Learned from the DOJ’s School Board Letter

Credit where it’s due. The National School Board, rightly, apologized for having sent a letter to the White House that likened frustrated parents in school board meetings to domestic terrorists. The letter prompted a promise of coordinated action from the Department of Justice, howls of protest from parents nationwide, and at least twenty of the NSBA’s statewide chapters to distance themselves from the parent organization.

The apology is a start. Recognition of wrongdoing is the first step in correcting a problem. But a workable solution also requires a complete understanding of what has gone wrong.

Academically speaking, the letter illustrates several problems in our schools, many of which reflect the curricular deficiencies to which parents were objecting in the first place.

The NSBA relied on highly inflated rhetoric to make their points. The distance between angry parent and domestic terrorist is a vast analogical leap. Helpfully, they now acknowledge in their apology memo that “There was no justification for some of the language included in this letter.”

In higher education, we regularly see the use of overheated language to describe relatively minor events, ranging from from controversial speakers on campus to insensitive Halloween costumes and even sassy party invitations.

Because the NSBA letter suffered from a lack of supporting evidence, its claims collapsed upon closer examination. If there’s one thing that those engaged in the business of education should understand, it’s that facts matter. To be reliably convincing, assertions must be grounded in credible, documented proof. Overstatement is undermining.

Both missives—NSBA and DOJ—also conveyed the appearance of bias in their assertions, rendering their conclusions and accompanying actions suspect. From the absence of concrete examples of actual criminal acts, readers inferred a desire to target parents opposed to certain perspectives, rather than a neutral intention to enforce existing law impartially. As such, they became shining examples of how to forfeit credibility.

Neutrality and impartiality remain crucial components of crafting a convincing argument; they are essential for engendering faith in the results of any investigation. This is true whether it is a court proceeding, a scientific experiment, or an argument in an essay.

Sadly, many educators now openly abandon neutrality and open-mindedness in favor of other cherished aims—often political. The backlash to these letters shows what happens when such a foundational academic principle is jettisoned. The result is that you wind up looking foolish—both reckless and feckless.

By engaging in sloppy, tendentious thinking and making under-fortified assertions, the arguments quickly dissolved and we were left with the embarrassing spectacle of an attorney general who cited a self-debunked letter as the source of his “evidence.” Was he never taught in school to consider the source of a claim? What about the scholastic habits of cross-referencing, independent fact checking, or anticipating likely objections?

This oversight mirrors the remarkable lack of ideological balance in our schools, and the resulting inability to examine both sides of an issue. Could the NSBA and DOJ really not have guessed how these letters would be received by the public? A modicum of viewpoint diversity within their organizations could have prevented this lamentable outcome by modulating and moderating the most hyperbolic rhetoric, and demanding better support for the offered claims.

The letters also provided a palpable object lesson in the ongoing chilling of speech in academia, with the looming threat of ominous “consequences” for dissent that students have been experiencing in our public schools now for years. Although the DOJ letter promised to organize law enforcement against threats and intimidation, it was instead itself perceived to be an intimidating threat against parents exercising their constitutional rights.

Throughout our K-12 educational system, enthusiasms and distractions are leading to a failure to fulfill basic instructional tasks: the NSBA’s original letter demonstrates that their interest lay not in addressing the many manifest problems parents were bringing to school boards but rather in labelling parents as the problem. A classic diversionary tactic.

Instead of focusing on an illusory parental threat, how about if school officials and law enforcement focus attention and resources on their most basic responsibilities? They could be transmitting crucial academic skills, such as proper argumentation, disputation, and rhetorical challenge, which the NSBA letter demonstrably lacked. They also could pay attention to the even more basic responsibility of ensuring that students attending schools are protected from literal bodily danger.

The NSBA and the DOJ clearly didn’t do their homework on this one.