Texas school board election proves there is no such thing as non-partisan elections
On Tuesday, I drove out to the Bee Cave City Hall for the last day of early voting. I have voted early multiple times at that location over the past seven years for a variety of races up to congressional and presidential, but I’ve never shown up for a local election with what might seem to be of such little political consequence, on paper. The only options on my ballot were for two seats on the Eanes ISD Board of Trustees (the school board of one of the most affluent, suburban school districts in Texas). Yet the line snaked around the large room where the voting took place, out the door, down a staircase, and from door to door of city hall.
The reporting in Austin argues that much of the large turnout is a response to Proposition B, which aims to re-criminalize the houseless, giving the Austin Police Department greater flexibility to harass, ticket, and arrest houseless individuals in order to erase them from the view of businesses, homeowners, and commuters. But I think that reporting comes up short. There may have been a couple of Austin voters who could chime in on Proposition B (given the sprawling, high property value grabbing boundaries of the city) at Bee Cave City Hall, but most would be those voting on the Eanes School Board races, or for Lakeway City Council and Lake Travis School Board races.
The reality is that turnout for this May election is high because there is an ongoing ideological struggle that has come to the fore about what this country should look like, and the politics of that struggle are now overtly involved in local school board elections, and people are turning out for it. This is not to suggest that the struggle has never been part of non-partisan local elections, or that we have moved beyond a mythical democratic state where the interests of all people were advanced through elections. The difference is that in the aftermath of the Trump years, and the 2020 presidential election in particular, there is a powerful political movement that feels that they need to take back a country that has been ‘stolen’ from them, and that they should not feel embarrassed to publicly embrace and extoll positions that explicitly serve whiteness and privilege, or that tear down those who do not.
Public schools have always been political tools that have served the status quo, even in their most progressive iterations. Even if one wants to waive off a history of schooling that includes participation in genocidal aims (i.e., residential schools), the erasure of culture (e.g., assimilation of immigrants), and the denial of equal opportunity (e.g., racial segregation of schools); they cannot in good faith ignore how schooling continues to sort children based on socio-economic status; funneling more affluent students into top ranked colleges and universities; while poor and BIPOC children are disproportionately left to try to survive on low wage work, or are fed into the machinery of the military or the prison-industrial complex. The sorting mechanism does not only work within the schools, but among school communities, as well. Eanes ISD, for example, is considered an excellent school in part because of the ways that affluence and whiteness allow it to serve as a feeder school for top colleges while avoiding the abusive and overly punitive behavior focused practices that less affluent and more diverse schools feel pressured to engage in.
Nonetheless, the circumstances of the past year have led too many to believe that their local schools are not doing enough to reinforce and amplify disparities in society. They don’t just want the schools to quietly serve the status quo, they want them to lead the charge. In the Eanes School District, the fight has revolved around three issues: Covid-19, trans inclusion, and racism. The incumbents Jennifer Champagne and James Spradley have taken moderate to progressive positions on each, while the challengers Jen Stevens and Nigel Stout have taken conservative to reactionary positions. I will briefly touch upon each of them here.
When the pandemic hit, many followed the lead of then President Trump and dismissed it as “no worse than the flu,” a Democratic hoax, a pharmaceutical scam, or a biological warfare weapon deployed by China against the United States. And they tended to jump from one argument to the next and back and forth as new facts emerged that poked holes in each of their talking points. While not all people who dismissed the pandemic were dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters, they all tended to agree with him that the so-called lockdowns were an overreaction that would lead to the cure being worse than the disease. With regard to schools, this led to demands that they reopen immediately for the sake of student mental health, even though the advocates seemed to have never noticed the school-associated mental health problems that youth faced prior to the pandemic, and without any recognition that maybe any mental health struggles some children were facing might have more to do with a disease that has killed over 575,000 in the United States than it does with missing class time. The demands to reopen schools were also often coupled with a sudden concern for the welfare of poor or BIPOC children who would be ‘left behind’ academically, even though that is what schools have always done, and even though poor and BIPOC communities would bear the brunt of the pandemic in terms of hospitalizations and deaths.
In the Eanes School District, candidate Jen Stevens led the fight against a phased in reopening that required three weeks of virtual learning to start the year, and would allow every student who wanted to return back to school to be able to do so by mid-October. She and the organization she started, Eanes Kids First, however, demanded that all kids be allowed to return immediately, with many members demanding that they do so unmasked, “No waivers. No excuses.” The Eanes Kids First Facebook page, meanwhile, has become a platform for Jen Stevens’ school board run, while also supporting Nigel Stout’s run. Relatedly, just up the road at Lake Travis ISD, the primary rival school district of Eanes, Kara Bell is a candidate for school board. Bell is so firmly in the anti-masking camp that she was willing to get arrested exercising her so-called right to ignore the requests of a private business that people mask up or leave.
Even though I live in the Eanes School District, I had no idea that trans inclusion has become such politically charged school issue over the past year. Apparently, a teacher had the audacity to read to their 4th grade class Call Me Max, a picture book about a trans boy educating his teacher and classmates about his identity. In the attached video of a candidate forum hosted by Eanes Chinese Parents, both Stevens and Stout make clear their opposition to the book being read. Stevens claims that reading the book violates the parent-adult relationship, while Stout claims that the book undermines parents’ rights and that “[trans] kids should not have extra rights.” Related to the issue of trans inclusion, Stevens went on to say that there should “absolutely not” be any unisex bathrooms made available to trans kids, with Stout also opposing them. The incumbents, meanwhile, highlighted that the reason they brought in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (“DEI”) consultant was so that they could support students and teachers in finding ways to support everyone.
The third issue is related to the second, in that both can be slotted into a diversity controversy, but it deserves to be more narrowly labeled as racism (or white supremacy). In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the uprising that followed, many schools were forced to reflect on racism within their communities. Many students from affluent schools across the country created social media accounts to document racist experiences at their school, to include Racism at Westlake which focused on the high school in Eanes ISD. The school district, ostensibly in response to the events of the summer, hired a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant to “enhance community, staff and racial awareness — in addition to guiding the district in addressing social justice and racism.” That was apparently too much for many of the conservative white families to handle.
Stevens and Stout were unsurprisingly opposed to the current diversity initiatives, imaginary and real. Both objected to hiring the DEI consultant. And even though it does not appear that Eanes has seriously considered bringing Critical Race Theory into the curriculum, both complained about it (in the YouTube video previously highlighted) with the standard conservative claim that it is racist, which is not in any way an objective take. Stevens said that CRT “ruins excellence, it ruins children, it ruins communities, and it divides under the guise of claiming teaching unity.”
Incumbent candidate Jennifer Champagne argued that she made DEI a priority at the board level because of the racism that students and families have experienced at Eanes. Stevens responded that she was more concerned about the diversity initiatives alienating the part of the community that feels “very pushed aside, very discounted, very disregarded,” which just happens to map really well onto the part of the community that feels as though their country has been ‘stolen’ from them.
If anyone may have been left thinking that perhaps race does not really matter in the school board race, the candidate forum asked Stevens to clarify the intention behind her social media claim that Covid-19 was a “stupid China made virus.” She said that the “virus did come from China” but dismissed it by saying that “if it offends anyone I wouldn’t want to say something like that.” Well, I guess intention trumps impact. Meanwhile, Stout defended his claim that he does not “subscribe to the fact that EISD is systemically racist.” I guess if you don’t see the problem it is not a problem.
I previously mentioned Proposition B, the effort to re-criminalize houselessness in Austin. It seems far removed from the school board election, but it points to the real reason turnout is so high, and the disparate responses between the school board incumbents and challengers regarding Covid-19, trans inclusion, and racism. There is a desire by many to return to a society where the benefits accrue to those with the most power, even though that is the society we already live in. They imagine that engaging in collective social action such as masking and staying at home when possible during a global pandemic is a violation of their individual rights, and that the elevated death rates of front line workers and communities of color is just the cost of freedom. They imagine that acknowledging the humanity of trans kids and making space for them somehow threatens parental rights. They believe that addressing racism is the real racism, and that systemic racism can be waived off as just an endless stream of individual acts of racism that can be addressed through school suspensions, so we should ignore systemic effects. To have institutions work toward ending systemic racism is apparently an infringement on the right of individuals to ignore it. And in a similar vein, not harassing, ticketing, and arresting the houseless for existing within the city limits is somehow a great burden on those who do not suffer from houselessness. It’s not enough for the houseless to suffer from their material condition, they must be made to suffer more at the hands of the criminal justice system.
Many of those who benefit the most from systems of dispossession feel called to step up and take back their country in elections large and small, or to run for office. And the dehumanization of the poor, BIPOC communities, trans kids, and the houseless in the effort to take their country back is the necessary cost of doing business. Who do you think they’re taking the country back from?
Even though most of the people living in the Eanes School District are not residents of Austin and cannot vote on Proposition B, some of the strongest support for criminalizing the houseless in the City of Austin comes from people in the Eanes School District. In the attached map representing the donors to Save Austin Now (the group that has been pushing Proposition B) the people who live in Eanes (largely consisting of West Lake Hills and the two dark areas to the left/west of it) have contributed an outsized proportion of money that has been used to convince the public that houselessness needs to be re-criminalized. It’s quite remarkable that folks who do not even live in Austin are so invested in disappearing the houseless (not helping them) in Austin.
When you dig into the list of donors, you will come across multiple educators on the list, highlighting that it is not a rarity that an educator could support the dehumanization of marginalized people. But beyond that observation, one name stands out: Michael Ajouz. He is so invested in criminalizing the houseless that he donated $10,000 of his personal money to the cause. That is far less than some others donated, so why am I focused on him? Well he also donated $25,000 to Jen Stevens, for a school board race. What is the common thread? It’s not a stretch to figure it out.
It should be obvious that I voted for Champagne and Spradley for school board. Not because I think that they are fighting for the liberation of children while working to undo systems of oppression. Not even close. I do not believe that schooling can be used as a vehicle to undo the harm of schooling. But I do appreciate that they are attempting to limit harm, or maybe they feel pressured to speak that language because of Stevens and Stout. On the other hand, I see Stevens and Stout as wanting to double down on the harm, to amplify disparities, to maintain the status quo, or maybe to Make America Great Again.
People who oppose candidates such as Jen Stevens and Nigel Stout can still benefit tremendously from systems of oppression. They can still be wedded to a defense of the status quo, and they need not be allies of children or other marginalized groups. But I hope that enough people recognize, at the very least, that in this very partisan school board election, and in partisan local elections across the nation, that they can choose to be in opposition to a political movement that wants to actively harm those with the least power.