Leaving the public forum at a Union County Public Schools (UCPS) Board of Education meeting in mid-July, it was easy to see how the mood had shifted among speakers with Public School Strong, an organization formed to fight in defense of public schooling and progressive values.
The half-dozen speakers were there that evening to voice their support for LGBTQ rights in Union County schools in response to creeping policy changes seen as discriminatory against trans and LGBTQ students.
Having gone back and forth with speakers on the other side of the issue — anti-trans folks who repeated tales of the dangers posed by trans people in bathrooms and made allegations that consensual gender-affirming care is child abuse — the speakers who went in full of fervor walked out of the UCPS Professional Development Center looking exhausted.
One woman, a former UCPS teacher who came to speak in support of LGBTQ students, walked directly to her car in tears after having to sit through the vitriol of those who wanted to effectively erase any acknowledgment of the trans community from the district.
Regan Shaw, mother to a rising 10th grader in a Union County school, watched the woman with sympathetic eyes and, before following her to her car to offer support, said, “This is why it’s so hard to get people to show up.”
Out of 17 people who had signed up before the meeting to speak in support of LGBTQ rights, only five had attended and addressed the board.
Despite the disappointing showing that evening, Shaw has seen progress in Union County, thanks in part to her involvement with Public School Strong, a statewide coalition of progressive organizations and advocates who aim to push back against those trying to undermine trust in public schools through divisive “culture war” issues like LGBTQ rights, Critical Race Theory and book banning.
At a time when Gov. Roy Cooper has declared a State of Emergency for Public Education and groups like the Florida-based Moms for Liberty that aim to undermine public education appear to be gaining influence in the public realm, Public School Strong hopes to rally the majority of parents who, according to recent Gallup polls, support public education and are satisfied with their children’s schooling.
When Shaw heard about Public School Strong, a movement assembled by rural and working-class advocacy organization Down Home NC, on the social media forums she had begun to regular during COVID, she knew she wanted to get involved.
“We really need to organize on a larger level to compare notes and just present a more united front, because [Moms for Liberty] have been so dominant in our school board, and really, if you look at the whole county, they’re such a small minority,” Shaw told Queen City Nerve before that mid-July meeting. “They’re just very well-organized. They’ve got all these marching orders from Florida, and the pandemic really gave them this huge boost because the pandemic was tough for a lot of people, and very savvy political actors decided to move on that and use that.”
According to Down Home NC, there are currently Public School Strong chapters in 30 counties, with 13 more going through the training process. Advocates in 22 more counties beyond those have shown interest in potentially launching a chapter.
Union County parents push back
Shaw grew up in Louisiana but moved to the United Kingdom before the birth of her son. When he turned 10, her family moved back to the States, landing in Waxhaw. She said she wanted to return to the U.S. because schools in the U.K. were separated by gender and most of them were tied to some local church.
“There’s no separation of church, and I didn’t know that,” Shaw explained. “I knew that that’s an American principle, but I didn’t realize the schools were like that there. I just missed a lot about the American public school system, the ethos of them.”
She began attending UCPS board meetings in October 2022, when the Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe announced plans to do gender-neutral casting for their upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
That announcement brought backlash from conservative groups, which showed up at board meetings to voice their disapproval. Shaw attended the meetings with others to stand against those groups. The controversy resulted in a policy proposal to ban all displays and insignia from classrooms that are not related to curriculum. It became obvious that the policy was built to specifically target Pride flags and insignia.
Plenty of parents pushed back, but the process was drawn out and eventually people stopped showing up.
Shaw, however, continued to speak at each public forum she could. The policy was approved just as the 2022-’23 school year ended, and Shaw continues to demand board members better define what it means for a display not to be related to curriculum.
“There’s so much in teachers’ classrooms that are non-curriculum related but still important to teachers,” Shaw said. “So if you strip that way, you’d have to get dumpsters to empty out the whole school to enforce that policy without it being discriminatory. It would be just a wholesale trashing.”
As the new school year approaches, Shaw and others with the Union County chapter of Public School Strong plan to hold board members accountable for each and every attempt at enforcing the policy. And they are not alone in the local Public School Strong movement.
The battle of Cabarrus County
In Cabarrus County, Kim Biondi has had a long history of political engagement that overlaps with her 21-year teaching career at Central Cabarrus High School. It picked up around 2017, when Biondi and her fellow teachers began to realize just how apathetic county leaders had been toward teachers.
They attended school board and county commission meetings to lobby for a supplementary pay raise. Though they succeeded, they made a troubling realization in the process.
“Along the way, several of us realized that neither the school board nor the county commissioners had a good grasp on what was happening in the schools in our county. They didn’t know what the curriculum was. They didn’t know, well, a lot of things,” Biondi said.
“It was really disheartening and discouraging because I had always just assumed, well, the people who got elected know our schools and know what’s best for our county, and I don’t need to be watching over them. But the more I spoke to them, the more I realized, ‘Oh my God, they don’t know anything. They don’t know about testing. They don’t know what a teacher’s day looks like. They have no idea.”
Biondi and her fellow teachers formed an advocacy group called Cabarrus County Teachers United, which built a presence at school board meetings and on social media.
Things worsened during COVID, however, and Biondi began looking for a way out. Convinced that the school board had no care for teachers’ safety and only saw them as babysitters for parents’ children rather than instructors to students, Biondi took a partial retirement in September 2021, the day after her 50th birthday.
“What that did was it freed me up to really be a pain in the ass to the school board, because now they couldn’t do anything,” she said. “Now I was a parent of students but not a teacher and they couldn’t threaten my job or threaten my well-being or anything else that they had been doing.”
At the time, some members of the Cabarrus County Schools Board of Education had been working to form a so-called Literature Review Committee to try to remove books from school libraries. Biondi’s group fought it hard, filing a lawsuit in the process to prove that board members had worked with extremist parents in the community to get the district’s superintendent fired and replace him with one who would go along with their plans.
The suit, filed in September 2022, resulted in enough bad publicity for the county and school board that, in the election just two months later, two of the more extreme right-wing board members were ousted.
Biondi — a member of Public School Strong and Red, Wine and Blue, another progressive parental political organization in North Carolina — said she used her experience teaching rhetorical strategies as an AP English teacher during the fight.
“One thing that I’ve learned in my time as an organizer is not to use the language the other side uses against you,” Biondi explained. “So when they say things like, ‘Whoa, teachers are disseminating pornography in schools,’ you don’t counter by saying, ‘Teachers are not disseminating pornography,’ because people tend to forget the argument, but they remember pornography, and so that’s what they associate.
“So we tagged them as often as we could with ‘book banner,’ or ‘somebody who wants to make decisions for my kids.’ ‘I don’t co-parent with book banners.’ We did that as often as we could. And when they started saying, ‘Well, we don’t ban books’ — when they started using the language that we used — I knew we would win.”
Biondi believes that Moms for Liberty, branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in June, the group will struggle to find footing with a majority of parents who aren’t interested in their extremist viewpoints.
“They’re in a Catch-22 because extremists demand louder words and more hyperbole and it can never be middle of the road with them. It always has to be the absolute worst thing or the biggest disgrace or whatever,” she explained. “And so they constantly have to feed themselves this diet of vitriol and become more and more extreme. So when they’re speaking to a group of like-minded people and they’re unhinged and ranting and raving, well, that audience is receptive. But if they try to take that to a more mainstream audience, they look foolish and ridiculous.”
A message in Mecklenburg County
One might think that in a place like Mecklenburg County, with its more urban setting and widespread Democratic representation, a group like Public School Strong may not be as necessary. However, as local Public School Strong member Gail Chauncey can attest to, that is far from the case.
It was during the pandemic that Chauncey became aware of Moms for Liberty and the actions they were taking to shore up influence. When she became aware of the group’s collaboration with the African American Faith Alliance For Educational Advancement, she knew she had to fight back.
“I put it together with the historical influences that groups like Moms for Liberty have had over the years,” Chauncey said. “So you start putting things together. You start looking at white women in slavery, white women in Reconstruction, white women and the desegregation of schools and how they were the most vocal opponents of desegregation of schools. And you start putting things together. History is never new. It just repeats itself.
“And so I just decided,” Chauncey continued, “along with people like me and Kim and [CMS school board member] Jennifer [De La Jara] and all of us, we realize that this is a cycle that we’re in, but we’ve got to just fight as hard as we can to end that cycle.”
It was a 2014 conversation that Chauncey had with famed civil rights activist and UNC Professor of Law Dr. Theodore Shaw that inspired her to look more closely at how conservative members of the North Carolina General Assembly were not only apathetic to the state of public education, but adversarial to it.
“He said, ‘All of us who are in civil rights and who have been part of this movement understand what’s going on here in North Carolina. North Carolina is a beacon, but for the wrong reasons. A lot of this extremism is being tested in North Carolina,’” she recalled.
Since that time, she’s watched as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, followed by groups like Moms for Liberty, have worked to undermine public education in America.
It’s all coming to fruition now as the NCGA passes legislation that takes funding away from public schools to be handed to often-inaccessible private schools through vouchers — legislation that in part inspired Gov. Cooper’s emergency declaration in May 2023.
“It goes back to what Dr. Shaw said,” Chauncey said. “He never really articulated what I understand to be true now, but it really is an inextricable connection between the dismantling and sort of the blowing up of the public education system because it is the great equalizer. We put a whole lot of spins on it, and we try to sort of excuse it away, but these are very simple concepts. Public schools, when they came out and why they became such an issue with desegregation, it’s because it truly is an equalizer.”
Chauncey has hope in what Public School Strong can accomplish as a coalition, however, with advocates representing a number of struggles and fights — LGBTQ rights, book bans, voucher funding, gun control and safety — coming together as one.
She hopes that, in Mecklenburg County, the ability of Moms for Liberty to infiltrate the seats of power in such a “Blue” area will be a wake-up call for Democrats and progressives to vote — and to do so based on more than a party.
“Groups like this proliferate in Charlotte because they are able to do what they already did, what Tricia Cotham is doing,” she said, referencing the N.C. House rep who switched sides to give Republicans a supermajority after being elected as a Democrat. “They’re able to neutralize the power of this blue city. And I think that’s where we’ve got to start letting the public know.
“That’s the hardest part because when you’ve got such a majority of seats being filled by Democrats, people come on the blue ticket and say one thing and then serve a constituency that just seems to be assuming that they have our best interests at heart. That’s a dangerous, dangerous precedent that we’re setting,” she continued. “And that’s exactly what they are exploiting.”
Despite everything she’s watched happen over the last decade since her conversation with Dr. Shaw, Chauncey remains hopeful, and in the darkest times, when that hope seems out of reach, she pulls out a quote from one of her biggest inspirations, Angela Davis:
“Sometimes the future that you imagine to be most dreadful turns out to be the future that compels you to reach down very deeply into your being to uncover reservoirs of strength and perseverance that you had no idea were there and you probably would not have discovered but for the disastrous times.”
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