Sixty four years ago, Farmville, Virginia, became the only place in the nation without public education. When Farmville and Prince Edward County were ordered to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, the local school board cut off funding and closed every school in the county.
Farmville’s schools were closed for five long years. The county’s poor white and Black children were either sent to live with relatives or they attended makeshift schools in neighbors’ homes and Black churches. Meanwhile, middle class and wealthy white families established a private segregated academy that turned out to be understaffed, housed in cramped quarters, and which lacked the science equipment, cafeteria, bus service, gymnasium, and other amenities white students previously enjoyed. In this way, Farmville’s wealthy white parents chose poverty in education for their own children rather than accept an integrated system where all children could flourish.
Today, our public schools are valuable and rare places where our society fully intersects across race, class, religion, and custom. Our schools are hallowed ground; in schools, we test our convictions and see if we can be who we say we are as a nation. Nearly all of us engage with the public school system either as students or as parents. And for most of us, the school system is the first place we encounter community outside of our family and where we navigate differences. But despite (or perhaps because of) these ways our schools are special, they have become ground zero for bigoted agendas.
Across our nation, more than 325 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced during the current legislative year (ACLU, 2023). Many of these bills target public schools and nearly all of them use the same formula that was used in Farmville: tap into old bigotry while drumming up new fears.
Here in North Carolina, Republican legislators have introduced SB 49, a bill modeled after Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. SB 49 seeks to prohibit conversation about sexuality and gender identity in K-4 classes. Critics say the bill is so vague it’s unclear if a teacher could acknowledge a student’s same sex parents without being in violation of the law. In addition, parents, students, and educators criticize it because it requires that schools alert parents if a student wishes to change their name or pronouns. Such a requirement distorts the role of teacher and could endanger children.
Senator Amy Galey of Alamance County said it “baffles” her why someone would think SB 49 is controversial (WUNC, Feb 2023). She and the other sponsors of the bill argue that they only seek a parents’ right to control their children’s education. But Galey is willfully ignoring the extreme transphobia and threats currently facing the LGBTQ community, including our children. Last year, North Carolina led the nation in anti-LGBTQ protests, some of which have been violent (GLAAD, 2022). The transphobia expressed in the protests, as well as in accusations of “indoctrination and “grooming,” has multiplied as our state introduces anti-LGBTQ bills. In February, for instance, masked protesters flooded the New Hanover County school board meeting only hours after SB 49 passed the NC Senate. Holding signs that read “Boys are boys, girls are girls” they opposed the participation of non gender conforming children in school sports. It’s nearly impossible to separate legislative action from the extremist threat: Nearly 1 in 5 hate crimes are now motivated by anti-LGBTQ+ bias (FBI, 2022) and the last two years have been the deadliest for transgender people since tracking began (HRC, 2021).
Why was SB 49 the first legislative educational item introduced when our schools have huge, pressing needs? When they opened this past August, NC’s schools experienced a 46% increase in teacher vacancies over last year (NC Policy Watch, 2023). This number has grown as the year has worn on, impacting our children’s education every day. Our schools are woefully underfunded- our children have gym class under leaky roofs, school bus routes take hours to complete, books are so outdated they list George Bush as the most recent president. Out of all 50 states, North Carolina now ranks dead last in the amount we spend on our schools (ELC, 2022). When will our legislators take a stance on this?
The challenges we face in North Carolina today are not unlike those faced by parents in Farmville in 1959. Will we focus on discrimination and risk weakening our own children’s education, or will we address actual issues that will create success for everyone’s kids?
SB 49 is unlikely to become law in North Carolina. If it passes in the House, Governor Cooper will likely veto it as he did a similar bill last year. So, if this defeat is all but certain, we should ask why is the extremist wing of the Republican party showcasing it?
As fear mongering around desegregation did in Farmville, the potent mix of bigotry and fear that can be unleashed through these anti-LGBTQ laws helps mobilize voters to act against their own interest. The cultural fault lines that appear from this mix help ensure future electoral success for those who sponsor the bills; they also lay the groundwork for a 2024 gubernatorial victory for the presumptive Republican candidate, Mark Robinson. In other words, it is not that our children are being targeted by drag queens, but instead are being put into the crosshairs of a cynical and sinister electoral strategy.
Political exploitation looks similar regardless of the year. In 1959 or in 2023, it is the children who suffer when their schools, their teachers, and they themselves are targeted for partisan gain. We should learn from the past. We ought not allow politicians to manipulate us into acting against the best interests of our families.
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