The latest target for California conservatives? Local school boards

Bill Essayli had no chance of getting one of his first bills through the California State Assembly.

Mr. Essayli, a newly elected Republican lawmaker, wanted parents to be notified if their child requested a gender change at school. His bill gained attention but died without a hearing in a state legislature governed by a Democratic supermajority.

So Mr. Essayli and his conservative allies tried another place: local school boards.

In July, the board that oversees the Chino Valley Unified School District, which serves a diverse, middle-class area about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, adopted a version of Mr. Essayli’s proposal. At least six other counties across the state followed suit.

“We kind of moved and said, ‘Well, they won’t let us hear it in Sacramento, but we believe this is good policy,'” said Mr. Essayli, who represents an Inland Empire area near Chino. “And so we will move forward with school district policy.”

Republicans have almost no power in California’s state government or its largest cities, but have found traction in a handful of suburbs where parental frustrations have spread since the pandemic.

At several school board meetings across the state, the same debate has taken place over the past few months. Some parents insist that they have the right to know everything about their child’s school experience, from the material being studied to the bathroom they use. They joined them political activists and, in many cases, Mr. Essayli.

Other parents strongly objected, arguing that the real motivation behind the policy is to instill fear in transgender children and prevent them from revealing their true selves at school or at home. Some said the notification policy would amount to a forced outing that could endanger children whose parents reject their LGBTQ identity.

“We think our school boards should be focused on things that matter to all students and public education,” said Kristi Hirst, a Chino Valley parent who is organizing the growing countermovement. “Our schools are derailed right now.”

In July, the Chino Valley Unified meeting where the school board approved a parent notification policy was a tumultuous event; each side had hundreds of men. The 27,000-student school district has been a political battleground for years change of board majority between conservatives with close ties to the local megachurch and moderate, secular-minded representatives. Chino Valley Unified was previously involved in a years-long legal dispute over the use of prayer and reading the Bible during board meetings.

Last year the Conservatives took control when Sonja Shaw, outspoken A Republican who works as a personal fitness instructor and leads a local Bible study group, was elected along with another right-wing candidate.

Mrs. Shaw spearheaded the parent notification policy and chaired the board meeting as president. It was a key enough debate that Tony Thurmond, the state school superintendent and Democrat who recently announced his run for governor, made a rare appearance.

As he made his case, claiming that LGBTQ children are at risk, his microphone was cut off. Ms. Shaw chided Mr. Thurmond for trying to speak beyond his minute.

“I really appreciate you being here, but here’s the problem,” she said, raising her voice. “You’re in Sacramento proposing things that corrupt children!”

Mr. Thurmond was unable to respond before being escorted away by a group of security guards. Mrs. Shaw reminded him that he was in Chino, not the State Capitol in Sacramento.

Lawmakers in states like Florida and Texas invoked parental rights when they passed the book bans, as well as dozens of laws restricting school bathrooms that transgender students can use and whether LGBTQ history can be discussed in classrooms.

But Democratic-governed states have rejected such efforts. Instead, California lawmakers passed a series of measures this year designed to protect LGBTQ residents, including guaranteed access to all-sex bathrooms on school campuses.

For Ms. Hirst, the fight over notification policy needlessly dragged the Chino Valley neighborhood into another culture war. Ms. Hirst has been involved in Chino Valley schools since her childhood, as a student, teacher and now parent of three children in the district.

She helped start Our Schools USA, which tried to counter the conservative movement at the school board level. The group was co-founded by Christina Gagnier, who served as Chino Valley Unified school board president until her overthrown by Mrs. Shaw.

Ms. Hirst said the district should instead focus on attracting qualified teachers amid the shortage and making sure students have access to the courses they need to get into college. It’s a job that, when done right, should be “boring,” she said.

“These culture war candidates are particularly focused on tunnel vision,” Ms Hirst said. “The only focus is their political and religious issues.”

Rob Bonta, attorney general and potential Democratic candidate for governor, sued Chino Valley School District over its notification policy in August, claiming the district discriminated against LGBTQ students and violated their privacy rights.

Republicans seemed to welcome the challenge. They see legal challenges as an opportunity to plead their case before judges they believe are more sympathetic than California lawmakers — especially federal judges.

“We would like to see it go to the Supreme Court,” Mr. Essayli said. “That’s the fight we want.”

Before a judge sided with Mr. Bonta and temporarily blocked the policy, the Chino Valley district notified 15 families that their children had requested a different gender identity at school, Ms. Shaw said.

This month, another San Bernardino Superior Court judge temporarily blocked two policy provisions that required the district to notify parents if their child requests to be identified by a non-conforming gender on their birth certificate. But it allowed the district to notify parents if children request changes to school records.

The current legal dispute is not a test conservatives might want, as it is a matter of state, not federal, law. But one of California’s notification rules may eventually be challenged in a federal venue, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. Chemerinski said that the Supreme Court had previously compromised on the fundamental tension at play, between the constitutional right of minors to privacy and the constitutional right of parents to decide how to raise their child. But in his view, asking to be treated as a different gender does not directly involve physical safety, while sharing that information without the child’s consent could put the child at risk.

“There is no question that this is a conservative court,” Mr. Chemerinsky said. “On the other hand, I think on a legal basis, the child’s privacy interests seem to be much more compelling than the parents’ right to know.”

Some conservative school boards face local pushback. In Orange County, voters are likely to qualify for recall election two Orange Unified School District trustees after their board removed a superintendent with little warning, banned the Pride flag and adopted a parent notification requirement, among other actions.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, which has more than 49,000 students and is the largest district in Orange County, trustees this month considered a broader parent notification policy.

Hundreds showed up, and the crowd was neatly divided: parents, community members and traveling right-wing activists dressed in white, holding good-night signs that read: “Parents are not the enemy.” Wearing purple were the district’s students, alumni, parents and teachers waving pride flags. One student wore a T-shirt that said, “Jesus wore a dress.”

Dozens of students, including many transgender people, lined up to speak.

“I’m a senior in high school; I should be worrying about keeping my grades up and getting my college applications in on time, but I’m not,” said Nox Lane, 17, a high school student in the district who describes his gender identity as non-binary. “Actually, it all seems pretty small to me when I see my community and my identity under attack.”

Mr. Essayli also appeared at a meeting nearly 50 miles from his district, where he argued that parents should know and control everything about how their children are educated. “I think it’s completely disrespectful that you took an entire hour to listen to the kids,” he added.

At the end of the night, the board voted 5-2 to reject the policy.

Sergio Olmos contributed reporting from Chino, California.

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