The culture wars are taking a toll on elected officials like me

·3 min read

Readers: This Opinion piece was prompted by major turnover on the Wake County Board of Education, where a majority of members have announced they won’t seek re-election to lead the state’s largest school system. We asked a longtime board member to write about the difficulties of serving in elected positions amid today’s divisive atmosphere.

When I first ran for the Wake County Board of Education in 2011, I knew I was signing up for a contentious public office. School boards make decisions that impact the daily lives of children and their families.

But in the past few years, culture wars have erupted across the country and much of the heavy artillery has been aimed at public schools. The anger of critics has been prolonged, intense — and personal.

Too many people, under a guise of “parent rights” with no mention of parent responsibilities, are playing games to undermine public education and public school educators. These critics create false narratives around public schools and launch personal attacks against elected officials.

I have endured two years of these angry, inwardly-focused critics. At times, that criticism has seemed overwhelming and isolating.

That is one reason why I am now passing the baton — I see this intense and rewarding public service as a relay, not a marathon.

I came to the board after more than 10 years of active volunteerism and advocacy for public education. I believe in the power of public education, not just for my two children, but for all children.

Christine Kushner
Christine Kushner

For more than 10 years, I have navigated tumultuous times and worked hard to listen to the community and forge consensus. I have experienced critics and political theater many times over more than a decade on the board, including around school assignment, school calendars, COVID policies and more.

Usually, I have found that if you can explain your decisions, people accept them, adjust, and move on, recognizing the greater good. Recently, that has not been so.

One example is the new hyper-focus on school materials. Under school district policy, parents who object to materials can receive alternative assignments for their children through a process that takes place at the school level, within their school community.

In the past year, there have been four active book challenges in Wake County, two reaching the board level. Each of those involved false accusations of pornography in school libraries.

The challenged books were not curriculum assignments, but rather books of choice that represented perspectives of Black, Brown and LGBTQ people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also turned people inward and many are having a difficult time turning outward to re-engage in their community. Their self-focus reflects eroded trust in public institutions and is creating narrower visions for our children’s futures.

Elected school boards are responsible for considering perspectives across our entire community, including those 70% of taxpayers who do not have school-age children, not just the loudest or the angriest.

As I prepare to leave the board, I want my community to hear this clarion call — our children need advocates who will support and defend our public schools.

Voters must be savvy and continue to vote for candidates for school board who will improve public school systems, which serve the vast majority of school children.

There remains a great deal of work to be done, and I remain convinced that North Carolinians are committed to the state constitutional guarantee of a sound public education for all students.

Although I am leaving the school board, I will continue my advocacy, particularly at the state and national levels, where the culture wars are hatched. I am more determined than ever to combat bad policies that harm our local public schools.

I’ll see you in the fight!

Christine Kushner has actively supported Wake County public schools for 20 years. She has served on the Wake County Public School System’s b oard of education since 2011. She will step down in November.

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