May 4 • 1HR 5M

School Boards & Anti-Trans Extremism

A new episode of Ask Smart People Smart Questions

 
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Ask Smart People Smart Questions is a podcast and event series where we create the context to have bigger conversations about some of the big issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community. This month we’re talking about public education, specifically through the lens of governance. Over the past few years, there’s been an increasing trend of targeted disruptions in school board meetings, so we wanted to bring together a panel of experts to figure out where this is coming from and to learn about the structural problems and solutions at play. We were joined by Richie Taylor, Jeanne Casteen, and Katie Gipson-McLean at the Tempe Public Library on April 26 to record this episode of Ask Smart People Smart Questions

Links from the discussion

Full Episode Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Jeanne Woodbury

From Equality, Arizona, you're listening to Ask Smart People Smart Questions, our podcast and event series where we create the context for bigger conversations about the big issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community. This month, we're talking about schools, specifically governance in public education. Over the past few years, there's been a big trend of disruptions to school board meetings. And so we wanted to take a look at where this comes from, who's organizing it and how, what's the history behind some of the big debates about public education in Arizona, and what are some of the structural problems and solutions at play? This conversation was recorded live at the Tempe Public Library on Wednesday, April 26th. but two of our panelists joined remotely through Zoom, so the audio is a little bit different from normal. I'm really grateful to Jeanne Casteen from Secular AZ and Katie Gipson-McClean, a board member in the Creighton Elementary School District, for joining at basically the last minute for this discussion, and to Richie Taylor, who served in the Department of Education for four years and is a current member of our board at Equality Arizona. We cover a lot of ground in this conversation, so I want to jump right into it. But first, I'll give a quick preview of our upcoming events in the series. On May 24th, we'll be hosting our next conversation at the Tempe Public Library talking about substance use policy. And in June, we'll be talking about homelessness and the housing crisis. I'm really looking forward to both. And if you want to sign up, you can visit equalityarizona.org/events. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed in the podcast player of your choice so that if you can't make it in person, you can still keep up to date with the series.

(gentle music)

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, so welcome everyone to Ask Smart People Smart Questions. The topic of the night tonight is school board governance, public education, and this current trend of far-right extremism that we're seeing in school boards across the state. We've got some really great guests with us. We've got Richie Taylor. We've got Katie Gipson-McLean. And we've got Jeanne Casteen. And I'm going to ask them each to say a little quick introduction so that for people listening to the podcast later, you know whose voice is whose.

Richie Taylor

I'm Richie Taylor. I served for four years as communications director for Superintendent Kathy Hoffman at the Department of Education for her entire term. And I'm happy to be here.

Jeanne Woodbury

Thank you. Katie, could you introduce yourself?

Katie Gipson-McLean

My name's Katie Gipson-McLean. My day job is that I'm a public defender for Maricopa County. So I represent folks who are charged with criminal felony charges who can't afford an attorney. And then I do a number of other things outside of work, but one of them being that I'm a member of the Creighton Elementary School District Governing Board, and that's located in East Phoenix. And it's the same elementary school that I attended when I was a kid.

Jeanne Woodbury

Wonderful. And then our third guest is Jeanne Casteen.

Jeanne Casteen

Yeah, so my name is Jeanne Casteen. I am the executive director with Secular AZ. I actually used to sit on the governing board of the Creighton School District for eight years, four of which I was the president. So I'm super happy that Katie's here because she is a champion of all things right in Central East Phoenix. Yeah, so I'm, and I'm very passionate about school board issues.

Jeanne Woodbury

Thanks everyone for joining me. I think that I always like to set up the motivation for this event before we go into the conversation. But basically what I see happening is that there's sort of a copy and paste template of action that's being taken around to a lot of school districts in the Phoenix area and I think increasingly in some other parts of the state where there's a few different things, either people using public comment sections to create controversy around trans-inclusive policies or on the other hand, people trying to antagonize and force out school board members or school superintendents. And I feel like a big reason this is happening or a big motivation for this is that it's a level of government that a lot of people don't understand and that people don't have a lot of insight into, partly just because of how it's structured. There's so many school board districts, and policy decisions for public education are made at so many different levels. So I wanted to have this conversation to talk about not just what's happening, what is it, what does it look like, but also what's the bigger context of school board governance. So the first thing I wanted to talk about, having someone who's worked for Department of Education, having two former/current school board members, I wanted to talk about that chain of governance in public education — what decisions are made where, what all the different constituent parts are. So we've mentioned Department of Education, we've mentioned school boards, but there's more to it than that, right? And I'd love to get kind of an overview of, when you were working in the Department of Education, Richie, for example, what other parts of the system was that department connected to?

Richie Taylor

So certainly connected, the Department of Education under the direction of the State Board of Education, which is a body appointed by the governor, oversees education policy in the state. Those are decisions like setting the state's education standards, managing federal grants and state funding for schools. So all of the money that the legislature appropriates or the federal government appropriates to our public schools flows to the Department of Education, which oversees and administers those monies, and like I said, sets things like standards. And we can probably get into this a little bit later, but standards are different than curriculum. Curriculum is where a lot of the — standards are very high level. These are the areas that schools should be teaching to. Curriculum is taught to those standards. And so, but the curriculum decisions are made at the local level, at the school district level, by governing boards. And so I think that is one area that is particularly not great understanding in the public is that a lot of those decisions are made at the local level and not necessarily at the state level or the federal level.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. So for you two who have been on school boards, who are currently on school boards, what does that look like when those standards and then also state funding decisions, and in some cases, legislation that's basically setting curriculum, potentially, what does that look like in terms of your business of setting policy and creating policy at the school board level?

Jeanne Casteen

So I want to just talk real quick too. I want to give a brief history lesson about No Child Left Behind, the legacy of George Bush and the ideology that schools are failing in America, right? I can't remember the name of the study that was put out, but that was the precursor for the privatization of public schools. And that's really kind of what we're talking about right now. Because in 2000, George W. Bush decided No Child Left Behind was going to be the law of the land. And sadly, for those of us who vote blue, no matter who, right, it was Obama who kind of kept those policies going forward. So in 1995, it was Governor Fife Symington, who decided to kind of open up the pathways for charter schools to be recognized as regular public schools. Funding was different, the accountability was different, the transparency was different. And now we are seeing what his decisions are leading to. And that is just a broad overreach of school vouchers, STOs and all the things that take public money away from private schools. That's all I really wanted to say about that is that this is also, it's not just as simple as all of that, it is a systematic overreach and a systematic degradation of the public schools.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, and I think that's really important. I want to talk about that history of, you know, there's what's happening now. There's these anti-trans attacks. There's some other far right extremism, but I think that, you know, there's a longer history and maybe that's the point where it starts. And I do want to get into that. But I think it's important to look at like the structural landscape first, and then see how things are happening in that landscape.

Richie Taylor

I do think, to Jeanne’s point, that those moves 25, 30 years ago really did change the landscape dramatically for public education, and particularly public education in Arizona. It really did basically create two systems, one for charter schools, one for district schools, and now the voucher system is a third system on top of that, and they all play by different rules or all have different policies that they have to adhere to, and that does create a different landscape that maybe perhaps led us to some of the things we're seeing today in many ways.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. And I think that's really timely, because just yesterday, I think, the State Board of Education approved a big edit to the handbook on how vouchers work, whether it's the ESAs or STOs. And that's something where we're starting to see some of the same things like sexually explicit materials bans work their way into this parallel system also.

Richie Taylor

Yes. The system that is supposedly designed for ultimate freedom and parents to make the choice, now the state is putting rules on even that, which is interesting.

Jeanne Woodbury

And so that's a really important question then, is where are these decisions getting made? Who sets these policies? And ultimately, the State Board of Education is really important, but it's in a weird intermediate place between the legislature and state government, like the governor, and then school boards who are creating localized versions.

Richie Taylor

Yeah, and please, other panelists jump in. I mean, I think that there's a lot of people trying to tell local public schools what to do and not a lot of giving them the resources to do what they should be doing and not a lot of support to actually supporting students and teachers and families because of all of these different policy decisions made by different people at different levels with different ideas about what should or shouldn't be happening, and not a lot of listening to teachers and listening to parents and listening to students about what they need, I think is another important part of the debate as well.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah. A really vivid memory I have of going to a school board meeting after the last legislative session was just sitting there and watching them vote to approve policies that either were duplicative of things they already had, or were irrelevant to what was happening in the school, or were repressive in some way. And all of this was coming from the state level, and the only thing the school board was doing was voting to adopt the state policies. And they weren't able to really do anything on their own in the time that they had. And they were facing a lot of public comment that they couldn't do anything about, because it was all just state law. So I don't know, Katie, I mean, is that something that you've seen? Or Jeanne, you were on a school board for a long time. Did it change from when you joined in terms of how much you could actually get done on the school board to now?

Jeanne Casteen

I mean, I want to pass it off to Katie here because she's living in the moment right now. I did see a kind of evolution where we started to see some of these patterns of distrust with attorneys and other internal mechanisms within the school district, where normally you have implicit trust, right? Because you hire the superintendent, the school boards are the, you know, we're the ones that hire the superintendents. And so I saw a little bit of that, but I'm sure that Katie as a sitting governing board member could speak to that in a much more relevant way.

Katie Gipson-McLean

Yeah, so I mean obviously there's a few things, I mean everything you've already said, and most school districts are members of the Arizona School Board Association who are responsible for kind of drafting these policies when legislative updates happen. And so most school boards are just blanketly, you know, voting on and discussing and adopting these suggested policies from ASBA. And kind of what Jeanne mentioned is, you know, every school board has an attorney to consult when it comes to things. Many of our attorneys are from this thing that's called the Trust. Sounds strange, but it's like basically, you know, all of these school boards have entered into this agreement basically to pay into the system that then we're able to all share the wealth and the benefits of kind of the services of the trust, one of those being legal services. Something I've noticed, I think, in my involvement on the Creighton School Board and kind of some ancillary involvement with the Phoenix Union High School District Governing Board is, as an attorney myself, like this isn't my practice area, but I can tell when an attorney is someone who's like risk averse or seems to be skittish about things when, when generally speaking, I guess my attitude in my job every day is not, why can't I do something, but how can I do something? And I would say, generally speaking, the attorneys that I know that advise most boards are advising on why can't you do something, not how can you do something. I understand that. I understand people are afraid of lawsuits. We already don't have a lot of money in school districts. And the last thing you want is for someone to be suing you. But at the same time, there's gonna be a moment, there's gonna be moments for many districts where you're gonna have to make that call, right? Is this the right thing to do? And if the right thing to do means someone possibly sues us, then you're gonna have to make an ethical and moral judgment yourself as a board member and as a governing body, right? And so I think that there's moments for those things. And I think it's obviously unique to every board and every district when those things come up and what those kind of breaking points are. But it also takes people who are kind of like knowledgeable and realize that fact, who aren't board members who maybe are just going to go along with everything the attorney tells them or superintendent tells them, in terms of like being able to push up against the grain, even in a district like mine, where philosophically speaking, the five of us are pretty much, you know, on the political spectrum, pretty close to each other, you know, as far as that's concerned, there's still differences that we have. And some folks are more willing to listen to and follow along with what the attorney recommends versus probably someone like me, who's always asking questions and saying why. Because I got to know the why before you just tell me to do something. So I think that is a big thing. So just kind of elaborating on what Jeanne said and how you'll see some of this show up on like kind of a microcosm.

Jeanne Casteen

And I think it's interesting too because, you know, like Katie said, she's on essentially a a 5-0 or maybe a 4-1 board like most of the time, they have agreement. And so for them to push back on their attorney makes absolute sense. Same with Washington Elementary School District, right? Where they're facing a lawsuit from the Alliance Defending Freedom. And they know, like this is a unified board. They are, you know, majority queer board who stood up against the Arizona Christian University. And so, but then you could also take that and spin it to the place where I just saw a board member in North Phoenix who put on her personal Facebook page that she wants to find, you know, somebody in the legal field who's willing to take up her personal pursuits against the district. So yes, we should push back against the attorneys. We do know that those attorneys are the ones who have to protect the district. But at the same time, now we have districts where they are going to try to, they essentially, in Peoria Unified School District, undermine. The minute the attorney spoke about Title IX and the laws and the policies in the district, a bunch of people got up and spoke and said, "Oh, good, that's cute. You're an attorney, we don't care." So that is the problem. So I appreciate, yeah, there are, yeah.

Katie Gipson-McLean

Yeah, certainly it could go both ways. And I think just generally speaking, we see this at the leg too, where people kind of don't care if you say there's a legal argument against something, or if you're saying something's unconstitutional. They, at some point, lawmakers and other folks, people of the general public at some point don't care. And then you're not having the same conversation anymore. So, you know, that really changes things up. And another thing I don't have to worry about on my board for the most part, and I hope this isn't, nobody watching here, it would be an invitation for, but we don't have folks that live in East Phoenix that are coming to our meetings that are causing any kind of problems for us. And so luckily we have avoided for the most part, maybe just a couple of little things here and there, but folks coming in and kind of trying to take things over or demand things that really aren't representative of our community. So I mean, I can't even imagine what it's like to be one person on a board that's philosophically different from everyone else or on a board where this sort of thing is happening on a regular basis. And I can only imagine how much it detracts from actually getting some of these things done that are going to help your district and your families and your staff and your teachers. So, yeah, I mean, obviously, it could just go on and on. So I think with what I've said, kind of at the smallest level and Jeanne and Richie, I think we've kind of covered how this kind of trickles all the way down to the small level.

Jeanne Woodbury

This is fascinating to me just from the standpoint of how much surface area there is for attack, basically. Whether it's the lack of funding available for a legal defense or just the different levels where policy is set and different ways for people to intervene and gum up the works. Just tracking from Board of Education at the state level, Department of Education, school boards, and then the school boards creating ASBA, and then also paying into the Trust to be able to have attorneys. There's like a weird cycle there where, you know, whether that's the best system or not, it creates a lot of surface area for attack. And Jeanne, you set this up perfectly when you talked about No Child Left Behind. But what I really wanted to get to next is just the history of dialogue and debate around public education in Arizona. Because I think we can't just look at what's happening in 2023; we need to look at what's been happening for 20 years and how it got us here. Do you all agree that that's the moment, with No Child Left Behind?

Richie Taylor

I think that's certainly one of the moments. I think the charter school movement started a little earlier here than that, But that was the, you know, the mid 90s, early 2000s, the start of this talk about the need for greater accountability, the need to hold teachers and schools accountable for taxpayer dollars, the idea that schools were or are failing, certainly ramped up then.

Katie Gipson-McLean

Yeah, I agree. And I attended, I don't know, Richie, I don't know where everybody went to school, but I attended public school in Phoenix, Arizona from 1991 to 2005. And so just kind of across the spectrum of this whole shift. Right? And so, you know, I remember us not not celebrating MLK Day and then celebrating MLK Day. And then, you know, English-only education adoption, abstinence-only education adoption. The charter, you know, the charter thing, I feel like that didn't really take hold until even after I graduated high school because I still had to go to my home school. There wasn't like open enrollment at the time I was in school, so we didn't quite get there. But you could, even just being a student from that time to that time, you could see things changing. And also, I went to school at a time when like bonds and overrides were never going to pass. So yeah, I had like no PE at some times, no art, no other kind of fun classes. It was teaching to the Stanford 9 or the AIMS, whatever it was at the time. And just like that was kind of our education in the inner city, at least. I don't know how things were in the suburbs for people, but it's definitely evident. And then being there now, it's just wild and evident to see how all of this has just kind of evolved over the last three decades, essentially.

Jeanne Casteen

Yeah, so I was lucky enough to participate in a panel discussion this last, well, two weekends ago. It was the American Atheist Convention that was here in Central Phoenix. And Beth Lewis was there from Save Our Schools Arizona. And she, all the Save Our Schools people give a very comprehensive history lesson for anybody who doesn't know. And this was a national audience of people who were like, what? I had no idea the liberties that the state legislature has taken with regards to the privatization of schools, with the charterization of schools, with the fact that our private school teachers do not have to have fingerprint clearance cards, huge red flag for me, the fact that our private schools don't have to take any kind of standardized… there's no accountability. So at the same time when these fringe groups, the Freedom Caucus in Arizona are absolutely requiring all of us to report what our standardized test scores are, which as Katie mentioned, changes on a whim. I remember when it was AIMS, it's been AzMERIT, we've had all these different testing measures that are meaningless, it turns out. But the funding and the way that it is happening, the fact that our clergy also don't have to report abuse. And now my taxpayer dollars are going to private schools where clergy are employed, where they don't have to report abuse. And they're still asking all of us to have these heightened, you know, like, we got to ban books, we got to ban curriculum, we got to ban, you know, pronouns, we got to ban, you know. We got to elevate some parents voices, but not all parents — it's just it, we live in a very strange time. And we need more people than ever to be able to support the work that our public schools do and that our advocacy groups do in this space, because Arizona really is ground zero for the worst of ideas. We're a petri dish for the worst of ideas, and —

Richie Taylor

Sorry, Jeanne, I'm sorry to cut you off.

Jeanne Casteen

Go ahead.

Richie Taylor

I was going to say that Arizona has been ground zero. And you even see now other states kind of stepping back, even on even in Republican states stepping back from the most extreme voucher programs because of how poorly managed and mismanaged and the boondoggle that Arizona's voucher program has become because of a lack of oversight and regulation. Even if you were supportive of vouchers in particular, other states have not and are not passing voucher bills that throw the doors open like Arizona's has done. And I think that is directly because people are seeing how, one, challenging a program is like this to manage, but two, how fast it can grow out of control.

Jeanne Woodbury

When I think about this in terms of privatization of public education being like a sub-level below everything else, it makes a lot of sense because every time I see one of these fights over replacing school board members, or replacing superintendents in a district, it feels to me like the private equity takeover strategy of, make it as unpleasant an environment to be in as possible so you can churn a lot of staff and reset the culture really quickly, and throw off a lot of cash in a short amount of time. And that's what I'm seeing as one of the big parts of what's happening right now in 2023, is just these increasingly hostile environments. even when there's no actual policy being discussed, people come in and yell about trans people. And I think a big question I have is, I think that there is something unique about what's happening with these attacks on trans kids, because it's specifically an attack on kids and not just a policy thing. But does it feel to all of you like something new in the environment or very much part of what's been happening for a longer period of time?

Jeanne Casteen

So I can actually, okay, so I will speak to this because back in, I think it was 2019 when I was on the Creighton governing board. There's this lovely, lovely blogger, Peggy McClain, notinourschools.net if you've heard about her. Nobody reads her blog. It's ridiculous, but she posted something about, because we had, we, we, since 2014 in the Creighton School District, I'm very proud to say, and Katie can carry this legacy on, that we decided that our students needed comprehensive sex ed. Why? Because comprehensive sex ed keeps kids safe. It teaches them vocabulary so that they can identify, you know, that they can say the words, they can use the words to identify their body parts. They can set boundaries. They can identify the word consent. They have better outcomes when it comes to unwanted pregnancy, STIs, healthy relationship boundaries, all of that stuff. And so we got wind of the fact that she was going to send her zero blog followers to come to our meeting. And I'm glad she did because then I contacted all the people that I know and love and they were able to show up, people from GLSEN, former board members who were part of the LGBTQ community. Like just so many people showed up to say, we care about this. And that was in 2019. And I was surprised because we are an urban district, a Title I district for the most part, where we want parent engagement, but it doesn't happen as much because of the conditions of our families. So many of our family members work two, three jobs, right? But they also care about the kids. And those parents showed up as well. So it was just lovely. And now seeing what's happening at school board meetings and seeing the fact that they are almost always the same people, like people from Turning Point USA, which is right in our backyard in Scottsdale, right? That is a big twist. I can't imagine that Katie's going through that, but I would love to hear if she is. I hope she's not.

Katie Gipson-McLean

No, thankfully not going through that. And I appreciate it.

Richie Taylor

I do think that that 2019 year is something of an important time in Arizona, in particular in public education. I think that that is when, snd maybe this is when I started paying more closely attention to it because of where I was working. But in 2019, when the legislature repealed the law with the horrible moniker, No Promo Homo, but the law that had basically chilled debate in Arizona public schools or discussion of issues around LGBTQ issues and something about sex education as well, when that was repealed, you started to see a backlash from people like Peggy McClain, whom I'm intimately aware of as well, being a frequent target of her blog, you started to see this backlash and then the pandemic happened a year later. And you saw what that did to people's beliefs and supercharged some of this hateful rhetoric, the QAnon type rhetoric that you started to see around LGBTQ people and this debate over pedophilia, et cetera, I think really got its roots in Arizona in 2019 with that backlash to the repeal of No Promo Homo. And I think you started to see people start coming to the State Board of Education then to attack the department for Superintendent Hoffman's support of LGBTQ students and their rights. And I think that's particularly when I started to see that ramp up and then after the pandemic with school closures and then the election that year, I think it has only grown since then, and supercharged from all of that.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, and for context, that No Promo Homo law was essentially the same as what they call Don't Say Gay in Florida.

Richie Taylor

Exactly, yes, yes.

Jeanne Woodbury

Which, when did that come around? Right after that, right?

Richie Taylor

Yeah. So in the wake of repealing that law, all we really saw was a backlash so strong that maybe it went even, some of these laws go further than No Promo Homo, went more explicitly anti-LGBTQ, specifically anti-queer. I mean, No Promo Homo was written in a way that just didn't really say that, but chilled debate anyway. These new laws actually are explicitly, you know, directed at trans students and queer students and families in a way that No Promo Homo really wasn't.

Katie Gipson-McLean

Yeah, like Don't Ask, Don't Tell but for schools, basically.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, that's a great way to explain it. I think those backlash moments are really interesting. And with the pandemic, it's only even more of a backlash where people just have sometimes like a completely unformed anger towards their schools, just for not being able to stay exactly the same during a pandemic. And it definitely feels, to me at least, like there's a worse environment now than there was four years ago. I think that's unquestionable.

Richie Taylor

Unquestionably, I would say yes.

Katie Gipson-McLean

I would agree with that. And at the same time, the other thing I would point out is — I totally agree with that statement. And I feel like this is so cyclical, right? And like, if we look back to the 80s, I was a mere babe, but I didn't go to school then. But what I know is kind of like, I just watched this cool documentary about Judy Blume. We all… most people love Judy Blume, right? There were people that wanted to ban her books, okay? 'Cause she talked about sex and kids, right? I think we see this time in waves and in cycles, depending on the cultural moments in our country, at least at a national level, and unfortunately, or however you look at it, I don't know, I guess we'll see the fruits of it someday, but we tend to be at the center of some of those cultural moments in our nation as Arizonans and kind of politically speaking throughout history. So I think, kind of remembering that this is bad now and there are points where we can kind of identify where things have happened and knowing that this is, you know, clearly something we faced and dealt with in the past, but obviously we haven't gotten to a point where people are respected, identities are acknowledged, or people are simply acknowledged for existing, and that's the bare minimum, right? That we're trying to get to, let alone celebrating people and having people feel safe and fulfilled. So, you know, yeah, that's all I was gonna add, was, you know, we do see these cycles, but, you know, where are we going from here? And it's troubling how kind of how much vitriol and things are are really fueling this right now. And kind of where do we even find the solutions? I'm not sure.

Richie Taylor

I do think I do think that that's a really interesting point, too. I mean, there are reactions to these backlashes, too. And I think that you're starting to see people who are who are who are not, you know, specifically plugged into to queer issues or the or the trans debate, but are turned off and just feel like this attack on vulnerable students has gone too far and is too much, and they're not okay with that, even though they may not be as informed on the issue or about the issues particularly, but just this vitriolic hatred for a lot of people is too much, and the disruption in school districts has gone too far. I think you'll see, you know, you see people, you see superintendents that have been fired, and we always don't necessarily know the reasons why, but you see the communities, even in places like Apache Junction, turning out and saying, "What's going on? We don't want the superintendent fired. We don't agree with these board members who keep trying to force this culture war on us." So I do think, and if we can be hopeful at all, I think maybe there's some hope that there's a reaction to this vitriolic, disgusting attacks against the LGBTQ community.

Jeanne Casteen

I actually had a meeting last week in central Scottsdale with a bunch of, you know, very well-informed voters. And the thing that I tried to leave them with, because I always try to leave people with a bit of hope. And the thing is, they are loud, but we are many.

Richie Taylor

Yeah.

Jeanne Casteen

You know, like these people who are showing up, and it could, I hope it doesn't happen in Creighton for crying out loud, but it could. These people are, they're crisis actors, really. Like when they would talk about like David Hogg being a crisis actor for the Stoneman shooting or the — whatever, these people are showing up. They shut down Catalina Foothills yesterday. I think there was supposed to be a meeting. And the school board, because the meeting before that, the people showed up in support of the trans students. And so this meeting, well, they called in bomb threats. They are loud, but we are many. And that's the thing that we have to remember here is that, yeah, there's gonna be a lot of noisy people, but what they do is they travel all over the state. Some of them even travel through the region. They go to California, they go to New Mexico, they go to Nevada. Like these are not real individuals who live in the district. So what we have to remember is that the vast majority of people in Arizona, vast majority of the people in the United States want a fair and equitable, accessible, public education system. They do not like the vouchers. And it's been shown in Texas, in Georgia, in Iowa, in all these states that are rejecting it. Unfortunately, Arizona is a blueprint for bad ideas. But if we can keep speaking truth to power, that's what we need to do.

Jeanne Woodbury

Well, Jeanne, I have a question for you. I know you do some tracking of groups that go from district to district. And I think like in terms of what you were saying, Richie, about people seeing the extent of the hate and responding by saying, "Oh, I don't wanna be associated with this." I think one thing that helps when people kind of overexpose themselves and the public is able to see that, "Oh, it's actually just this one group that's doing it, and I don't have to be affiliated with them." So are there specific groups that you're seeing show up to these meetings across the state?

Jeanne Casteen

Oh, yeah. I mean, like I said, Turning Point USA, their headquarters are in Scottsdale, Arizona. Their legal team, I think it's like $3 million annually that they spend for their budget on the legal department in TP USA. We've got Alliance Defending Freedom, they've taken the case of, you know, WESD fighting against a non-renewal, a nothing agenda item, a nothing agenda item, but the Alliance Defending Freedom, who, by the way, is responsible for the law in Uganda that now makes being LGBTQ illegal and in some cases punishable by death. They will not stop. And so that's the scary part for me. Like I just attended the AA conference, the American Atheist Conference that was here in Phoenix, and Andrew Seidel, who's a constitutional attorney and a renowned atheist, when I talked to him individually, he said, "My biggest concern right now is the judiciary." And that's where Katie is such an important voice to have on our school boards, right? Not only to question who our attorneys are at the school board level, but also to just really be able to pose those questions. I wish all the time… I thought for for a split second that I would become an attorney at some point, I really wish that I did. But instead I got into education. But like the judiciary is where we all have to really pay attention. We don't know what they're gonna do, go ahead.

Katie Gipson-McLean

I don't know that you wish you did. I was just gonna say that.

(laughing)

Richie Taylor

To Jeanne's point, and let's not kid ourselves, these groups are well-funded. These groups are funded through dark money interests. These groups are funded by right-wing, very right-wing, very wealthy people, and they have an agenda. And the agenda is very clear.

Katie Gipson-McLean

And so organized.

Richie Taylor

Very organized. They've learned lessons. They are fighting this cultural war on levels that people aren't necessarily even aware of. And that is of great concern.

Jeanne Woodbury

My hope is that if people can really see that for what it is, that the power of people and democracy will make that sort of an irrelevant strategy, no matter how much they strategize. But on the other hand, it's a question of timing. If they can make it so intolerable to be a caring person on a school board, then it—

Richie Taylor

For long enough of a time.

Jeanne Woodbury

For a long enough time. then that'll be kind of impossible then for our votes to matter. And so I'm wondering if...

Richie Taylor

And if they can drive enough teachers out of the profession and make working for a public school district so difficult and so challenging. And we're seeing this. There's a teacher shortage. We know that. We know about that a lot. We hear about that a lot. There's a principal shortage. There's a superintendent shortage. It's challenging in many areas to get people, even good people, to run for school boards, particularly in rural areas where some of these debates have really destroyed small communities. And so all of this is part of the larger strategy to hurt and gut public education. And to your point, Jeanne, the longer that they can allow that to go on, the harder it will ever be to put it back together.

Jeanne Woodbury

Right. And I feel like that's exploiting the way things are structured.

Richie Taylor

Yes, yes.

Jeanne Woodbury

So if it's a structural problem...

Richie Taylor

It's death by a thousand cuts.

Jeanne Woodbury

Then are there structural solutions?

Richie Taylor

I think so.

Jeanne Casteen

So I just posted in the chat, and if you want to share with... Because I know that we're doing a hybrid model right now, but I just put in Turning Point USA, which is based in Scottsdale, has a school board watch list where you can basically connect with Moms for Liberty and all these other groups. If I can find that link, I will share it as well because Moms for Liberty is a hate group. They are basically, you know, under the umbrella of all these SPLC hate groups. They're a terrible organization. And, but — but they are able to feed like this vitriol to their members. And like Richie said, they are talking about things that aren't even agendized, which is a violation of open meeting law, essentially. But their school board members are trained to do that. As a matter of fact, if anybody wants to be a mole this, I think, weekend, there is a training that's happening. I would love to be able to show up at that training with all these MAGA school board members because they are being trained in the worst possible ways. Like they're not learning how to be a collaborative member of a governing body. They assume that, and make no mistake, they are going to run for higher office. They're doing this right now, the same way that we should be doing this to build a bench, right? But we need to provide better supports for our school board members that want to perhaps launch into the legislative space or the congressional space or the city council or board of supervisors space. And when they go to these meetings and they're inundated with hate-filled vitriol, they're not gonna run again. So that's one of the reasons why we decided to support those members, because they are out there kind of on an island by themselves without support. And so we need to make sure that we support them.

Richie Taylor

I do think that's excellent advice and things we should be doing from our standpoint. I think there are things structurally in state government that could and should be done. I think our public district schools are over-regulated. There are so many things that they are required to do that those requirements do not have to be meant for voucher money. Charter schools are kind of in the middle space there. I think that there are things that need to be rolled back that public schools are required to do and let school boards have more control so that school boards can enact policies that work for their communities. I think that's something, I know in Arizona, it comes down to obviously, flipping the legislature is critically important. I mean, we've got a governor now who in the next four years will be able to appoint new members to the State Board of Education. Most of the people serving on that board are Ducey appointees still at this point. So it's going to take time, but flipping the legislature and starting to enact sane education policy and roll back some of this 20 years of regulations from the state level. I think there's work that has to be done at the federal level which obviously is going to be tremendously difficult, to work on anything at the federal level given the state of things currently. But starting at those points is probably where we need to go over the next decade or so.

Jeanne Woodbury

What about with something as simple as legal defense for a school district? Katie, you were talking about this a little bit in terms of just how each district has its own attorney and has to manage its own risk. Is there maybe a different way that we could be doing that in Arizona to have more of a way to defend school districts against activist legal groups like ADF or Turning Point?

Katie Gipson-McLean

Well, I think there's a couple. I think that's a great question, and I think there's a few different answers. Number one is technically, the county attorney in your county is supposed to represent theoretically all the school districts, the way the statute is written. However, there's like a caveat that allows you to get other representation as long as the county attorney approves of it. And that's how kind of this trust has come to exist, right? Because any attorney who's hired through this trust is like blanketly accepted, at least in Maricopa County by the county attorney. So I think one, if we had a county attorney who was of a different political party in Maricopa County or in different counties, and they were able to really, you know, stand up for the districts, that would be one thing. I think also, you know, the way that some of the statutes are written also dictate, like basically, you know, we have these standard policies that we adopt from ASBA, however, there is statute — sorry I don't have it memorized — that basically says like, if you adopt your own policy, that's different from ASBA, you know, you're gonna have to get that vetted, like you're assuming some sort of risk by like having policies that are different than the ones that we know are safe from ASBA, right? And so a lot of people don't even want to dip their toes into that because it's too confusing and too cumbersome and too much work and too much risk, all of those things. And so we kind of are just have our hands — I think a lot of school boards aren't even making policy. They're just kind of directing administrators on what to do and not really making policy and then just having the same policy. It's funny because if you go on BoardDocs, which is what everybody uses, some of the districts accidentally have it linked to like where you can see every single school district. And I've done some looking and everybody has the same dang policies. It's like hilarious to think that we have a different set of policies because our districts just have the same darn things. And so yeah, I think that that could also be potentially helpful. I mean, given the situation we're in now where the reality isn't the fact where anybody from the county attorney's office is going to be backing us up on anything. The Trust attorneys probably aren't. We've seen this happen. Well, my, my brain is not working right now, but like community based defense, whether that be civil or criminal ways to kind of come together as communities and collectively support the legal defense of folks and participate in that is something that I think could definitely help. It's something we see on the criminal side, and I haven't seen it necessarily organizing on the civil side when it comes to these sort of things, when people who are normal folks on school boards are then terrified that they're going to lose everything they own or their livelihood, right? Because we aren't the police or other government officials who are protected by qualified immunity, right? And so every single one of those Washington Elementary school board members is named both in a professional and personal capacity, right? So they're personally being sued for this decision as well. And that's terrifying, I'm sure, especially for people who have no connections to the legal system and don't have a concept of who this firm is or how dumb this lawsuit is, right? You know, at any cross and being involved in any way, and I see it on whenever I have someone new to the system, it's terrifying for people, right? And so I think there's some things we could mirror from the things that I see on the criminal side. You know, there's organizations like Mass Lib, who when all of this nonsense went down, and I was an attorney on one of the protest cases, very much helped organized, organize defense and organize us as criminal defense attorneys, so that we were kind of like working on the same page and coming at things with like a collective argument, because there's power in that rather than trying to, you know, operate on islands and figure out how we're going to attack this massive thing that is the state or in this regard what that would be is this massive economic powerhouse that is just seemingly has a bottomless pit of money and resources to go after people, right? I think that we could see something like that happen and I think that's a great idea, Richie. I feel like I don't know exactly how logistically that would work, but I think you could do the same thing essentially on the civil side. And then I was also going to go back and say like I'm really good friends with Lindsay Love, right? She's one of my best friends and she's someone who, you know, had all those cuts, right? And then at a certain point, while I'm sure she had it in her to like, go through this and she's not someone that's ever gonna like change anything or back down, at a certain point, you know, she's exhausted and doesn't want to run again. And at the same time, as a Black woman, to expect her to continue to suffer through that is also not appropriate, and I could see that go for pretty much anyone of any kind of marginalized community. I would hate to expect someone to do that. And so I think the power, again, really comes in the people and the communities. And sometimes when people ask me those questions about, "Are you scared of people coming?" I give you my politically correct and prim and proper answer, but given the neighborhood that I grew up in, I would love to say that like, hell no, nobody better come up in my damn board meeting 'cause they're not from my neighborhood, they don't know me, I will go back, revert to my childlike behaviors 'cause I am not gonna put up with no nonsense or bullshit from people just showing up from the burbs 'cause that's exactly the opposite of how I was raised and that's just not gonna happen. But I'm also like a straight, cis, white woman who's a professional who like, you know, I don't have a ton to be frightened of, right? And that's why I'm intentional in kind of how loud I am and where I'm speaking up, right? But not everybody has that luxury. And so, gosh, it's just such a nuanced, like intentional and like, it's gonna take a lot of organization. And I say that, you know, a lot, that our side isn't as organized, right? Like we are not, and I'm talking like across the board, right? There's not a collective movement happening. We're not organized around one kind of goal. And so and that's what we're up against is money and people who are, who have spent years, decades organizing around a collective ideology, that, you know, it's hard to go up against this force, because we're not matching it with the same, the same system and the same energy, we might have the same energy, but we're not, you know, we're not bringing it together, I guess. So I'll stop rambling. I know I kind of went all over the place there, but.

Jeanne Woodbury

No, that was great.

Katie Gipson-McLean

And you see my three-year-old, I need to go put him in his bed, so I'll be right back.

Richie Taylor

I think Katie was right on a lot of that. I think we've got to build community, we've got to build coalitions, we've got to work together with people who are like-minded, who don't agree with the way and direction things are going in public education. I think there's a lot of organizing to be done. I think there's a lot of people to educate about what can be possible when we work together, but it's a long road, I think.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, I think so. And I think that it's really great to think about how can we open up possibilities in public education, and then how can we defend those possibilities from these challenges and make it a healthier and more sustainable and creative space. We have a couple audience questions. So if it's okay, I'm going to enter those into the record. So we all talked about how public schools were deemed failing. There was that whole thing where public schools are failing. And the question is, is that about spending? Is that actually based on reality? Or was it sort of a political statement? I guess back with No Child Left Behind, going back that far.

Jeanne Casteen

I can't remember the name of the study that was put out. It was in the '90s. And it was about our failing schools. A Nation at Risk. A Nation at Risk, right? And so this planted the seed for a lot of the GOP people to just not want to have anything to do with our public schools. They determined that public schools should be privatized, that they should be run as businesses. Now we've seen Tom Horne reinstalled as a superintendent of public schools, although he seems to be a superintendent of private schools. But it's systematic. It's been going on for 30 years now. Arizona really is, like I said, the petri dish of bad ideas. And now, thankfully, other states like Georgia, Texas, Iowa, et cetera, are looking at us and rejecting what we've done. But the thing that I'm most concerned about is how our budget is going to be affected by this. We've even seen the original ESA parents, the voucher parents who are parents of children with disabilities coming and testifying at the board meetings at the ADE to say, "This is not what we were supposed to be getting."

Richie Taylor

And I think it goes back, I think that goes, the question you asked, Jeanne, goes back to how do you measure success in education? You know, if we're just measuring how many students can pass a certain test or pass certain tests, then that's one data point. But public school, to me, and I went to public schools in the rural part of Arizona. I learned how to read and write and do math, but the bigger part of it for me and the bigger thing that we need to talk about in public education is the importance of being around people who are different than you and learning to work together with them. I went to school with people who, you know, largely it was our small community, but it was the only school in town, so all the kids had to go there and learn from each other and we learned how to interact with each other when we came from different backgrounds. And that's the real importance of public education, is coming into contact with people who are different than you, learning to work together, learning to live together. And that's the lesson and the thing that's not really part of this debate. Sure, test and testing is important to a degree, but what's more important is the skills you learn as a human being in a school environment where you have to be faced with people who are different than you and come from a different background than you. And that's what's so offensive to the people on the far right. They don't want that.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, that's perfect. That's the perfect answer. So I think the last thing, there was a question about the Empowerment Hotline, which for context is basically a way to call the Department of Education and say, "People are being nice to trans kids. I don't like it, so I'm going to report it." That's kind of a facetious way to say it, but that's the Empowerment Hotline, and the question is, it feels like there isn't really anything we can do about things like that being put into place, but what can we do? What can average people, private citizens do about things like the empowerment hotline? And I would say, honestly, in a lot of what we're talking about with public education and the attacks on public education, a lot of it comes down to making it impossible for people to treat individual situations as individual situations. If there's conflict between people in a school, all of a sudden it gets elevated to a level that's totally abstract.

Richie Taylor

And then a policy is developed from there, even though it was an isolated, cherry-picked, maybe not even accurate portrayal of whatever the incident even was. And the idea that we set policy for a state a nation based on anecdotes is a huge part of the problem too.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah.

Katie Gipson-McLean

Oh my gosh, yes. Can we listen to data, please? And not like legislate for one person.

Jeanne Casteen

Yeah. So one thing I put it in the the Zoom chat, so hopefully you can share it with the folks who are there in person. We have a volunteer form with Secular AZ, where we are trying to get people signed up. And you know what? They're signing up. This is the most heartening thing of my organizational experience. I love this organization. I'm so lucky to have this job. It's hard sometimes, but I actually get to engage people at the local level. So if you want to get signed up, we will — like tomorrow, tomorrow night, in Peoria Unified school district, we have a board member who is supported by Liberty, Mom's Liberty, whatever they're called. I don't even know. Moms of Liberty. She is reading scripture at every meeting. Like, she is enlisting people to show up to these meetings and just say the most horrible things about our trans students and about our LGBTQ students. And what I've also heard from our school board members. And the reason why I decided to really branch out into school board support is because as a school board member, I know for me from 2012 to 2020, it was the most beautifully rewarding job I've ever had in my whole entire professional career. I loved it. We got to do amazing things, but right now it's hard. So Lindsay Love from Chandler Unified, she decided not to run again. And she said, I appreciate y'all for helping me get elected, but where were you when I was being attacked? So all of us, Secular AZ, Save Our Schools Arizona, CEBV, all of us, we're just like, let's make sure that these school board members are supported. So if you you can support your school board members who are increasingly under attack. I mean, to the point where Catalina Foothills shut down its meeting last night because of bomb threats. Like that's what we need right now. We need people, whether you can just call, send an email, fill a seat, just sit there and be a smiling face. Or if you can actually speak. That is so important right now because this is how we build a bench, right? These folks are going to be the ones who run for the legislature, who run for Congress, who run for their state or for their city councils, whatever. So if there's any way that you can just be like, okay, this is my school district. I live in Washington El and Glendale High School District. This is where I'll show up. And I'm showing up to Peoria too, because I don't like that woman. That's the truth. So like, if you can show up, just show up.

Katie Gipson-McLean

And even showing up sometimes, because there's so many wonderful, like so many, I don't even know what adjectives to use 'cause I'm the worst at it. But youth, especially in these districts where this is all going on and in Peoria, I actually have a good family friend, Micah, who is such a cool kid and does tons of political organizing but is also a student in Peoria and then shows up to these meetings and puts himself out there as a queer young man and like stands up to these people. And it's just like breathtaking to see, but at the same time, we need people there to help them feel like supported and protected.

Jeanne Casteen

I worry daily about like Dawn Shim, right? I worry about their mental health because they are going all over the valley. And we have our little school group, our school board support network that we're trying to support these kids. And I'm just like, gosh, can Dawn handle it right now? I worry so much. So yes, the adults can take the burden off the kids 'cause the kids should just be learning and participating and not necessarily showing up to their school board meetings. I'm grateful that they're-

Katie Gipson-McLean

I mean, I like it. But they should they should also not fear it afterwards they should be able to just be there and be themselves. They shouldn't have to, right? They should, they should show up for other issues, right? Not just like about them being human beings who are, you know, acknowledged and accepted for who they are.

Richie Taylor

I am in awe.

Katie Gipson-McLean

I would want them there advocating for other things.

Richie Taylor

I wish that they didn't have to — I wish that they didn't have to do this with their time at their age, but I am in awe of the youth that are in our schools, in our public schools, and the things they're standing up for, and the bravery they're showing in the face of unrelenting hatred. I just, I think, you know, if anything gives me hope, it's them.

Jeanne Woodbury

Yeah, I agree. Well, we've got to wrap up, but thanks to all of you for being on this panel with me today. And yeah, I'll have all those links that you talked about in the episode notes when we publish this as a podcast. And for all of you who didn't know this, Jeanne and Katie didn't know about this event until an hour ago. And two of our other panelists dropped out at the last minute and they filled in beautifully and magically. So I'm really grateful to both of you and of course also to Richie as well. So thank you. Thanks everyone.

(gentle music)

Our next Ask Smart People Smart Questions event: Substance Use

6:30 pm - 7:30 pm May 24, 2023 | register

With each installment of Ask Smart People Smart Questions, Equality Arizona convenes a panel of experts to talk about the bigger picture of the big issues that affect the LGBTQ+ community in Arizona. With LGBTQ+ people more likely to experience mental health issues, homelessness, and harassment, our community reports rates of substance use and abuse at roughly twice that of the overall adult population. Over the course of an hour, we’ll cover four big questions about substance use and policy solutions with the goal of adding important context to the conversation.