BUCKS COUNTY, Pa. ― It all started with COVID.
When the coronavirus began spreading in the United States, the 23 schools in the Central Bucks School District were forced to shutter to keep students and staff safe. When students eventually returned to classrooms, they were still following safety measures like masking and social distancing.
Many parents in the wealthy, majority-white Bucks County refused to accept the new reality — and they made their opposition known at school board meetings.
“We had this fairly active group that was coming in to make public comments, speaking at every meeting,” Karen Smith, who represents some of the towns that make up the district for the board, told HuffPost. “And they were adamantly opposed to wearing masks.”
The battles over masks and COVID safety measures — which Smith saw as commonsense steps to keep kids and staff safe — became so heated that they inspired her to become a Democrat after six years on the school board as a Republican.
As time went on, Smith noticed school board meetings that were supposed to be about pandemic policies veering in very different directions: primarily, toward anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and panic over “critical race theory.”
Residents would come to public meetings and read excerpts from books they wanted to ban, cherry-picking explicit passages so they could accuse the libraries of having pornographic material.
“They take ‘Genderqueer’ and they open it up to the page where there is a dildo blow job, but they don’t talk about the rest of the book or what the book is even about,” Smith said, referring to Maia Kobabe’s bestselling book that describes their journey to figuring out they’re nonbinary.
When the school board election rolled around in November 2021, and five seats were up for grabs, the divide was clear. Democratic candidates generally ran on COVID safety, while Republicans candidates bolstered their campaigns by claiming the mantle of “parental rights,” which included anti-masking, vitriol about gender identity and outrage about CRT, a college-level academic theory that conservatives claim is being taught in public schools and used to teach white children to hate themselves.
The parental rights crowd won out, and the Central Bucks school board became a 6-3 conservative majority.
With that came a tangled web of proposals designed to silence anyone who isn’t white, straight, cisgender and conservative, including rules to dictate what teachers can wear and how students can express their gender identity and sexuality.
Conservatives may be preaching about specific issues — like so-called sexually inappropriate library books being made available to students — but the whole movement is about destabilizing public institutions like schools.
This dynamic is playing out in school districts across the country, especially in reliably red states. But in perennially purple Pennsylvania, the moral panic over social justice and books with LGBTQ themes is happening against the backdrop of critical midterm races that could determine the state’s political leanings for years to come. Republican Mehmet Oz, a TV doctor who is vowing to fight cancel culture, is facing Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) in a tight Senate race. And for governor, far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Christian nationalist who has advocated for banning books, is up against Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The school board proposes a controversial new library policy
About eight months after the conservative majority took over the school board, dozens of Bucks County residents gathered before a vote on Policy 109.2, which lays out the criteria for removing books from school libraries and, critically, allows anyone in the district to challenge any book and potentially get it pulled from circulation.
More than two dozen people made public comments during the meeting, mostly to voice their opposition to the proposed policy.
“An apology to the three of you who are trying your damnedest to live up to your oath and protect the lives of children,” English teacher Stephen Albert said to the Democrats on the board. “But to the majority: At long last, have you no sense of shame?”
The room erupted in applause.
But the conservatives weren’t swayed, and the policy passed. There was scattered applause in the room, as well as a few boos. Meeting attendees yelled “Shame!” and “Shame on you!” as they filed out.
“Look at the adults we have in the room,” a Republican board member said sarcastically, reprimanding the people opposed to the policy.
Policy 109.2 was enacted in July, but educators, staff and residents are still waiting for the board to clarify who will be in charge of determining the fate of challenged books.
Smith was one of the votes against the library proposal. “No, absolutely not,” she said when she stepped up to vote.
The evidence of Smith’s new liberal leanings are clear both inside and outside of her home: She has a big rainbow flag flying outside, pro-reading bumper stickers on her cars and a tote bag declaring “READ BANNED BOOKS” next to her desk.
“These are human rights issues and the rights of our students,” Smith said. “I’m not going to be quiet about that.”
During the public comment section of one school board meeting last November, two residents made transphobic and antisemitic statements. Smith tried to cut off a man making antisemitic comments, but other board members pushed back and said she was infringing on residents’ First Amendment rights.
Many of those same conservative school board members were throwing their support behind the book-banning and censorship policy just a few months later.
Bucks County parents fight back
Kate Nazemi, who has two children in Central Bucks schools, is in staunch opposition to the new book policy. In September, she organized a parade against book banning.
Like Smith, she noticed a shift on the school board when the pandemic began. When experts said masking and social distancing would keep staff and students safe, conservatives pushed back and said they were wrong. When school librarians chose books with care for their students, the conservative majority said those books were inappropriate or pornographic.
“I called it the COVID formula: Belittle the experts in the field, and then say we don’t need to listen to them, we can figure it out our own way,” Nazemi said while sipping coffee in a busy cafe in Doylestown, the county seat.
“There’s this narrow worldview that is being applied to all 17,500 kids. It’s limiting kids’ access to books, materials and discussions in the classrooms,” she added. “How are these kids supposed to think critically about issues and develop as humans, if they are so limited in what they’re able to read and discuss and learn?”
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a complaint against the school board on behalf of seven students, alleging widespread discrimination and hostility toward LGBTQ students.
In the complaint, the lawyers say that the school board does things that actively harm LGBTQ students, including removing Pride flags and directing teachers not to use preferred names. They specifically call out the library book policy, saying it’s “a thinly disguised effort to censor LGBTQ+-themed materials.” The school board president responded by asking the ACLU to reveal the names of the students filing the complaint.
The U.S. Department of Education has opened up an investigation.
“The board members are not interested in a democracy,” Nazemi said. “What they want are either one of two things: public schools with Christian values, or public schools that fail so badly that we can then use our tax dollars to pay for private school.”
Some parents are worried that schools will be more likely to go down this path if Mastriano is in the governor’s mansion.
At an October hearing at the statehouse, parents from all over Pennsylvania testified in support of a parental rights bill that Mastriano had put forth. The bill says it aims to give parents more say in how public schools are run, but critics say it’s an attempt to silence and bully LGBTQ students and families.
His supporters showed up with campaign buttons on their clothing. Mastriano, who was present at the Jan. 6, 2021, riot but maintains he did not enter the U.S. Capitol building, is running a far-right campaign that aims to stoke fear of immigrants, liberals and transgender people among his fan base.
“What’s happened to us where bureaucrats get to decide how your kids identify? Pronoun games have no place in schools,” Mastriano said at the statehouse, apparently forgetting that grammar is a core part of schooling. “This has to end. Madness has come in. Parents have the last say, period.”
Various parents expressed similar thoughts. “School administrators all over the country, including Pennsylvania, have decided parents should be excluded from vital conversations with regard to their child’s education and well-being,” said Megan Brock, a parent from Bucks County.
Democratic state Sen. Maria Collett represents the 12th District, which includes CBSD. She didn’t participate in the parental rights bill hearing, even though she is a member of the state government committee.
“The people of the 12th District elected me to use my time, energy and resources to better their lives,” she said. “Not to legitimize horseshit.”
She is unabashed in her criticism of the conservatives leading the charge in the outrage over books.
“They distract, they deflect, and they make up a story about a boogeyman that is trying to lure your kid into an alley with a pornographic book,” Collett said from her office desk, which features a photo of herself and President Joe Biden.
“They don’t have answers to the problems that are plaguing Pennsylvania,” she added. “That’s why they’re so fixated on identity politics.”
Collett said her constituents aren’t calling her to complain about library books or rainbow flags in schools — they’re more worried about issues like Social Security benefits and unemployment plans.
Evidence of the “anti-lockdown” to “critical race theory panic” to “book-banning” pipeline can be found all across the country. What began as the idea that wearing a mask was an affront to freedom morphed into a panic about teaching kids about racial privilege in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, then seamlessly became an effort to censor books with racial justice or LGBTQ themes.
The book bans came first as a trickle, then as a storm. According to PEN America, the past year saw a record number of book challenges in schools and libraries across the country. State lawmakers proposed bills and made lists of books they wanted to ban; parents claimed that schools and libraries were filled with sexually explicit books, and that anyone who didn’t stand with them was aiding and abetting child abuse.
Why are books in school libraries the latest target for conservative ire? Books are democratizing. They help students expand their worldview. And if your end goal is control over society by any means, having a well-read and well-educated public is not in your best interest.
Although the Bucks County border is just 10 miles from Philadelphia, more than 80% of the 646,000 residents are white. The wealthy suburb typically leans Democratic, but the school board has lurched to the right in just one election cycle ― and some residents worry that the shift will only continue, especially considering Mastriano’s influence on the state.
Even if he loses the race, Mastriano and the CBSD are setting the stage for Pennsylvania to become a blueprint for conservatives in other states, not unlike how conservative education policies in Florida and Texas have provided a playbook for Pennsylvania’s GOP.
“We will still have like Mastriano-style politics here on the school board until the next election,” Nazemi said.
And if Mastriano does win, the effects are sure to be felt across the state. On the campaign trail, he has vowed to turn Pennsylvania into the Florida of the north.
“We have one of the candidates saying, ‘I want to model us after a state we’ve seen pass really damaging legislation that is hurting children, teachers and parents,’” Collett said. “If we don’t stand up and say, ‘No, not on my watch,’ then we all become complicit.”