Lacking political power in California, conservatives turn focus to local school boards

A woman speaking near California's Capitol building as others hold signs with messages including "Stop this war on children."
Chino Valley school board President Sonja Shaw speaks about her district’s policy on transgender students Monday outside the state Capitol in Sacramento.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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A Republican bill requiring school districts to inform parents if their children use a different gender identity at school from the sex on their birth certificate was such a nonstarter in the Democratically controlled California Legislature that it was not even taken up for discussion when introduced earlier this year.

But there was the bill’s author, Assemblymember Bill Essayli (R-Corona), standing in front of the state Capitol on Monday with an air of victory.

“I have a message to my colleagues in the Legislature: You can shut me up in Sacramento. But you cannot shut up the people of the state of California,” Essayli said to applause from a crowd of parent activists standing behind him.


His policy that stalled in the Legislature recently passed in two Southland school districts — first in Chino and then in Murietta. Essayli said he’s now bringing it “to every school district up and down this state” and predicted that many more would pass it in the weeks and months to come.

A group standing in a hallway outside an office door covered in a pride flag of fake flowers and a "Resist and persist" sign
Conservative parents and members of local school boards visit the office of state Sen. Caroline Menjivar (D-Panorama City) in Sacramento on Monday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In a state where Republicans have almost no political power at the Capitol — they haven’t won a statewide office since 2006 and hold fewer than a quarter of the seats in the Legislature — conservative efforts to shape school boards are now bearing fruit.

Parents who first mobilized during the COVID-19 pandemic to push for reopening schools and to fight vaccine and mask mandates are pivoting to clashes over race and gender issues in education. And while Republicans can’t get traction in Sacramento, they are finding some success on school boards in conservative pockets of California — and are hoping the education-based culture wars will help the GOP build power in the coming election year.

“We welcome this fight. Bring it,” a defiant Esssayli said of Democrats. “We want the public to know what your agenda is. And we want to run on this in the next election.”

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom clapped back Monday afternoon during a visit to Miwok Village Elementary School in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, refuting conservative allegations that state policies disrespect parents’ rights.


“There is no state in America that supports local control and parental engagement like the state of California,” Newsom said. “No one comes close.”

As evidence, Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom presented what they call California’s Family Agenda — his administration’s blueprint for involving parents in their children’s academics while ensuring students are protected from “politically motivated censorship.”

Newsom pointed to billions of dollars he’s allocated in state budgets during his time in office to increase access to free school meals, boost teachers’ professional development and expand mental health services. He contrasted those initiatives with moves in Republican-controlled states such as Florida to ban LGBTQ+-themed books and institute other school policies promoted by conservatives.

“We believe in children’s right to thrive,” he said. “We believe in parents’ rights to decide and support their kids. We believe that kids have the right to learn and the right to succeed. And that’s what our agenda lays out.”

Newsom said he was in the “process of understanding” some of the policies on transgender students being passed in districts such as Chino. He said he is working with the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus on legislation that might address those policies, but declined to offer specifics. A caucus spokesman also declined to add any details.

Conservatives running in school board races across California mostly fell short. Groups like the American Council say they’ll keep trying.

Nov. 29, 2022

The transgender parent notification policy is not the only issue sparking a clash between Democrats who run state government and the conservative parents and school boards.

A small crowd of people mingling in a hallway outside closed office doors
Families joined members of school boards in Sacramento on Monday, hoping to talk with lawmakers about LGBTQ+ issues in public education. Some local boards are passing conservative rules that state Democrats won’t consider.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Parent activists — including several wearing olive-green “Mom Army” T-shirts — made their way through lawmakers’ offices Monday to oppose a slate of bills. Among them: legislation to make it a misdemeanor to harass or threaten a school official; to allow the state to fine school districts that refuse to adopt a curriculum that meets the state’s diversity requirements; and to give teachers training in cultural competency on LGBTQ+ issues.

“It’s unfortunate that a small group of anti-LGBTQ+ school board members would rather play political games outside the Capitol than welcome students back to school and help them thrive,” Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles), former leader of the gay rights group Equality California, said in a statement.

Last month, Newsom threatened to fine a conservative Temecula school board $1.5 million after members refused to approve learning materials that included content on assassinated gay rights leader and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Five people at the front of a meeting room huddle near the California state flag for a discussion
Temecula Valley Unified School District board members talk before a public meeting July 18 about instructional materials that reference Harvey Milk — an issue that led to a clash with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Will Lester / Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images)

Temecula Valley Unified has since approved compliant textbooks, and the governor has dropped the threat of the fine. But the board’s actions nonetheless motivated Newsom to push for the legislation that calls for fining districts if they do not comply with the state’s LGBTQ+ instructional standards.


The Legislature’s LGBTQ Caucus said in a statement last month that it was “actively working on new approaches to ensure you can feel safe in the classroom,” and called the policy an attempt to “forcibly out” transgender and nonbinary students, including those who may not be safe at home if their parents become aware of their gender identity.

Also last month, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond attended a chaotic school board meeting in Chino, where he opposed the policy that notifies parents about students’ gender identities. The Chino Valley Unified board approved the policy despite a warning from California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta about potential legal action regarding privacy and anti-discrimination laws.

Assemblymember Essayli said he was working with a team of lawyers to ensure that the policies school boards adopt will hold up against potential lawsuits.

“We’d love to go to court. And we’d love to be in the Supreme Court,” Essayli said.

An organization called the Coalition for Parental Rights — which includes several Christian and conservative advocacy groups — has sprung up and is looking to advance the gender notification policy across California, said Jonathan Zachreson, a Roseville City School District board member who organized parents during the pandemic to fight school closures and mask and vaccine policies.

Conservative and parent groups are also in the early stages of crafting statewide ballot initiatives, Zachreson said. The proposals include a transgender parental notification policy, a measure involving transgender students in sports and a proposal on medical procedures for transgender youth.

In the meantime, Republican efforts to recruit and train school board candidates in last year’s election could build more momentum for next year.


In an interview at Monday’s event outside the Capitol, Chino Valley school board President Sonja Shaw said she hadn’t been involved in the California Republican Party before she ran for school board last year.

But as she was looking to build her campaign, she said she found training opportunities through the state GOP.

“They were more about giving parents a voice,” she said. “It was more support for what we were doing.”

Now she’s using the platform she’s gained over passing the transgender notification policy to rally conservative parents to run for school boards.

“We will continue to rise and push back and take those seats all over California,” Shaw said in a speech outside the Capitol. “We can do this, and we are going to.”

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LA Times Today: Lacking political power in California, conservatives turn focus to local school boards

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