San Antonio has been lucky, at least so far. We have been mostly spared the eruption of school board meetings into what the Washington Post has called “war zones,” besieged by parents and provocateurs angrily protesting mask mandates or the teaching of “critical race theory” or controversies about transgender athletes.

Such conflagrations from California to Virginia have drawn national media attention.

In these parts, such attacks have come not so much from the grassroots as from our Legislature, which has prohibited teachers from informing students of any historical realities that might make them uncomfortable. They’ve also come from our governor, who tried to ban mask mandates and has accused school librarians of pushing pornography on our kids, and from our attorney general, who has assisted the governor in taking his assault on transgender children and their families far beyond the athletic field.

In the North East Independent School District’s 2020 board election, five candidates were endorsed by the San Antonio Family Association, an ultra-conservative group that opposes COVID-19 mask mandates and NEISD’s middle school sex education program.

Steve Hilliard was the only one of the group’s five candidates who won, garnering 48% in a three-way race. School board races are won with a plurality and don’t require run-offs.

This year three NEISD trustees up for reelection are being challenged by another conservative group in the May 7 election, for which early voting begins Monday. It is something of a stealth campaign. Parents United for Freedom has a web page, but it doesn’t tell you who its leaders are, and it offers only generalities about its goals.

It describes itself as “grassroots effort to defend and protect parental rights within the school system and to reclaim our schools from the harmful agendas being promoted.” It adds that it is fighting “indoctrination” in the classrooms throughout San Antonio.

The group has a political action committee that reports that it is backing three challengers to NEISD incumbents. But if the PAC report with the Texas Ethics Commission is any indication, this grassroots group comprises a very small patch of grass.

The report lists $10,760 in total contributions. Of that, $10,000 came from personal injury lawyer Jason DeSouza. A contribution of $200 came from Paula Hilliard, wife of the sole trustee elected two years ago endorsed by San Antonio Family Association.

Only six other persons contributed to the PAC. 

Neither DeSouza nor any of the three candidates the group is backing — Marsha Landry, Jacqueline Klein and Diane Sciba Villarreal — agreed to be interviewed by San Antonio Report education reporter Brooke Crum for a recent article on the race. 

Only Villarreal has a campaign website I could find. On it she says, “Friends, we have problems in our schools today that call for a fresh approach.” But she gives no hint as to what problems she perceives. She just promises to work with parents.

Last year Parents United for Freedom made an appeal on GiveSendGo, which describes itself as “the leader in Christian fundraising.” The group listed a goal of $2,000 to set itself up as a nonprofit. It raised $1,230 from 13 contributors, with DeSouza Injury Lawyers again being listed as the largest contributor at $500.

On that page, the group proclaims: “We don’t co-parent with the government.” That sounds a lot like right-wing groups that refer to “state schools.”

The reality is that all of us who have not home-schooled our children have co-parented with teachers. And if we send our children to public schools, those teachers are government employees. We have somewhat different roles, but we are partners in raising the children.

We turn our children over to those government employees for about seven hours a day, five days a week. We task them with our children’s intellectual growth and, to a certain extent, with their emotional and physical well-being. We are inarguably co-parenting with them. The only way to avoid it is to home-school, but most of us have found that teachers are better trained to teach the necessary range of subjects than we are.

If Villarreal and the other candidates backed by Parents United are elected, they will be key members of the government that oversees the co-parenting between parents and teachers. 

In the case of NEISD, there is considerable evidence that the board respects parental freedom and parent power. The district allows parents to opt out of a middle school sex education program by signing a form.

Likewise, parents can require that school librarians notify them of the books their children are checking out, and can notify librarians of books they don’t want to be given to their children. 

Masks present a different challenge. Last August, shortly after the Texas Supreme Court blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, more than 150 persons attended a NEISD board meeting on whether to require students to wear masks when school reopened. More than 100 people spoke. Most were against the mandate, and many spoke angrily. Yet the school board voted 6-1 to require the masks.

One reason was that the district had sent out an email poll of community members on the issue. Nearly a thousand responded, favoring masks 2-1. This was during the height of the virulent Delta variant surge. Some said they would attend the meeting but were afraid that many of those attending would not be masked. Most weren’t. 

Masks have been proven to be helpful in keeping the wearer from breathing in viruses, but much more effective at stopping virus-infected droplets from escaping the wearer’s nose and mouth. Thus, allowing individual choice in the classroom is not an effective strategy for stopping the disease.

The San Antonio Family Association is not backing a slate of candidates this year, as Parents United is. But on its website the association expresses its concerns and gives some information.

Although school board races are nonpartisan, it lists the candidates’ names and their purported political party affiliation. The website, without listing how it came to that conclusion, lists all three incumbents as Democrats and all five challengers as Republicans. Apparently as far as the association is concerned, that’s all you need to know.

The website also lays out what the association views as the key issues in the school board race: “It’s time to STOP NEISD — STOP the mandates, CRT, sexual grooming.” Some right-wing groups and politicians equate any effort to recognize gay students and discourage bullying against them as “grooming.” 

That’s why it is safe to assume that when some of these groups call for parent power or parent freedom, they are not promoting power or freedom for all parents, but only for parents who agree with them. 

Many other parents want their children to learn at an appropriate age about slavery — about how cruel the institution was, how much progress we’ve made since then and how much is left to be done. If that causes some discomfort among some children, that is part of growing up.

Many other parents want their children to learn at an appropriate age about human sexuality and about the need to respect others who are different from them.

And many other parents want their children to learn the community values of protecting each other from serious disease.

Power and freedom to these parents — or “co-parents” — too.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.