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Transgender Issues Energize Typically Sleepy School Board Elections

The debate over who should use which bathrooms led to record turnout in at least two elections last year. Transgender advocates expect more competition this year.

transgender bathrooms
School board elections are far from sleepy affairs these days. Million-dollar races are not unheard of, often ignited by hot-button issues such as vouchers and charter schools. The latest flashpoint is over transgender access to bathrooms and lockers. The issue was central to campaigns last year in districts in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Virginia.

Schools around the country -- sometimes under pressure from the Obama administration -- changed their policies to allow transgender students to use facilities that conform with their gender identity. But parents have objected in many places, including suburban Chicago.

Early last year, Illinois state Rep. Tom Morrison introduced legislation that would compel students to use bathrooms in line with their biological sex at birth. When schools in his district took the opposite approach, Morrison supported a slate of candidates seeking to unseat incumbent school board members that he said had failed to reflect the values of the community. “Parents have a reasonable expectation to know that there is a policy that these private areas are designated by biological sex,” Vicki Wilson, founder of a local parents’ group, said during the campaign last spring. 

Despite support from a prominent conservative donor -- outside money came into the race from both sides -- the incumbent slate prevailed, although the margins were close. “The result may not have been reflective of the issue itself,” Morrison says. “With such a low turnout election, it’s hard to say how much this was a factor.”

But a similar fight over transgender access led to record turnout in Fairfield, Iowa. For the past decade, state law has offered anti-discrimination protections based on gender. “Transgender civil rights are written into our constitution,” say state Rep. Phil Miller, who was president of the school board when it set its access policy. “You cannot discriminate against a person if they choose a gender different from their birth.”

As in Morrison’s district, the entire slate that opposed the policy lost. “We’ve had no incidents of trans individuals assaulting a cisgender individual,” says Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, an LGBTQ youth organization. A cisgender indivdual is someone whose gender identity conforms with his or her biological sex. “But we have had instances of trans students being bullied.”

The Trump administration withdrew Obama-era guidance to schools regarding transgender bathroom access. But the issue isn’t likely to fade away anytime soon. Morrison predicts there will continue to be arguments about transgender kids participating in athletics. Individual states or districts may also pursue policies on their own, as with a California district that recently rejected a “model parental rights” proposal to allow charter schools to opt out of transgender instruction.

What’s more, transgender candidates were elected to local school boards in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in November. “We expect to see more progress and more transgender people and parents of transgender students running for school boards in 2018,” says Harper Jean Tobin, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality. 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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