Scarlett Johnson is a suburban Milwaukee mother of five and one of the organizers of an effort to recall members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board — an effort that drew national attention. The incumbent school board members survived the recall attempt, and when Johnson and another reformist ran to replace two members whose terms expired, they were defeated by a former school board member and an education bureaucrat.
Johnson remains undaunted — she is still active in trying to reform the district. She sat down with Badger Institute Policy Director Patrick McIlheran this week to explain what drove her to act on behalf of her local schools, and why more parents should do so.
I grew up in Milwaukee. I was born on the South Side, very poor. My mom was 14 when she had me. She’s Puerto Rican. My dad was a troublemaker. He was in gangs, and the judge gave him the option: He could join the Marines or go to jail. So, he joined the Marines.
And that decision changed his life. It gave him the direction that he needed.
Whenever I would try to complain, my dad would say, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Complaining was not on the agenda.
That mentality, it was just the best gift that my parents could give me because I learned how to work hard. I did finish college. I had the opportunity to go to law school at Marquette, and I did, but I dropped out after the first year after I had my son. I proceeded to have my son and then four other daughters, and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom now for 22 years.
And recently, I’ve become a political activist.
A little over two years ago, they would have been thrilled at my desire to serve on the school board. I volunteered in my kids’ classrooms since they were little. I was a room mom. I was playground supervisor, lunchroom mom, field trips.
And so, during COVID, when the schools initially shut down, I of course was understanding. We didn’t know what was happening. Everyone was in the same boat.
I was hoping that, over the summer, things would start to resume some sort of normalcy. And I started to write letters to my mayor, my alderman, common council, and to my superintendent just to make sure that they knew that the expectation was that things were going to start to have some normalcy for the kids, that they were not doing well in this level of isolation.
I started to go to school board meetings for the first time. Before this, I didn’t even know the name of my school board members.
And I found like-minded parents, and we started to do the same thing: Okay, let’s write. Because once we write our school board members, and once they know how we stand, they’re of course going to listen to us.
What was very shocking to me because, as I started to dig, and as other parents started to dig, and started to attend school board meetings, we started to notice this trend of decline.
Our district releases, every year, a report card, and we started to see that this decline did not start with COVID. It had actually started as early as 2015.
When my son graduated, (Mequon) was still – it was starting to decline, but it was still one of the top districts in the country, definitely in the state. It is no longer those things.
Our district, we expect more. We’re very engaged parents. We’re a very engaged community. And excellence used to be the mantra of our district until we replaced excellence with equity.
Equity is a race to the middle. When we are focused on excellence, then you are trying to give every child the equal opportunity at the best education possible. When you’re focused on equity, it is more about equalizing the outcomes. It acts as a ceiling, not a floor. It limits growth.
I have stats here. As we started to implement the equity policy, it hurt kids on all levels of all racial groups. It hurts minority kids the most.
Since 2016, math scores among black students in (Mequon-Thiensville School District): a decline of 12.3%. In English scores, 10%.
Among Hispanics, English scores have declined 9.9%. Students with disabilities, English scores have declined 9.8%, 6.2% in math.
For white students, it’s been a 6.6% decline in math scores and a 4% decline in English scores.
When equity becomes a priority, there is a fundamental change in the way the district runs. What I learned from talking to teachers is that instead of hiring more specialists – reading specialists, math specialists, interventionists – we were hiring more equity coaches. We were hiring more administrators that would monitor race, equity, inclusion, diversity.
This is not because of parents. This is because of the administrators, because of the (Department of Public Instruction) requirements, because (teachers) are constantly under surveillance, because they cannot control or discipline their classrooms anymore.
In Mequon, half of our property taxes go to fund our schools, and we are happy to do it if they are functioning, if they are competent.
But they aren’t. They are average. We have average, and we are satisfied with average. We’re satisfied with the status quo. We’re satisfied with mediocrity.
We’ll start to talk about the Critical Race Theory, but Critical Race Theory is not taught in public schools, and parents like myself, we never have claimed that it is. It is the lens through which curriculums and theories in education come about. It is the lens that states that it is whiteness, that it is white supremacy to value Western values such as competence, excellence, individualism, property rights. Anything that has to do with basically our founders’ vision, that is now considered white supremacy. It is the system that they want to overhaul.
Every Thursday, DPI would hold Zoom meetings. They are free to the public because they’re funded by us. They’re meant for teachers and educators and administrators, but parents can listen in.
And every week, what I heard shocked me and rocked me to my core. And every week, when I thought, “It can’t get worse,” it did. The things that were stated were Marxist in nature, openly so.
They had a visible chip on their shoulder and, I don’t want to say hatred, but a disdain for America. They do not love America.
These weren’t teachers speaking. These were the equity coaches, the counselors, the (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) experts. We buy their literature. We put it up on our website. It’s shocking. And it’s so systemic and it’s so ingrained that it’s going to take a long time to unravel.
And that’s why I believe that parents need to have choice in education. They need to be able to have an escape hatch. They need to be able to get out of public school systems and into schools that align with their values.
I’m Hispanic. The values that are present in these very progressive, extremist curriculums do not align with the Hispanic community. They’re anti-family. They’re anti-God. They are anti-parent. They promote an agenda that doesn’t fit with the Hispanic culture, the familia. They want to subvert the family and give that child a new family, and that is not their job.
Their job is to educate. Their job is not to indoctrinate. Schools are not a place where we indoctrinate and we create an army of woke.
And I think that most parents agree, which is why we have seen the fundamental change across America. It’s why groups like Moms for Liberty have been formed, Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education.
These are spontaneous, grassroots movements. My group, the group that formed in Mequon-Thiensville, we had never been politically active before in our life, all of us.
We want to restore (the public school system). We want to bring it back to life.
And in America, we’re the only ones who can stop this. We are the heroes that this world needs. We all can be a hero. Each one in our small way, me in this tiny little town in Wisconsin. Everyone has it in them. They just have to dig down and find it, and they have to care more about their children and more about liberty than they do being popular and liked.
This is an edited synopsis of a longer interview. Some quotes have been moved in order to make the narrative flow. A brief portion of her remarks are also included in this video.