Gavin Newsom Lacks the Power To Deliver on His Threats Against Local School Board

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D.) (Getty Images)
July 20, 2023

California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) lacks the legal authority to follow through on his threats against a local school board that rejected an LGBT-themed social studies curriculum.

Newsom announced on Wednesday that the state would deliver state textbooks "into the hands of students and their parents" and then "deliver the bill—along with a $1.5 million fine—to the [Temecula Valley Unified School District] board for its decision to willfully violate the law, subvert the will of parents, and force children to use an out-of-print textbook from 17 years ago."

But experts say California law does not empower Newsom to override the school board, and his own office acknowledges that his ability to levy the eye-popping fine depends on passing new legislation.

"I don’t know the legal authority on which Newsom is basing this," said attorney Chris Arend, who advises California school districts on how to navigate state requirements.

Newsom's latest rhetorical attack on the Temecula school board in Southern California is an escalation of his months-long campaign against dissenters from California's LGBT educational requirements. The governor's overweening efforts to impose progressive ideology on California's schools come as he regularly condemns Florida's Ron DeSantis and other GOP governors for their conservative-minded regulations of education.

The Temecula school board triggered Newsom's wrath when it voted 3-2 on Tuesday against the state-endorsed social studies curriculum, which involves assassinated gay rights icon Harvey Milk. Opponents of the curriculum have argued that Milk, who had a documented relationship with a 16-year-old runaway, should not be presented as a heroic figure to young children.

"The three political activists on the school board have yet again proven they are more interested in breaking the law than doing their jobs of educating students—so the state will do their job for them," Newsom said in his announcement the following day. "California will ensure students in Temecula begin the school year with access to materials reviewed by parents and recommended by teachers across the district."

Newsom, who is widely thought to have presidential ambitions, has been railing against the Temecula school board for nearly two months, ever since it first voted to reject the curriculum in May, sparking protests from local parents. Earlier this month, he also snapped at Glendale parents who protested their schools' focus on LGBT pride.

While California has far-reaching mandates and guidelines about the teaching of progressive views on gender, sexuality, and race, the governor cannot simply impose his will on Temecula.

Los Angeles-area attorney Julie Hamill, who sits on the Palos Verdes school board, said she is unaware of any law "that would give Newsom the authority to override local curriculum decisions, let alone fine a district for rejecting curriculum that Newsom wants adopted."

"Ultimately, if Newsom gets his way, parents who don’t want their young children exposed to certain explicit materials may have to pull them from public schools," Hamill added.

Jonathan Zachreson, the founder of Reopen California Schools, said he sees Newsom’s threats as an attempt to "strong arm" the Temecula school district. But the governor cannot actually force the board to put the books in the classroom or the schools to teach them, Zachreson said.

The California attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the legality of the governor's plan.

A representative for Newsom said that "existing law establishes a process for supplying a district with textbooks they did not request if, for example, a finding has been made that instructional materials are insufficient."

"However, the state has rarely, if ever, dealt with a governing board so willfully flouting state laws and the basic standards of school governance," the representative said. "Following passage of [Assembly Bill] 1078, the state will then send the district the bill for the curriculum and fine the district for violating California law."

Newsom's office did not specify which laws it would relying on to force books and fees on Temecula. A.B. 1078, which would allow the state to pull funding from schools that have an insufficient number of LGBT books on their shelves, has yet to pass the state Senate. But Zachreson said that even if that bill were to become law, the state would have to follow a months-long administrative process in order to levy a fine.

"Normally if you say you’re assessing the fine, you put the party on notice before you go out and publicize it," Arend said. "It sounds to me like a bunch of grandstanding on Newsom’s part."