It wasn’t anything “woke” that caused Michelle Antoine to pull her kids out of public schools. It was the concerns over subpar curriculum and them spending too much time in front of screens at school.
Antoine could have left any involvement in public school at that, but she filed to run for school board on the last day of the deadline in Johnston County, North Carolina. In fact, she turned her car around in the opposite direction on a planned Christmas shopping excursion.
“I realized I can’t change the lack of resources or the weak curriculum through the teacher, the principal, or even above them at the central district,” she said. It was a wake-up call for her to see her kids coming home with work far below their grade level.
In a conversation with Antoine, she told her story about being turned away at each point in the chain of command and going down to the school district’s central office. Once again, she was told nothing could be done to improve the classroom curriculum. She shared how the word “accountability” hung over the director’s door. “I asked the director if that sign meant anything?” It was a clarifying moment for her.
Antoine says before this experience, she had never been very political. “My husband and I have a company,” says Antoine. “We worked hard on our education so there is no reason to get involved but for the passion I have for kids, and, of course, what my country is going to look like.”
Antoine is a mother of eight, making it hard to doubt her passion for children.
While she lost her first race for school board in the primary, she’s humble and reflective about it. “The voters are much more discerning than we ever give them credit for,” declares Antoine. “The truth is that the first time I ran for office I didn’t deserve to win. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know enough. I wasn’t in the community long enough. I shouldn’t have won, and the voters were smart enough to discern that. And the second time, they saw I had made strides.”
Still, after that first race, she jumped into the political scene helping local candidates get elected. “I was just working hard to find any allies and change the direction of education.”
She won in her second race in 2022 and opened-up about some of the common concerns she received from parents.
“Parents just want their kids educated,” says Antoine. “Our schools have lost direction. We are doing everything but education.” Antoine stressed examples like the difficulties of federally mandated disciplinary guidelines or other forms of social engineering that are a distraction to learning. “Parents are upset kids are coming home with a different set of moral values than they sent them to school with,” she adds.
She hears a lot of concerns about violence and drugs, too. Creating a more purposeful structure in classrooms is a basic starting point in her view for reforming education. “If we get discipline under control, we can get academics back,” she says.
From a policy perspective, she said the federal government inhibits progress that can be made in the classroom, particularly when it comes to discipline. “There isn’t much from a state regulation standpoint that we can’t overcome from a local agency and ownership perspective.”
The federal government is an entirely different matter and some of the reforms started with good intentions.
“Regulations have been continually expanded, particularly under the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” she says. “It gave local agencies more autonomy if you read through it, but it also did other things like restorative justice practices that were expanded under the Obama administration.”
So, if you aren’t implementing certain types of discipline based on what individual students look like and if you are doing things in a way that doesn’t align with the data the feds want, they pull your funding.”
Antoine thinks it’s time to accept the loss of federal funding. “If we lose 10 to 15% of our federal funding, we need to let that go so we can get control of our schools again at the local level.” Antoine stresses that 85% of federal funds would still be available, minus the portion that would be loss for not following socially mandated discipline initiatives.
She notes, too, that Americans can’t just blame public schools. For her, that’s an easy trap to fall into these days. “We handed our kids over and said, ‘Here, take care of them for eight hours a day.’ We need to step back into our children’s lives and put the technology down.” She admits to being guilty of that, too, during different times in her life when the inevitable difficulties weigh many parents down.
Antoine noted that statistics like 30% of proficient reading by students at the state level are damning. “At the beginning of our country, public education was meant to learn how to read the bible.
Kids now are not being educated,” she emphasizes. “In many instances, they’re being told America is the worst place and not exceptional — nothing great about it — and the fundamentals are ruinous — what does the future look like for my kids?”
Antoine says what she has seen in private schools has been particularly eye-opening. She stresses that private school teachers in many instances have fewer credentials and training, but those schools are achieving so much more. A big part of that she says is because they don’t use much technology. She calls it a “paper and pencil” method. Basic foundations for learning and thinking.
“My kindergartener is writing in cursive,” she adds. “It’s about discipline, setting up expectations, and getting the technology out of their hands at an early age.”
I asked Antoine if nobody else was hindering her work from Raleigh, Washington, or even her school board colleagues, how would she change education? She balked at the question, noting that “The greatness of America and the Founders is that they don’t care for kingmakers. I’d never want that position,” she added.
She went back to stressing all the great aspects of local government and serving in a manner where you are truly accountable to the community. “At the local level, we have to be accountable to the people we see at the grocery store or local ball games.”
Antoine added she expects to see more political change when people feel uncomfortable again. She ties that to some of the sacrifices made by America’s founding generation, whether it was from loss of finances or even life. She pointed to the ravages of inflation as just one example we are already seeing today.
But turning back to the original questions after being repeatedly pressed about what she would do if only she oversaw education in her county, Antoine smiled and said, “Discipline” and “character building.” She would stress those immediately to build an opportunity for academic flourishing. “I don’t care if we lose federal funding over it. It’s that important.”
We must build character,” she says. “We can do that for all kids. Even kids that are disadvantaged or come from a bad home.”
She notes that excuses run out at some point. “I came from a bad home, too. I came from a dysfunctional home for a long time. They need structure and they need normalcy.”