MISSION, Kan. (AP) — School board races, once sleepy and localized, have become the new front in a culture war raging across the nation as resentments over COVID-19 restrictions and anti-racism classes reach a boiling point.
On Tuesday, voters weighed in on dozens of races that have been dominated by debates over masks, vaccines, race and history. Several high-profile conservative challengers failed. The voters’ decisions will help decide not just local policies but also whether the education fight has staying power and becomes a rallying issue for Republicans in the 2022 midterms.
Conservatives have eagerly taken up the cause as they look to move past the coronavirus pandemic and to reframe the discussion on racial injustice in America as a rewriting of history.
The political tracking website Ballotpedia identified 76 school districts in 22 states where candidates took a stance on race in education or critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic in America’s institutions and which the National School Boards Association says is not taught in K-12 public schools.
The issue resonated in the school board race in Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, where Andrew Yeager won on Tuesday night. He was backed by a political action committee that opposes a diversity and equality plan created after a video of students chanting a racial slur began circulating online three years ago. A temporary restraining order blocks the plan.
1776 Action, a group inspired by former President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded 1776 Commission that played down America’s role in slavery, has been urging candidates to sign a pledge calling for the restoration of “honest, patriotic education.” At least 300 candidates and elected officials have done so, said Adam Waldeck, the group’s president.
“2021 is really going to sort of be seen as kind of a canary in the coal mine of what’s coming down the pike next year and into the future,” Waldeck said. “This will be the year that I think primarily parents stand up and say, ‘You know, we have a voice, too.’ And I think it’s going to be overwhelming.”
Board meetings have grown so contentious that they are being mocked in “Saturday Night Live” skits. Some board members have been called Nazis and child abusers. The National School Boards Association even likened some of what is happening to “domestic terrorism” before apologizing.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused the right wing of orchestrating protests to “turn schools into battlegrounds with the goal of winning elections by politicizing both public health and history.” She noted the Virginia governor’s race, in which Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin has seized on conservatives’ frustrations with schools over pandemic policies and diversity education.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also got into the game, taking a moment during a campaign rally in Ohio on Saturday to urge voters to support conservative school board candidates in Tuesday’s election. But conservative-backed candidates for a dozen suburban Cleveland school boards were generally falling behind, unofficial results showed.
Waldeck said his group also sent out mailers and targeted text messages in races in Johnston, Iowa, where three candidates have signed the pledge, and in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where law enforcement was called to investigate threats against school board President Chris McCune.
The backlash stems from his ordering the removal from a July meeting of a parent who kept demanding information about critical race theory after her two-minute time limit had ended. McCune, who is on track to retain his seat, wrote in a letter to the Daily Local News newspaper in Pennsylvania that it is his duty to “maintain order” and insisted that the district doesn’t even teach critical race theory.
“National and local political forces continue to urge residents to rally against local school boards and CRT, even when board members and administrators have offered to meet to share the district’s curriculum to demonstrate that it is simply not what we teach,” he said.
The 1776 Project PAC, which is separate from 1776 Action and headed by New York political operative and author Ryan Girdusky, has invested in races across the country. It raised $289,544 in the third quarter, according to the latest report filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“I think anybody that’s running was probably to a degree tipped over by COVID,” said Jim McMullen, a former English teacher and father of five who is among three candidates the group is backing in the Blue Valley district in suburban Kansas City. McMullen was running nearly even with a pro-mask candidate.
In Colorado, early results showed anti-mask candidate Schumé Navarro trailing in her bid for a seat on the Cherry Creek School District. The mother of three went to court last month to win the right to attend a district candidate event without a face mask, arguing she is unable to wear one because of abuse she suffered as a child.
“The environment and the culture that it’s creating is just stealing from our kids,” she said of masks.
In Wisconsin, four members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board held off a recall challenge that cost anti-critical race theory backers nearly $50,000.
In Minnesota, Erin Shelton joined two other conservative candidates on a “Vote for Three!” platform that denounces “harmful ideologies like CRT,” political indoctrination and “controversial medical mandates.” If all three are elected, they would hold an ideological majority on the board in Wayzata.
“I don’t believe that the way to academic excellence involves making any group of students feel like victims or any other feel responsible for that victimization,” Shelton said via email.
In Iowa, masking opponent Sarah Barthole won election to the Ankeny school board in suburban Des Moines after receiving a high-profile endorsement from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Barthole worked with Reynolds last year to reopen schools and is credited with inspiring the state’s now-blocked law prohibiting mask mandates in schools.
The governor’s backing in that race is just the beginning, predicted Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a Melbourne, Florida-based group, whose 142 chapters in 35 states have fought vaccine and mask mandates.
“Our governor here in Florida has all but said he’s going to be involved in school board races,” said Descovich, who is a former member of the Brevard County School Board in Florida. “I’m curious to see what that looks like for 2022.”
Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York. Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Scott McFetridge in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Navarro is a mother of three children, not five.