How School Boards Became a Frontline in Partisan Warfare

When Lisa Schoenberger got up to speak in favor of a mask mandate at a school board meeting in Omaha, Neb., last year, she knew she wasn’t going to be popular, so she tried to soften the crowd with a reference to Frozen II, her 5-year-old daughter’s favorite movie. In one scene, a character confronts a challenge by resolving to “do the next right thing.”

“I share the frustration of all of the people who are really, really tired of this,” said Schoenberger, the first attendee at the August meeting to support a mask requirement for students under 12, after more than 30 people had voiced opposition. “But when you have a difficult decision, all you can do is the next right thing,” she said. “And I believe that that’s what masking for one more month will do for our children.”

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Boos broke out after she finished speaking. A school board member had to correct the crowd. After almost three hours of public comments the mask measure did not go to a vote. A COVID-19 breakthrough case had prompted one member of the board to be absent. Of the remaining board members, however, no other supported the motion. It was defeated and there was applause.

“I left that meeting actually less concerned about COVID and more concerned about what the culture of our district was going to look like,” says Schoenberger, who after that experience decided to run for a seat on the Millard Public Schools Board of Education, in hopes of encouraging respectful debate and preventing school board meetings from being derailed by partisan politics. “That kind of galvanized my desire to serve in this way.”

The pandemic has disrupted a third of the school year and schools boards across the country have cast contentious votes about school curricula and mask requirements. More people make the same choice, and are running for office on the school board.

Run for Something supports progressive candidates in the down-ballot. Schoenberger is being supported by about twelve other supporters to support Schoenberger’s campaign to be elected to school board. This will help to defeat book bans, promote diversity initiatives, and resist criticisms of so-called critical racism.

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The once-sleepy school boards have become more combative about pandemic safety measures, social justice and other issues. Conservative parents and politicians are trying to limit how race is discussed in schools, asking for banning certain books that feature LGBTQ characters or deal with racism.

In January, a woman in Luray, Va., threatened to “bring every single gun loaded and ready” if her children were required to wear masks at school. McMinn County in Tenn. voted to ban masks at school on January 1. Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from being taught in classrooms because the book contains “objectionable language.” Reuters documented 220 instances of death threats and harassment against school board members over decisions related to COVID-19 safety, transgender rights and lessons about racism in the U.S. And the Justice Department launched an effort to combat the rise in harassment and threats against school board members last year.

From dull to battlefield grounds

As once peaceful, non-partisan school board races become battlegrounds between progressives and conservatives, the competition has increased. In 2018, 40% of school board candidates running in the country’s 200 largest districts didn’t have opponents. Ballotpedia reports that only 24% ran unopposed for the 2021 school board race.

The issues that lie at the heart of these races are changing. A 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association found that board members ranked student achievement, school funding and teacher quality atop the list of “extremely urgent” issues; social issues—including gender, identity and equality—was the category most ranked “somewhat urgent” or “not urgent at all.”

These days, however, debates before schools boards are more focused on these social issues.

“School districts and school boards are where we are now fighting America’s societal battles,” said Nick Melvoin, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, at a recent event on school board politics. Melvoin’s 2017 election was among the most expensive school board races in U.S. history, as charter school advocates and teachers’ unions spent nearly $15 million to support their respective candidates in a race that drew national attention from the charter school movement.

The district’s 2020 election surpassed that number, as spending neared $17.5 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. Melvoin believes that other races for school boards will be in demand as national debates take place at school level.

Ryan Girdusky, a conservative political consultant and commentator, launched The 1776 Project PAC (May 2021) with the aim of fighting critical race theories in schools. This year, he is aiming for 300 support candidates to be on school boards. Girdusky, a 34-year-old conservative political consultant and commentator, says he doesn’t like the “current trajectory of public education.” Girdusky opposes diversity, equity and inclusion policies and social-emotional learning programs in schools because he argues they are inspired by critical race theory — a graduate-level academic framework that explores how institutions perpetuate racism.

Run For Something plans to endorse at least 140 education-related candidates this year—including those running for local school boards, state boards of education and library boards—aiming to confront what the group sees as a conservative stronghold on school boards.

“They understand that determining what kids learn in schools can help create the voters they become,” says Run for Something Co-Founder Amanda Litman, noting that the people who win these elections stand to influence far more than bus schedules and teacher pay.

“The people who control your school boards determine the kind of curriculum your kids learn in many places, which then determines the kind of citizens they grow up to become.”

‘A personal, emotional fight’

Staci Childrens decided to run in Texas State Board of Education after seeing the backlash against critical race theories in Texas. This includes a new law that restricts how teachers may discuss race or gender in the classroom.

“What really took me over the edge was when I started hearing this rhetoric around critical race theory and how just teaching the accurate depiction of U.S. history is now used as an emotional tactic to try to get people in an uproar,” says Childs, an attorney who previously taught reading and U.S. history in Houston public schools.

“I want to play a part in what kids learn, I want to make sure they’re learning stuff that will help them when they become adults, and I want to make sure that they’re learning things about themselves and their identities.”

Childs has been endorsed by Run for Something. He is currently running against Coretta Malta-Fontenot in May’s run-off election. Coretta MallettFontenot is an 11th grade English teacher who feels similarly disillusioned by rhetoric surrounding critical race theory.

“I don’t want teachers teaching under fear or threat,” says Mallet-Fontenot. “Our kids deserve to know that, quite frankly, America, as we know it, has a complicated history. You can deal with it by having the dialogue. You don’t shy away from that.”

The backlash over critical race theory might be new, but it’s not the first time school boards have turned into a battleground for cultural issues.

Adam Laats, a Binghamton University professor who has studied the history of cultural battles over schooling, notes that in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan clamored to take over school boards, promoting white-nationalist views and encouraging the use of textbooks that celebrated the country’s past. The 1950s saw members of the John Birch Society (conservative group opposed to communism) disrupting school board meetings.

“I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, said in a 1996 NewsHour interview, arguing that conservative Christians needed to expand local, grassroots organizing in order to raise money, turn out voters and promote their ideals at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court was reinforcing a ban on school prayer and reaffirming abortion rights.

Recent school board meetings saw heated protests that often reflect wider cultural and social changes. For example, many school districts who removed school resource officers or adopted racial equality policies in response to the mass demand for racial justice following George Floyd’s death, were doing so because of widespread demands.

School board meetings are a more open venue than the corporate offices and halls of Congress for those who object to these changes.

“I can’t go up to the NFL’s offices if I don’t like their changes and complain,” Laats says. “But I can, on Thursday at 6:30, go down to town hall and sit in the public school board meeting, and I can complain there.”

School-related concerns are often a major concern for parents, who desire their children to be educated and safe. Schoenberger gave a speech at Omaha’s school board meeting in which many parents shared examples of their children being affected by safety and isolation measures.

“Schools are personal,” Litman says. “There’s a lot that you can mess with before it gets into people’s homes. But school is the place where it’s a very personal, emotional fight.”

‘We owe them a real education’

As that fight continues to play out in school districts this year, progressive candidates are hoping to regain some of the ground won by conservative candidates who weaponized critical race theory and ran on a platform of giving parents more control of their children’s education.

Virginia Gov. After campaigning against critical racism, Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia Governor. In January, he signed an executive order banning “inherently divisive concepts” from public schools and establishing a hotline where parents can report teachers who violate that order.

“We’re not going to win every fight, but we should make sure that voters have a very clear, well-defined choice,” says Litman.

Schoenberger expects that future measures regarding race and book bans will be brought before the school board. She also knows she can face harassment and backlash if she is elected. But that doesn’t worry her.

“If people who are in this for the right reasons get scared out, if we don’t step up, then our schools are going to go in a direction that is quite political, and isn’t a place that will serve our students,” she says.

“We owe them a real education that’s comprehensive, and that sometimes deals with topics that are difficult to discuss,” she adds. “We can’t send them out into the world never having had a hard conversation.”

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