The School Board Culture War

The School Board Culture War

Republicans are pushing national wedge issues to the local level, but smart progressives are beating them.


Tim Nordin checked his e-mail shortly before the April 5 local election in his northwestern Wisconsin community and found a death threat. The sender, identified only as “Kill All Marxist Teachers,” attacked the president of the Eau Claire school board for “promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda,” adding, “It’s now time to declare war on you pedos. I am going to kill you and your entire family.” Nordin made sure his family was safe, called the cops, and alerted fellow school board members. Then, after checking with his wife to make sure she agreed that it was worth it to continue campaigning for a new term on the board, he sent a message to the voters.

“This is Eau Claire’s election,” declared Nordin, a 43-year-old former high school science teacher. “Others want to control this election by inciting fear in you and driving votes with outside money and news coverage. They, quite literally, are trying to threaten us into submission. I remain unbowed. And I implore each of you to send a message that Eau Claire cannot be intimidated. Our schools are too important to cede to fear.”

Two weeks later, after mounting a campaign in which he highlighted his support for making schools “safe and welcoming for every student,” Nordin topped the vote count, finishing first in a six-candidate field. The other candidates on Nordin’s “Leadership for Stronger Schools” slate won as well, easily outdistancing well-funded challengers who mouthed right-wing talking points and were endorsed by top Republicans. Not a bad result from the largest city in a county that had voted for conservatives such as Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker in past gubernatorial races, and where Donald Trump signs frequently appear. And it wasn’t an outlier. Despite foreboding about Republican efforts to politicize school board races—with disingenuous attacks on “critical race theory,” LGBTQ rights, and sexual health programs—smart progressives have been pushing back against this cynical GOP strategy and winning hard-fought races in communities across the country.

Conservatives aren’t giving up on their drive to make school districts into battlegrounds in a culture war that has former Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon declaring, “The path to save the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.” They’re still determined to shake up local contests with big lies and big money from conservative donors. But evidence from around the country suggests that this is not a fight progressives are destined to lose at the local level—or in the high-stakes statewide races for governorships and US Senate seats where the right hopes to spin a new form of grievance politics into midterm gold. For progressives to prevail, however, supporters of public education must overcome the doom-and-gloom mentality that emerged last November after Republican Glenn Youngkin upset former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial election.

Youngkin exploited a grab bag of school-related issues in a contest that saw the former Carlyle Group executive spin wild fantasies about CRT, run ads featuring a Republican mother complaining that her teenage son was reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and surf a wave of grumbling about Covid-related public health mandates. Education wasn’t the only issue in the off-year election cycle that was always going to be rough for Democrats. But McAuliffe’s missteps made everything harder, especially when he invited Republican attacks by declaring, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The Virginia election followed a year in which Republican strategists, seeking to make up lost ground after the 2018 and 2020 elections, embraced school issues with a vengeance. CRT became a prime target and remained so, even after it was made clear that it is rarely if ever used as the basis for K-12 instruction, and even after conservatives were accused of focusing on the subject to stir racial resentment. The facts didn’t matter. “I am quite intentionally redefining what ‘critical race theory’ means in the public mind, expanding it as a catchall for the new racial orthodoxy,” admitted Christopher Rufo, a conservative polemicist who, with a boost from Tucker Carlson and other Fox News personalities, made CRT the target of right-wing wrath. Writing in March 2021, Rufo declared, “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”

Republican Party leaders from Donald Trump to Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis started griping about teachers “indoctrinating” students. Fox News amplified the complaints, as did conservative talk radio hosts. Chaos erupted at school board meetings—sometimes to the point where the police had to be called—as “parents’ rights” activists grabbed microphones and started ranting about “anti-white racism” and the “grooming” of children.

Youngkin’s victory seemed to confirm that the “parents’ rights” message was a potent one, especially in the suburban swing districts that Republicans are desperate to win. But on the same night that the Virginia election set pundits atwitter, another election, in another battleground state, produced a result that suggested fights over the future of public education could go in a different direction altogether. In Wisconsin’s Mequon-Thiensville school district north of Milwaukee, a campaign urged on by national conservative operatives sought to recall and remove four school board members who were accused of putting CRT into practice with equity and inclusion policies and savaged for following public health mandates during the pandemic. Out-of-state billionaires put money behind the recall effort. Right-wing talk radio chimed in. Top Republicans rallied with supporters of the recall. In a county where Trump won a higher percentage of the vote than he secured in the suburbs of northern Virginia, this should have been a slam dunk. But it wasn’t.

The incumbents won 60 percent of the vote, after a campaign in which a coalition of parents and teachers pushed back against what they decried as “a national movement to politicize school boards.” When I visited Mequon on Election Day to talk to the parents who’d successfully fended off the right, I met Dr. Neda Esmaili, a mother of two elementary school children. “We had to confront an evolving list of grievances that were really aimed at attacking public education. I came to realize that all of these complaints, which we were seeing on the local level, were very politically motivated,” she told me. “It felt like we were up against a well-oiled machine that was drawing lines in the sand on political culture-war issues and that was hashing them out at the school board level. But we figured out how to respond with a campaign that exposed what they were doing and confronted all the wild claims they were making.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten was impressed. “These local activists in places like Wisconsin are the ones who are showing that, when you have to fight back, and when you have people who figure out how to talk about this as a fight for public education, you can win,” Weingarten told me when we discussed what Democrats at the top of the ticket might learn from progressives at the bottom of the ballot.

The numbers back up her optimism. The political website Ballotpedia, which has been tracking efforts to recall school board members since 2006, found that there were a record number of attempts to remove board members in 2021. But of the 237 officials who were targeted, only one was actually defeated, while 10 targeted members resigned from boards during the year. That doesn’t mean conservatives won’t continue to win races in traditionally conservative communities and culture-war hot spots. But it does suggest that more attention should be paid to the places—especially in battleground states—where supporters of public health mandates, gender equity, and the honest teaching of history are beating back right-wing challenges.

Unfortunately, the results that may tell us the most about where education debates are headed rarely grab the kinds of headlines that were afforded to a high-profile recall of three San Francisco Board of Education members in February. The San Francisco result inspired a predictable flurry of “California is sending warning signals to Democrats” stories and commentary about how the city was a bellwether for education debates. But that’s not what San Franciscans were saying. “This grew out of frustration that the school board was not moving fast enough to reopen the schools [after Covid-19 hit]…but that’s where the similarity ends,” explained state Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat who like many liberals in the city backed the recall. Although some San Franciscans raised concerns about renaming schools tied to historical figures, the voters weren’t rejecting gender equity or curriculums that reflected concerns about racial justice, and neither were voters in other parts of the country. Results from elections a month later in New Hampshire saw progressives winning hotly contested races even in more conservative communities. But you would be hard-pressed to find cable news reports announcing, “New Hampshire results are a three-alarm warning for Republicans.”

Media reports of raucous school board meetings at which officials are attacked as “Marxist flunkies” or met with a Nazi salute have formed a backdrop for the state and national election campaigns that reporters like to cover. But the more than 90,000 school board members and directors in the US should not be treated as extras in this national drama. They are on the front lines of a fight in which “national wedge issues” are being pushed down to the local level, said Everton Blair, chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Education in Georgia. “Many of the hot-button issues have taken shape here first.”

As a result, underpaid and underappreciated school board members have borne the brunt—along with teachers and administrators—of the assault on public education. It got so rough last year that the National School Boards Association asked the Joe Biden White House for a federal intervention to protect against “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials.” Attorney General Merrick Garland responded by directing the FBI and US Attorneys’ Offices to develop responses to threats he said were “not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values.” A reference to domestic terrorism in the NASB’s letter sparked a fierce reaction from Fox News commentators and an apology from the association “for some of the language included in the letter.” But the fundamental fact remained: School board members, and parents who support them, had been targeted for a new kind of right-wing assault.

Old battles over school funding and “school choice” privatization schemes have taken a back seat to hair-on-fire ranting against racial and gender equity programs, history curriculums, and public health mandates. This isn’t an accident. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded network of conservative legislators, has been promoting a national “Reclaim Education” agenda that warns, “The 1619 curriculum is infecting our schools”—systematizing attacks on the award-winning project by racial injustice journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues at The New York Times to examine the consequences of American slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. Well-funded groups like Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, and the 1776 Project—which takes its name from the Trump administration’s clumsy attempt to discredit the 1619 Project—give right-wing activists talking points and strategic support for confronting board members at meetings and challenging them on the ballot.

Just as they did a decade ago with the Tea Party movement, which exploited frustration with the slow recovery from the Great Recession, conservative strategists are maneuvering to exploit anxiety and frustration after a period when schools were shuttered by the pandemic. “You’re just seeing huge frustration in a country after two years of Covid. The country has not come together to take on these challenges. It’s obvious that there’s a great deal of division,” Weingarten says. “And so, in that crack, autocrats like Donald Trump and people who want to use chaos and confusion to advance their agendas see a perfect opening for exploitation.” The plan, she warns, is to “scare people, lie to people, create misinformation about things that just aren’t happening,” and eventually get voters to give up on public education—or, at the very least, to hand control of the schools over to rigid conservatives.

Youngkin had some success with this formula, as did Republican-backed school board contenders in suburban Denver’s Douglas County—where spending on local races exceeded $440,000—last year. But school board candidates who attacked mask mandates, diversity initiatives, and CRT lost high-profile races in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in 2021. And the first results from 2022 have been strikingly good for progressives, especially in battleground states like New Hampshire, where dozens of hotly contested races for school board posts saw the rejection of right-wing candidates and, in the Merrimack Valley School District, the overwhelming defeat of a proposal to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in the schools there. “These results should raise serious doubts about any Republican 2022 election strategy that is built around pitting parents against local public schools and educators,” announced Zandra Rice Hawkins, the executive director of Granite State Progress, a progressive group that took on conservative money and messaging with an explicit campaign “to protect public education and an honest, accurate education.”

That’s proved to be a winning message all over the country. In Georgia, for instance, after the state’s Board of Education adopted a resolution objecting to the teaching of “critical race theory,” Gwinnett County’s Everton Blair pushed back against the forces that were “manufacturing outrage” in his state. “To be candid,” said Blair, who in 2018 became the first Black and first openly gay member elected to the board that oversees education in the sprawling county outside Atlanta, “America is a country with an inextricable history of racism. Because of this fact, vestiges of our racially discriminatory past show up across discrepancies in economic security, health care, educational access, and more. And I get it—we’re very ashamed.” But, he added, “masking our fear of confronting the truth by rejecting only the elements of which we are ashamed teaches our children that they can cherry-pick data, falsify evidence, and fabricate reality.”

Reaction to the statement was “largely positive,” said Blair. “Overwhelmingly, people realize that school board leadership is voluntary public service. None of us signed up to be epidemiologists. We didn’t sign up to be career politicians. Many of us just are invested in the education we provide. People recognize that, as long as you keep communicating with them.”

That’s sound advice for progressives when it comes to school board races, and for Democrats who are wondering how to address education issues in the midterms. Equally sound is the counsel from Tim Nordin. While it took fortitude for school board members to face down “a constant barrage of attacks and anger coming from both inside and outside of our community,” he told me, voters in Eau Claire—and areas like it nationwide—responded to these attacks in an encouraging way. “They were not fooled by disingenuous arguments about ‘parents’ rights.’ They rejected dog whistles about CRT and candidates who either wouldn’t even say the word ‘equity’ or outright said they didn’t support inclusion and diversity.”

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