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.”
Boos erupted before she had finished speaking, prompting a school board member to reprimand the crowd. After nearly three hours of public comments, the mask measure never came to a vote; one board member was absent due to a COVID-19 breakthrough case, and of the board members present, none seconded the motion to take up the proposed rule. Applause broke out as it failed to move forward.
“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.”
As the pandemic disrupts a third school year, and as school boards around the country cast contentious votes on mask requirements and school curricula, more people are making a similar choice and running for school board to play a role in those decisions.
Run for Something, a group that supports progressive candidates in down-ballot races, is prioritizing school board campaigns this year, endorsing Schoenberger and about a dozen others thus far in an effort to elect board members who will oppose book bans, support diversity initiatives and resist the backlash to so-called critical race theory.
Once-sleepy school board meetings have grown combative over pandemic safety measures and social justice issues, and conservative parents and politicians have sought to restrict how race is discussed in classrooms, calling for bans on certain books, targeting those that deal with racism or feature LGBTQ characters.
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. In McMinn County, Tenn., the school board voted in January to ban 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 boring to battle grounds
Meanwhile, school board races have grown more competitive as once-quiet, non-partisan races evolve into battle grounds between conservatives and progressives. In 2018, 40% of school board candidates running in the country’s 200 largest districts didn’t have opponents. But just 24% of candidates ran unopposed in 2021, according to Ballotpedia.
And the issues at the center of these races are shifting. 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.”
But lately, the debates coming before school boards focus more on those social issues and exemplify the culture-war issues dividing the nation.
“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. As national debates play out at the school level, Melvoin expects other school board races could draw national attention and big-money donors in the future.
The 1776 Project PAC was launched by Ryan Girdusky in May 2021 with the goal of combating critical race theory in schools and is aiming to support 300 conservative candidates for school board this year. 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 Childs decided to run for the Texas State Board of Education this year after witnessing the backlash to critical race theory in the state, including a new law restricting how teachers can discuss race and 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, who was endorsed by Run for Something, is campaigning in a May run-off election against Coretta Mallet-Fontenot, an 11th-grade English teacher who is similarly frustrated by the rhetoric around 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. But the way that you deal with that is to have the conversation. 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. In the 1950s, members of the conservative John Birch Society who opposed communism often disrupted 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.
The issues that led to heated protests at recent school board meetings have often reflected broader social and cultural changes. Many school districts that removed school resource officers in 2020 or enacted racial equity policies, for example, did so in response to mass demands for racial justice after the death of George Floyd.
And for anyone who objects to such changes, school board meetings offer a far more accessible venue for protest than corporate offices or the halls of Congress.
“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.”
And school-related issues often hit home in a unique way for parents who want their children to be safe and well-educated. At the Omaha school board meeting where Schoenberger spoke last year, many parents offered examples of how their children had been harmed by isolation or pandemic safety restrictions, arguing either that masks caused anxiety or were an essential protection that enabled them to stay in school.
“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. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, was elected in November after campaigning against critical race theory. 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 is expecting that measures related to race or book bans could come before her school board in the future, and she knows she could face backlash and harassment if 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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