On paper, Sarah Stiegler and Katherine Rice have a lot in common. They’re both nurses who cared for patients in Michigan hospitals during the pandemic. They’re both parents who started paying attention to school-board meetings after schools shut down in 2020. And they both worry about falling test scores that highlight the progress students lost during the last few years.
But as candidates running for school board in Romeo, Mich., their visions are vastly different.
Rice, 41, believes parents should have more control over their children’s education. She disagrees with the idea that systemic racism is baked into life in the U.S., and worries that kids are being taught a “revisionist history.” She calls critical race theory and social-emotional learning “the literal hijacking of education.”
Stiegler, 40, wants students to learn “their own, accurate history.” She disagrees with the backlash to social-emotional learning and with efforts to pull some books that feature LGBTQ characters and themes from school library shelves. And she worries that students have taken a back seat to partisan debates at too many school-board meetings around the country—including in Romeo, a predominantly white school district of about 5,000 students, 40 miles north of Detroit in Macomb County; the county voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Rice and Stiegler are among six candidates running for two seats on the Romeo Community Schools Board of Education in the Nov. 8 election. And their positions represent two sides of the culture-war debates that have roiled school-board meetings over the last two years and inspired new candidates to run for office.
The 2022 midterm elections will determine who controls the U.S. House and Senate, as well as state capitols across the country. But there are also school-board elections in at least 24 states next week, according to Ballotpedia. In many of those races, voters must choose between candidates with fundamentally different ideas about what schools should teach and what public education should look like for students today.
In places across the U.S. with few competitive races at the state or federal level, it’s the school board candidates who are making local headlines. A candidate in Zionsville, Ind.—north of Indianapolis—received national attention for a Facebook post in which he declared “All Nazis weren’t ‘bad.'” In North Carolina, one candidate for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools accused her opponent of making her 9-year-old son cry.
Conservative advocates and lawmakers have sought to restrict how race and gender identity are discussed in classrooms, calling for bans on certain books and arguing that lessons addressing systemic racism and identity will divide children and make white students uncomfortable. At the same time, progressive advocates have called on schools to address discrimination and to invest in social-emotional learning, comprehensive sex education, and diversity initiatives to make schools more equitable for all students.
Education issues are personal and polarizing for parents because the policies directly affect their children. And while school-board races are typically nonpartisan (meaning that candidates run on their own, rather than as part of a party slate), the politics are inescapable. Board members wield significant influence over what students learn and can play an important role in local political organizing. “If I could have a conservative majority on every school board in the country, we would be in such good shape,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a rally in August.
National politics plays out on school boards
Advocacy groups and political action committees are playing an increasingly prominent role in these local races. “I don’t want the next school year to be filled with parents and teachers and school boards having to fend off book bans and needless attacks on kids who are just trying to fit in,” says Katie Paris, who founded Red Wine and Blue, a liberal advocacy group focused on mobilizing suburban women, which has made school-board races a priority this year. “I want us to be focused on the things that are going to improve academic outcomes for all of our kids.”
She says the group researched more than 1,000 school board races in North Carolina and Michigan this year, creating a voting guide that labels candidates who the group thinks will or won’t “support accurate and honest education.” Paris says the group identified about 170 candidates running for school board in Michigan who may be sympathetic to book bans or restrictions to sex education, or who made racist or anti-Semitic comments on social media.
Run for Something, a group that supports progressive candidates in down-ballot races, has endorsed 63 candidates for school board or other education-related seats this year, seeking out candidates who will oppose book bans and resist the backlash to critical race theory—a graduate-level academic framework that explores how institutions perpetuate racism that has become a catch-all term among critics who think public schools are too liberal.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the 1776 Project PAC, which supports conservative candidates for school board and aims to combat critical race theory, spent nearly $2.8 million on these races from April 2021 to October 2022, according to FEC filings.
And in Michigan, Matthew Wilk launched the Get Kids Back to School PAC in 2021. It originally focused on endorsing school-board candidates who supported fully reopening schools, but has expanded its mission to include candidates who would oppose “wokeness” in schools and “push back the tide of erosion on the traditional curriculum.”
Wilk was on the Northville, Mich., school board in 2020, but fellow board members voted to remove him as president after he shared posts on social media that downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, he opposed broad pandemic restrictions and continued school closures. “As schools started to reopen on their own, it revealed that school closures were not the disease, they were merely a symptom,” he says. “And the disease was more ‘we didn’t want to listen to parents.’”
He says the PAC brought in less than $20,000 in donations this year and gave candidates a few hundred dollars each, but has mostly focused on holding training sessions for candidates and offering logistical support. The PAC has endorsed 57 candidates across the state, many of whom have united around giving parents more control over what and how their children learn.
Rice, whose advocacy began with her opposition to mask mandates in her district, is one of them. She disagrees with policies that allow transgender students to use bathrooms or play on sports teams aligned with their gender identity—an issue that has been taken up by conservative activists and state lawmakers in different parts of the country. She argues that many schools are prioritizing social justice at the expense of core subjects like math or reading.
“We should not be worried about pronouns. We should not be worried about DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives]. We should not be forcing SEL [social-emotional learning],” she says. She argues that social-emotional learning goes beyond teaching students communication skills and coping mechanisms, and teaches some students that they’re oppressed and others that they’re an oppressor. Proponents of the framework argue it’s a valuable way to teach students how to manage stress, recognize emotions and work cooperatively. Some social-emotional learning principles promote self-awareness and racial equity, encouraging students to reflect on identities and examine biases.
“Teaching a kid that they’re an oppressor, that’s harmful,” Rice says. “Teaching a kid that America was built on systemic racism, that’s harmful.”
Running on education
Education has become an issue in the Michigan governor’s race as well. Tudor Dixon, a Republican challenging Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has campaigned on giving parents more control over their children’s education. Trump visited Macomb County last month for a rally in support of Dixon, whom he called “a national leader in the battle to protect our children by getting race and gender ideology out of the classroom.”
Dixon proposed a policy that would ban teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, modeled after Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. And she also wants to ban transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports team.
That kind of rhetoric worries Stiegler, who thinks adults often talk about the students most affected by such policies without considering the impact on them. “We’re not really paying attention to what they have to say,” she says. “These kids are getting the impression that they’re not worth it.”
When she was a student in Romeo in the 1980s, she recalls being taught about Christopher Columbus in a way that glossed over his legacy of violence and death, and his role in the slave trade. “‘He brought all these things. Everything was wonderful and beautiful,’” she says. “We all know retrospectively that that is not accurate.” And she thinks schools today should be doing a better job of giving students a more comprehensive, accurate history education than the one she had.
If she’s elected, she wants to focus on addressing teacher shortages and student learning loss—issues that have taken on greater urgency for public schools after pandemic disruptions.
Some advocates worry that those pressing challenges have taken a back seat to culture-war battles that have gained national attention.
“Instead of tackling these very real problems… we have politically motivated, small groups of folks who are trying to drag us back to the 1950s,” says Paris, the Red Wine and Blue organizer. “I worry about that, not only because it distracts from the real challenges that we need to address, but also because it creates unneeded division in our communities.”
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com