Frustrations over how kids are taught about systemic racism have turned once-sleepy school board elections into hyperlocal skirmishes with the power to polarize how a new generation learns about U.S. history — and grow the ranks of Republican politicians.
These conflicts aren’t just playing out in states where Republican-controlled legislatures passed laws restricting how race and racism are discussed in schools. Angry parents have filled school board meetings in Virginia, Minnesota and New Hampshire with protests that sometimes end in arrests, and shadowy groups successfully backed candidates running against “critical race theory” in New York in May.
Tapping into the trickle-up anger over racism education is now a unifying force in campaigns for Congress, governor and among Republicans with presidential ambitions. But it’s the local races — outside the spotlight, in elections that attract just a few hundred voters — that may define what students learn in the classroom for years to come.
The movement has the potential to build a stronger GOP as once-uninvolved conservative candidates flood local government and party races, seeking a platform to fight critical race theory, student mask requirements and other culture war issues centered on kids. While such elections are often nonpartisan, the Republican Party sees a rich opportunity to build a pipeline of new political candidates.
"The interest, the enthusiasm, is extraordinary,” said Pam Kirby, who runs "school board boot camps” for the Arizona GOP.
Even though most Arizona school board races are not for at least a year, she’s already started offering a new round of her classes because of demand. More than 200 people have completed the program, and 80 more are on the waitlist. Conservatives from Oregon, Texas, New York, Indiana and other states have asked her to run similar programs for them, she said.
About 25 percent of people from the classes actually go on to run, while others will instead join their local GOP operations, often as precinct committee members. Kirby estimates more than 1,500 committee members have been appointed in Maricopa County since February.
"It's unheard of,” Kirby said. “It's off the charts.”
Critical race theory is a framework for analysis developed by legal scholars in the 1980s that examines how race and racism have been ingrained in American law and institutions since slavery and Jim Crow. The study is essentially nonexistent in K-12 schools, but this year, the term has been used to describe diversity trainings and a cadre of classroom lessons on slavery, sexism and other acts of discrimination.
Many conservative candidates stand against critical race theory, but also concede that the graduate-level legal framework isn't being taught in K-12 schools. Still, the concern that similar philosophies are influencing public schools is widespread, and candidates use opposition to critical race theory to signal their animus to curriculum that further focuses on racism or oppression.
In Ohio, where most school board seats are up in November, conservative parents are organizing candidates to run in school district races across the state. In Texas, several newly elected school board members ran on platforms advocating for less talk about racism and oppression, both historic and recent. Virginia, Arizona, Indiana, Georgia, Oregon, Texas, Florida, California and Wisconsin are starting to see campaign organizing among conservative parents.
"We have had a very big upswing of individuals calling us, saying, ‘How do I run?'" said Terry Dittrich, the GOP chairman in Waukesha County, Wis., who has worked in state politics for more than 20 years. "These are really truly organic organizations that have popped up from moms and dads."
Dittrich and his colleagues have watched these races to scout potential candidates for local and state office, and the conservative zeitgeist around critical race theory has triggered a boom time.
"I don't know that I've ever seen anything like this," he said in an interview.
Parents in many places have organized Facebook groups calling for schools to expunge specific diversity-oriented curricula or any elected official backing it. Some of those groups have spawned new candidates — sometimes long before a race. In Arizona’s Chandler Unified School District, for example, at least 12 people have already shown interest in entering races still 15 months away.
Others have organized on social media to coordinate protests or raised huge sums of money to launch recall elections against school board incumbents. All of them are looking for the same result: a cleaner version of U.S. history that puts racism firmly in the past.
The notion that critical race theory is being taught in schools is almost always false, said Chip Slaven, the National School Boards Association's interim executive director & CEO. Even in districts where education officials have made clear the theory isn’t part of the curriculum, conservative parents and politicians have continued to protest or campaign against it.
"It goes back to: What can we make stick on the wall? Ah, it must be critical race theory," Slaven said.
While some school board members have been energized by the challenges of the pandemic and battles over curriculum, many are burned out and some are leaving their positions, Slaven said. These moves could open up opportunities for those running primarily to stop race-related curricula to win seats.
Historically, school boards have been largely nonpartisan. But as interest in the races spiked this year, some candidates began to sound more like Fox News commentators than school board members of the past.
Some candidates are already seeing energized support when railing against critical race theory, even when officials deny its existence in local schools. Slaven worries that some candidates may have little experience in education and few ideas on how to successfully lead a school system, instead taking a single-minded approach focusing on Covid-19 restrictions and how the history of racism is taught.
"If you're only running on one issue, you're doing a disservice,” he said.
At the start of a new school year already polarized over mask-wearing, school leaders are sparring with parents over race- and ethnicity-focused lessons, with activists threatening to take their jobs. The pandemic and the debate about race are blurring together. Some conservative parents already frustrated by mask mandates have joined the fight against how systemic racism is taught because of the lessons they heard during remote learning. The issues are increasingly intertwined, creating a furor that‘s turned mundane school board meetings into volatile affairs.
In many districts, members of Facebook groups that formed to advocate for opening schools are now advocating for changes in curriculum — and a change in leadership to accomplish both.
School board members are now on the front lines of two culture wars.
The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group known for encouraging political violence, showed up twice to school board meetings in Nashua, N.H. to object to how racism is discussed in schools. The Nashua School Board — like others across the country — now has police attending meetings as threats of violence intensify.
In Williamson County, Tenn., where the fight over critical race theory had been brewing for months, anti-masked protesters followed masked attendees of a school board meeting last week to their cars, shouting "we will find you."
"I certainly anticipated heated disagreement on issues coming before me as a board member, I did not anticipate getting Facebook messages telling me to kill myself," Kimberly Cavill, a school board member in Illinois, wrote in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. "I did not anticipate emails littered with curse words and hateful slurs. I did not anticipate people posting satellite images of my home on social media alongside dangerous, evidence-free accusations too disgusting to summarize."
Some school board members are ending their terms early, citing the threats of violence and newfound difficulty of approving curriculum and implementing health and safety policies.
Others see it as a reason to continue fighting for a seat.
"I had intended to not run for reelection, but darn it, if it means keeping a three-vote majority of people on that board with any sanity, I might run again," said Eileen Robinson, a school board member in California’s Chico Unified School District who will soon turn 75.
Robinson is one of four people on her school board facing recall efforts from conservative parents. She said in an interview the issues activists rally around over the past year — whether masks, remote learning or curriculum about racism in America — have shifted in recent months and weeks, but the chaos that has come with it has not.
"I have never, never seen what we've been through in the last 18 months — politically, not the pandemic," she said. "The depth of the misinformation that people have consumed and believed is frightening."
A Republican culture war
The patchwork nature of local government also gives Republicans opportunities to test drive their rhetoric on the issue before fully deploying it in their efforts to retake the House in next year’s midterm elections.
Most Americans have no opinion about critical race theory, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll — but most Republicans do, and 42 percent see it very unfavorably. A quarter of independents felt the same way, while only 5 percent of Democrats shared that viewpoint. Some Republicans hope denouncing race-focused curricula and promoting Donald Trump’s vision for a “patriotic” education will remain key wedge issues that foster new interest in the GOP.
Democrat have mostly avoided addressing critical race theory in in a significant away, aside from a Senate vote opposing the efforts to ban the teachings. One effort to do so backfired when Biden’s Education Department walked back a plan to incentivize teaching about systemic racism, bowing to Republican pressure.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has repeatedly emphasized local control over curriculum, sometimes making general assertions that students should learn parts of American history “we’re not proud of” alongside the progress that has been made. And many Democrats in the states — fearful of dividing their suburban coalitions — have taken the approach of Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor who’s running for another term: dismiss furor against critical race theory as “another right-wing conspiracy” and pivot to talk about school infrastructure and teacher pay.
"Democrats are, rightfully, focused on real things that have an actual impact on people's lives — like lowering the cost of living or raising wages,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “Republicans seem to think they've found a new wedge issue to divide us, but, in reality, the GOP is on dangerous ground when voters see they're trying to censor what's taught in schools and putting politicians in charge of classrooms.“
Still, the conservative push against critical race theory is upending local politics in town after town. Between race-based study and pandemic policies, 2021 has seen more recalls of school board members than any year on record, according to tracking from Ballotpedia. More than twice as many officials have been the target of those efforts so far this year compared to all of last year.
Some parents see the fight against critical race theory as the most important political issue at the moment. They say they will keep running for office, collecting signatures for recalls and raising money for campaigns until they win.
In some places, running against critical race theory is already paying off. In one Houston-area school board race, every candidate who opposed critical race theory in schools won a seat in May. Two such candidates won with over 70 percent of the vote in another Texas race.
In Arizona’s Maricopa County, parents are rallying to recall two school board members in the Peoria Unified School District. The concern started with mask and quarantine policies in the district, but critical race theory and other curricula issues — like sex education and social emotional learning — have become even bigger points of debate, said Wendy Van Wie, who applied for the recall petitions.
Two people are ready to run to fill the vacancies in Maricopa County, should the recall there succeed. Van Wie, who is not interested in running, said she voted in the past but was otherwise relatively inactive in politics before pushing for a recall. The more she looked, though, the less she trusted the education system and government as a whole, she said.
"I can’t just sit back and be a keyboard warrior,” she said.
In other districts, local party organizations are getting involved in the fight. The Tustin Democratic Club in Tustin, Calif., called on members to promote “inclusive curriculum” at a board meeting in May after a Facebook group of conservative parents planned to oppose it. Parents obtained emails from school administrators in which a board member suggested the elective ethnic studies curriculum is aligned with critical race theory and the superintendent supported a “White Savior Assignment” for the course. The emails and opposition to critical race theory led to an outcry for new leadership.
Then there’s Ohio. This spring, the conservative education group EmpowerU Ohio created a website — StopCriticalRaceTheory.com — and launched a petition opposing critical race theory. The group collected more than 2,000 signatures and pledges of support with the help of 34 other conservative groups, from the Ohio Republican PAC to Bikers for Trump.
Then EmpowerU held an event on critical race theory in May, attracting 350 attendees — a record in the organization's 11-year history, said Dan Regenold, the group’s leader.
And this summer, it hosted a political training session offering detailed instructions about filing, fundraising and campaigning for school boards in Ohio. Speakers presented a "Contract With The District," an homage to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” in the form of a 10-point document candidates running in nonpartisan local school board races can use to signal their opposition to critical race theory.
National Republican candidates and politicians in Ohio are noticing voters' energy behind the issue, too. Candidates running to be senators, representatives and governors are also calling for a change in curriculum.
"Many [school board candidates] are first-time candidates and [critical race theory] is the number one issue that has pulled them into the fray,” said Jonah Schulz, a Republican who is running for Congress in Ohio.
And for voters, Schulz said, "when it comes to their kids, that's when people really feel the urge and the need to get involved."
Sending a message
The grassroots power that comes from invoking children in the debate over race and other issues has been obvious — from record-breaking involvement in local elections and party organizations to rage-filled school board meetings and even threats of violence. It doesn’t look like that’s going to end soon.
Loudoun County in Virginia saw furious protests lead to new organizations calling for the replacement of sitting board members. The organization, Fight For Schools, says it is nonpartisan and is not aimed at changing any single policy, though critical race theory and Covid-19 have been at the center of the conversations about recalling six of the nine board members. The organization has raised over $130,000, hosts events with the likes of Ben Carson and sells its own line of merchandise, which at one point included t-shirts with the faces of board members up for recall.
Not all of the local movements get so much traction. In Oregon, four conservative parents ran together for their school board, trying to win the majority in an effort to end critical race theory teachings — which the district said is not in its curriculum — and Covid-19 precautions. They lost the election, but some parents have said winning isn’t the only goal. It’s really about flexing a newfound political muscle.
“I 100 percent believe this has sent a message,” said Van Wie, a leader in Maricopa County’s uphill recall effort. "At the end of the day, when you mess with a momma bear and her kid, we are a force to be reckoned with."
Bianca Quilantan contributed to this report.
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