Culture war fight finds mixed success in school board races
School board candidates opposing mask mandates and lessons about racism in U.S. history won in red states and some politically divided districts but often came up short in their bids to shape policy for school districts over the newest culture war issue.
The mixed results complicate the picture for Republicans who are increasingly looking to the education fight as a galvanizing issue that could help them sway voters. They point to the upset in Virginia by Republican Glenn Youngkin, who won his race for governor Tuesday in the liberal-leaning state after making education grievances a key part of his campaign. Some conservative political action groups said they racked up wins in the school board races where they funneled money.
But across the country, culture and identity fights were less decisive. The political tracking website Ballotpedia identified 96 school districts in more than a dozen states where race education and masking were part of the debate. It found that at least one anti-critical race theory or anti-mask candidate prevailed in 35 of the 86 districts in which it has determined winners, or 40%.
“Where they won, they won in really high numbers,” said Doug Kronaizl, a staff writer for Ballotpedia, noting that candidates who won on the issue tended to be concentrated in the same districts. “But overall nationwide they didn’t win that much.”
In Connecticut, a slate of five candidates running in opposition to critical race theory lost the board of education race in the Guilford school system, an overwhelmingly white New Haven suburb of 22,000 where a petition calling for the superintendent’s removal circulated after the district ditched its Indians mascot and doubled down on efforts to address social justice and racism.
“I think that there continues to be a national discussion where the term critical race theory is used inaccurately if not insincerely to attack work that is being done in schools, and that was successful in a lot of races,” said Superintendent Paul Freeman, who said the district doesn’t teach critical race theory.
Technically, it is an academic framework that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people. But in recent months, it has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.
“We do not shame or blame the white children in Guilford when we talk about the issues of race or racism in our classrooms, whether historic or contemporary,” Freeman stressed.
Incumbent school board members in Mequon, Wisconsin, a wealthy, Republican-leaning suburb north of Milwaukee, won decisively after a group of parents led a recall effort based largely on their opposition to the district’s hiring of a diversity consultant. All four incumbents were reelected by more than 1,000 votes after a summer-long petition drive that drew the attention of local Republicans.
In Springboro, Ohio, outside Dayton, Frank Catrine, a local Republican activist who is opposed to critical race theory, finished fifth out of eight candidates in a school board race in which all incumbents were reelected. He has argued that diversity and inclusion efforts exclude white students and parents.
“If you want true diversity, you’re open to everybody,” Catrine said. “But if they are only focused on Black people and the LGBTQ community, not everybody is welcome.”
In Washington state, school board candidate Riley Smith said that while knocking on doors in his Democratic-leaning district in Spokane this fall, he encountered very few people interested in discussing race in education.
“This whole critical race theory, anti-masking, that was dominating the national narrative wasn’t really on people’s minds,” said Riley, who beat a vocal opponent of the educational framework for the open seat.
Yael Levin, who leads the Virginia chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a group opposed to teaching critical race theory, said some losses were to be expected given the newness of the movement, which she said grew from the pandemic, when remote learning made parents more aware of what their children were being taught. The organization has ballooned to 78 chapters in more than 25 states since it was founded last year.
“This is a very new movement of parents. And it’s a direct result of COVID. So it makes sense that we succeeded in some places and didn’t in others,” Levin said, “but we’re going to keep our movement alive because the attack on our children is not stopping anytime soon.”
In conservative Wichita, Kansas, Ben Blankley was among three candidates voted out of office and replaced by a slate of anti-critical race theory candidates who have promised changes in COVID-19 mitigation efforts in the district.
“I kind of figured this would be the end result,” said Blankley, a 38-year-old aerospace engineer with a first-grader in the district. “Regardless of the decisions that we made, I figured there would be a political backlash eventually for a bunch of good people. And so it kind of steeled my resolve to make the best decisions I could with the information that we had knowing that being out of office could be an eventuality because of all of this.”
Across the state, mask mandate opponents were ahead Friday in several races in Johnson County, an increasingly purple Kansas City suburb that voted for Joe Biden for president in 2020 despite historically leaning Republican. Some of the winning candidates in the Blue Valley and Olathe districts got a boost from the 1776 Project PAC.
Axios reported the political action committee — named after former President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded 1776 Commission, which played down America’s role in slavery — was successful in three-fourths of 58 races in seven states. “Victories across the country and this is just the beginning,” the group tweeted.
Money from other conservative PACs flowed into the West Chester, Pennsylvania, race after board president Chris McCune antagonized critical race theory opponents. McCune, a Republican, initially was ahead in the vote count but has slipped behind a a PAC-backed critical race theory supporter and another candidate as mail-in ballots are counted.
“These allegations from the far right are very challenging and the climate around public education has been very toxic,” said McCune, 48, who works in software sales and whose five children all attend district schools.
1776 Action, which is separate from the similarly named political action committee, sent out mailers and targeted text messages in the West Chester race and another in Iowa. The group, which encourages candidates to sign a pledge calling for the restoration of “honest, patriotic education,” was encouraged by the results.
“This movement to defeat anti-American indoctrination in our schools is only going to grow stronger in 2022,” said Adam Waldeck, the group’s president.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.