Usually elected and unpaid, school board members have found themselves at the forefront of Covid’s political and cultural wars. Protests erupted, shining the national spotlight on local councils which in the past dealt with less controversial decisions about district budgets and staff.
After months of controversial interactions, the National School Boards Association in October asked the federal government to help it investigate threats against school board members and educators – a move that drew strong criticism from of some Republican lawmakers for targeting parents who want to speak out on the issues in their children’s schools.
Despite the vitriol, some parents decided that it was more important than ever to get involved. While there is no database to track school board races across the country, fresh money poured into races and a number of efforts to recall incumbents indicate that some boards will experience a reshuffle after Tuesday’s elections.
Money rushes in
A statewide PAC in Pennsylvania, funded largely by venture capitalist and Bucks County parent Paul Martino, said at least 101 of its candidates won their elections on Tuesday, although the results of some races have not yet been announced on Wednesday evening.
The PAC, known as Back to School Pa, has spent more than $ 600,000 to support 208 school board candidates in 54 communities across the state. They promoted a platform to keep schools open for in-person learning even in the midst of a Covid wave in the fall or winter. The group is bipartisan, although its candidates are Republicans.
Back to School Pa was started with a donation of $ 10,000 from Martino to support 94 primary candidates. Over the summer he received requests from 200 more local groups looking for money. He wrote checks worth $ 10,000 to everyone he accepted and also provided training on the campaign.
“We did not support regions and parents based on their districts’ ability to win. We did not support groups based on wedge issues like masking or CRT (Critical Race Theory We have supported those who have aligned with us on one issue of keeping our schools open no matter the party, ”said Clarice Schillinger, Executive Director of Back to School Pa.
The “Trump effect” persists
Reimagine Radnor, a parent-led group located in a Philadelphia suburb, received funding from Back to School Pa. He supported four candidates who ran unsuccessfully to topple local school board members on Tuesday. They campaigned to remove policy from the board, although they were also endorsed by the local Republican Party.
“I think we’re still against the Trump effect,” said Beth Connor, a former teacher with three children in the district who was supported by Reimagine Radnor. She says she has been registered as both a Democrat and a Republican in the past and ran in large part because she felt national politics were seeping into board decisions .
Yet the Republican-backed candidates in this suburb won a higher percentage of votes than in previous school board races, giving Connor hope that progress has been made towards school board balance.
“We have moved the needle. There is a real movement for parents to get involved in the education of their children, and for me to be able to participate a little, it is great,” she said. .
Reminder of efforts
There have been dozens of efforts to recall school board members in the 22 states that allow them.
It remains to be seen how successful such efforts will be, as many are still working to collect enough signatures to put the recall to a vote. On Tuesday, a recall election for the Mequon-Thiensville school district in Wisconsin failed, as did that in Nemaha, Kansas.
In San Francisco, where the school district remained closed for the majority of the 2020-2021 school year, officials in an effort to recall three of the school board members gathered enough signatures – more than 50,000 – to move the call back to a vote scheduled for February.
Education could be a winning issue
Republican Glenn Youngkin, the projected winner of Tuesday’s Virginia gubernatorial race, clearly believed school issues would resonate with voters, making parenting choice a centerpiece of his campaign. He rejected vaccination mandates for teachers and vowed that Virginia schools would not teach our children to see everything through the prism of race.
Education probably played a role in the election, although it was not the only problem in the minds of voters. In exit polls, about a quarter of Virginia voters said education was the most important issue facing the state, while about a third said the economy was the most important.
Youngkin toppled Virginia Beach County, a place where a school board meeting over a mask mandate heated up earlier this year. An effort is underway to recall six of the Virginia Beach City public school board members. But Loudoun County, which has a blue lean and also gained national attention this year after a man was arrested at a board meeting on equity, opted for Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The National Republican Party may view Youngkin’s campaign as a playbook for next year’s congressional midterm election, but it’s not clear whether school issues will remain at the fore. Policies to reopen schools and concerns about running programs may have peaked.
“It’s a real open question whether a year from now it’s the issues that transform people. I’m skeptical,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article noted the incorrect day for election results.