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Heading into midterms, GOP finds all school politics is local

Kevin Mahnken | October 25, 2022

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The staging is classic for a campaign ad in late-September: a close-up of a disappointed-looking woman sitting at a kitchen table.

The speaker is a mother of five in Wichita, and the target of her reproach is Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. A Democrat, Kelly was America’s first governor to order K-12 buildings closed in the spring of 2020. After winning a surprise victory in 2018, she is now one of the most endangered incumbents this fall, and — if the commercial is any indication — her record on schools will be the primary focus for her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

The newly aired attack is typical of battleground elections nationally. With a little over a month to go before the midterms, the issue of K-12 education has come to inhabit an unusual role: a rare point of intersection between national and local politics, as well as a deep faultline in competitive races.

Both attention and acrimony have mounted continuously since the last national election, with angry cleavages over COVID-related school closures giving way to debates over curriculum, instruction and the rights of parents. And while the public focus has also been redirected by abortion and persistent inflation over the past few months, multiple surveys have shown growing dissatisfaction with schools and surprising parity between the parties on an issue that Democrats have traditionally dominated.

Republicans have grabbed the initiative by directly addressing parents — both in campaign materials and policy prescriptions — and casting themselves as the defenders of families’ interests. In Nevada and Wisconsin, vulnerable Democratic governors stand accused of presiding over ideological indoctrination in classrooms and inept recovery from pandemic learning loss. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who stands to become House Speaker if his caucus enjoys a good night on November 8, recently rolled out a campaign agenda that includes a “parents bill of rights.’ Even campaigns for state superintendent, a position so obscure and technocratic that most states simply appoint theirsare now seeking and winning the support of President Donald Trump and other conservative idols.

But the truly unexpected turn is only apparent further down the ballot. After decades flying under the radar of all except the most attentive voters, school board elections are suddenly attracting more attention and resources than at any time in recent political memory. New advocacy groups have materialized, left and right, to promote candidates and push more parents to get involved in school governance. And their efforts have been noticed by the fastest-rising politician in America: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made his own foray into local politics this summer by endorsing dozens of school board hopefuls around his state. The resounding victory of his slate has only hastened DeSantis’s ascent as a potential challenger to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Increasingly, the small-bore powers affecting individual schools and districts are playing out on a national stage.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the guest of honor at Moms for Liberty’s national conference this summer. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Rebecca Jacobsen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University, chronicled some of these trends in a recent book about the growing influence of national politics on low-level elections. But that analysis, she noted, couldn’t foresee the post-COVID flowering of organizations devoted almost solely to capturing boards and changing policies from the ground up.

“As someone who has studied local education politics, what’s remarkable is the way that education is getting drawn into a highly polarized, partisan debate,” Jacobsen said. “Even debates that were more left/right before were not nearly as stark as they are now.”

Getty Images

But Tiffany Justice said that the explosion of interest in local campaigns was, if anything, inevitable in light of the repeated crises and consternation surrounding schools since 2020. A co-founder of the Florida-based conservative group Moms for Liberty — perhaps the most notable new entrant in this midterm cycle — Justice said that K-12 would be a point of emphasis in elections up and down the ballot this November.

“There’s nothing more important in a parent’s life than their children, and nobody’s going to fight for anything like a parent is going to fight for their child,” Justice argued. “If I was running for office, and I wanted to win, having parents in your corner is a pretty smart move.”

Education in the culture wars

While school boards are the primary governing entity for virtually every school district in the United States, they have seldom been thrust into the national political discussion. The staid content of the average board meeting, generally ranging from budgetary goals to facilities management, wouldn’t quicken the pulse of most activists.

The most recent exception came in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Christian conservatives began seriously pursuing board seats amid debates about issues like school prayer and American history standards. In suburban areas like Loudoun County, Virginia, right-leaning members petitioned the state to end its mandate on sex education. A quote attributed to Ralph Reed, a prominent evangelical leader and GOP consultant, declared a preference for one thousand school board members over winning the presidency.

The political uproar over school policies in Loudoun County, Virginia, was widely credited with helping Republican Glenn Youngkin win the 2021 governor’s race. (Katherine Frey/Getty Images)

After notching some wins, the wave dissipated. It wasn’t until the early Biden area that Loudoun County — much more socially progressive after decades of demographic transformation — again saw a serious bout of public engagement in school governance, this time directed against the board’s policies on COVID, gifted education and school bathrooms. The perception of liberalism behind the district’s equity agenda figured heavily in last year’s race for governor, ultimately won by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Jon Valant, director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, called the Youngkin win a proof point that statewide campaigns could turn on education issues. In the intervening period, however, action could only be taken at the local level, where thousands of board races across the nation offer a plethora of opportunities. The sheer number of seats being contested makes it difficult to follow trends in school board races (Valant called data collection on the subject “a nightmare”), but turnout in some districts has been below 10 percent in past elections. In a 2020 survey, 40 percent of board members said they hadn’t faced any competition in their last election.

“These are, relative to just about every other election we have, extremely low-information and low-turnout races,” Valant said. “That means that they’re relatively easy to flip.”

Activists have tested that theory over the last two years by forming political action committees and financing challengers; in some districts, more people have filed as candidates this year than over the last two elections combined. And shake-ups have followed in states like Texas, where, among other organizations, a PAC sponsored largely by a Christian cellphone company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to capture board seats in multiple counties.

Ryan Girdusky, an author and former Republican staffer, formed the group 1776 Project PAC in 2021 out of what he said was frustration over prolonged school closures during the pandemic and politically tinged lessons that he contends were common during the period of virtual instruction. While his initial hopes for the project were modest — its staff still consists of just four people, two working part-time — he said he was shocked by the response he has received from over 30,000 small-dollar donors. According to the campaign finance tracker OpenSecrets, the PAC has raised over $2.5 million since last year.

About 95 candidates backed by the 1776 Project have won their races out of 118 they’ve endorsed, Girdusky said, arguing that its success on a relatively small budget was proof of education’s potency as a campaign issue.

“The thing is that the Right just gave up after a while and focused solely on school choice, and that was a mistake. I think education is a much more prevalent ‘culture war’ issue than a lot of other things that are talked about much more.”

Parents and the pandemic

It will be difficult to measure the ultimate success of groups like the 1776 Project or Moms for Liberty (or even Red Wine & Blue, a progressive organization that has sought to mobilize women in suburban districts to protest laws that ban the teaching of “divisive concepts”). Presuming they make a noticeable dent in the races they target, fast-forming political movements are often just as quick to run out of oxygen and dissolve.

But at least for this cycle, state-level politics is fixated by the question of what happens inside schools.

The call for a national “parents’ bill of rights” — first introduced in Congress last fall, and written to mandate transparency around curriculum and safety in schools — has now been echoed by Paul LePage, a former Republican governor of Maine who is now running to win back his old job. Republicans in the state also aired an ad this spring criticizing the Maine Department of Education for promulgating lessons intended for kindergarten classrooms that included material on gender and sexual identities (the lessons were later removed).

In Wisconsin, where school board elections are officially non-partisan and campaign costs have typically run into the hundreds of dollars, the state GOP has dispensed $284,000 to its county offices in a bid to grab more seats — more than three times as much as Democrats spent. Republicans in California have unveiled a program called “Parent Revolt,” attempting to recruit more candidates to run in the roughly 2,500 board races this year. Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose reelection prospects look fairly secure in public polls, has nevertheless convened a new “parents’ council” to advise lawmakers on education policy after her Republican opponent called for more family engagement.

But the figure who has most unmistakably bound himself to education politics this year has been DeSantis. After dominating national headlines earlier this year by fulminating against the teaching of critical race theory and gender identity, the Florida governor launched an unusual intervention into school board races, endorsing 30 candidates for a variety of boards this summer. The move provoked an immediate reaction, as DeSantis’s Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, announced that he was backing his own group of “pro-parent” aspirants.

The dueling endorsements could hardly have worked out better for the Republican, as 24 of his favored candidates either won their races outright or performed well enough to proceed to later run-off ballots. In addition to boosting party enthusiasm and interest ahead of his November reelection bid (which political observers expect him to win handily), DeSantis demonstrated strong coattails in a crucial 2024 swing state.

Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said that the political coup was made possible by the explosion of parental anger and suspicion over the last few years. Before COVID, she argued, there was “no payoff” to becoming involved with unpredictable, down-ballot races.

“Obviously, if a race is very low-profile with voters, what’s the point of getting in the middle of it? But what the pandemic did was to focus voters’ attention on school board races,” MacManus observed. “All of a sudden, it became relevant politically to get engaged in endorsing.”

Michigan State’s Jacobsen said that the shift in focus toward state- and local-level education politics represents more than just a political opportunity; it also follows the recognition that, following years of an expanding federal role in overseeing K-12, most influence still resides in school communities themselves.

“These national groups seem to be aware that you can’t just mandate from the top anymore. We tried that with No Child Left Behind, tried turning our attention to the national level and saying, ‘Let’s push a law through, and everybody will have to [reform schools].’ But the local level still has a great amount of power.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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