Usually elected and unpaid, members of school boards found themselves on the front line of Covid politics and culture wars. Protests have erupted, shining a national spotlight on local boards that in the past dealt with less controversial decisions about district budgets and staffing.
After months of contentious interactions, the National School Boards Association in October asked the federal government to help look into threats against school board members and educators — a move that drew sharp criticism from some Republican lawmakers for targeting parents who wish to speak out about the issues at their children’s schools.
Despite the vitriol, some parents decided it was more important than ever to get involved. While there’s no database tracking school board races across the country, new money funneling into races and a number of efforts to recall incumbents indicate that some boards will see a shakeup after Tuesday’s elections.
Money funnels in
A statewide PAC in Pennsylvania, funded largely by venture capitalist and Bucks County parent Paul Martino, said that at least 101 of its candidates won their elections Tuesday, though results had yet to come in for some races too close to call as of Monday evening.
The PAC, known as Back to School Pa, spent more than $600,000 to back 208 school board candidates in 54 communities across the state. They promoted a platform of keeping schools open for in-person learning even amid a fall or winter Covid surge. The group is bipartisan, though its candidates skewed Republican.
Back to School Pa launched with a $10,000 donation from Martino to endorse 94 candidates in the primaries. Over the summer, it received applications from 200 additional local groups seeking money. It wrote checks worth $10,000 to each one it accepted and also provided campaign training.
“We didn’t support regions and parents based on the winnability of their districts. We didn’t support groups based on wedge issues like masking or CRT (critical race theory). We supported those who aligned with us on a single issue of keeping our schools open, regardless of party,” said Back to School Pa Executive Director Clarice Schillinger.
‘Trump effect’ lingers
Reimagine Radnor, a parent-led group located in a Philadelphia suburb, received funding from Back to School Pa. It backed four candidates who unsuccessfully ran to unseat members of the local school board Tuesday. They campaigned on removing politics from the board, though they were also endorsed by the local Republican Party.
“I think we’re still up against the Trump effect,” said Beth Connor, a former teacher with three children in the district who was backed by Reimagine Radnor. She says she’s been registered as both a Democrat and a Republican in the past and ran largely because she felt national politics were seeping into the board’s decisions.
Still, the Republican-backed candidates in that suburb won a bigger percentage of the votes than they had in previous school board races, giving Connor hope that progress was made toward balancing the school board.
“We moved the needle. There’s a real movement about parents getting involved in their kids’ education, and that I could be a little part of that is great,” she said.
There have been dozens of efforts to recall school board members across the 22 states that allow for them.
It remains to be seen how many of those efforts will be successful, as many are still working on gathering 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 one in Nemaha, Kansas.
In San Francisco, where the school district remained closed for a majority of the 2020-2021 school year, those leading an effort to recall three of the school board members gathered enough signatures — more than 50,000 — to move the recall 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 thought that school issues would resonate with voters, making parental choice a centerpiece of his campaign. He rejected vaccine mandates for teachers and vowed that Virginia’s schools would not “teach our children to view everything through a lens of race.”
Education likely played a role in the election, though it wasn’t the only issue on voters’ minds. In exit polls, about one-quarter of Virginian voters said education was the most important issue facing the state, while about one-third said the economy was most important.
Youngkin flipped Virginia Beach County, a place where a school board meeting over a mask mandate grew heated earlier this year. An effort is underway to recall six of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools board members. But Loudoun County, which trends blue and also drew national attention this year after one man was arrested at a board meeting on equity, went for Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The national Republican Party may look to Youngkin’s campaign as a playbook for the congressional midterm elections next year, but it’s unclear if school issues will remain at the forefront. School reopening policies and concern over race curriculums may have peaked.
“It’s a real open question about whether a year from now these are going to be the issues that turn people. I’m skeptical,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University.