by Todd Carney
Over the last few months, the U.S. has engaged in intense discussion over “critical race theory.” As Americans have debated the impact of CRT, several states have banned CRT from the public school curriculum, while other states are using it as part of that curriculum. The debate over CRT’s merits or dangers has prompted ideological battles in school board elections. This article looks at the increased activism around school board elections and its broader ramifications.
Past politicization of school board elections
Though school board elections may not seem as exciting as a presidential or even congressional race, they have taken on greater importance in recent years. In 2005, the city of Dover, Pennsylvania faced a contentious court case known as Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which ruled that the school district’s teaching of intelligent design violated the separation of church and state. Shortly after the trial concluded, the district held its school board elections, and all the school board members who favored the teaching of intelligent design lost their reelection bids, at least in part due to their position on the issue. The election generated much discussion.
In the early 2010s, school board races saw partisan involvement through the Tea Party movement. Generally, candidates affiliated with the Tea Party ran on platforms of greater political accountability and lower property taxes. Carl Paladino, a former Republican nominee for governor in New York, won a race for the Buffalo school board on a Tea Party-type platform. The school board later ousted Paladino for making offensive comments about former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Recent school board activism over CRT
Earlier this year, activism regarding CRT in schools began to take shape. The first instance came over a debate in California over a high school ethnic studies program that included elements of CRT. Activists from both sides provided commentary at a formal hearing and spoke out about CRT in the media. Ultimately California’s Board of Education voted to implement the ethnic studies program.
CRT in schools gained further attention when parents in Loudon County, Virginia, spoke out against its being taught in schools to children of all ages. Conservative news sites began covering the issue heavily. Over the next two months, states enacted bans on teaching CRT in public schools, and since then, many more states have debated whether to do so. Recently, conservative groups have trained parents in making their voices heard in school board elections.
Where school board elections come in
Starting in May, school board elections started to focus on CRT. In the Dallas suburb of Southlake, backlash against a program known as the “Cultural Competence Action Plan,” which seemingly incorporated elements of CRT, propelled two candidates for school board to landslide election victories. These candidates ran on opposing the plan and CRT in general. A few weeks later, a story broke in Axios that a PAC known as “the 1776 Project” would spend money in school board elections on behalf of candidates with more conservative views, particularly on CRT. Another story from NBC News a few weeks later revealed that a group known as “No Left Turn in Education” was helping groups coordinate on strategies to defeat CRT candidates in local elections. CRT dominated Kansas school board politics this summer. A race in Connecticut saw an interesting twist, where Republican school board members sympathetic to CRT lost in a contest for the GOP endorsement for the November election.
Conservative groups have also worked to recall school board members who support CRT. This strategy lines up with the recall campaign that California governor Gavin Newsom and other state politicians are facing, but it’s also part of a broader trend of attempted recalls against governors in the last few years.
Many parents have filed to run for school board seats on a platform opposing CRT. An NBC News story claimed that many of these parents were involved in QAnon. Conservatives lambasted this claim, while the Today Show and Morning Joe, among others, shared the story, which served to further nationalize the issue. Amanda Litman of the PAC “Run for Something,” which recruits Democrats for office, responded to the story by pledging that “Run for Something” would support those opposing such candidates – thus mirroring, from the Left, the Right’s involvement in school board races. The national debate over school board elections even spilled into the lives of HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines when a story reported that the two had donated $1,000 to Chip Gaines’s sister in her race for school board in Texas on a platform opposing CRT. The donation prompted attacks on the Gaineses from the Left.
The increased activism in school board politics could affect larger races, in particular the Virginia gubernatorial election this fall. After all, part of the CRT debate started in Loudon County, which once leaned Republican but has turned sharply left. If Republicans can win Loudon County or even improve on their recent showings in the area, they could win the gubernatorial race. Activists are working on recalls of school board members there, and a recall election could further increase conservative turnout. The gubernatorial nominees in Virginia, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin and Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe, have both weighed in on the issue – Youngkin vows to oppose CRT, while McAuliffe dismisses the anti-CRT movement as a manufactured controversy. Other publications have assessed whether the school board fights over CRT could influence the midterm elections.
Clearly, the CRT issue is affecting communities around the United States. School board races have become politicized. The outcomes of these races will likely play a role in shaping CRT’s future.
– – –
Todd Carney is a writer based in Washington, DC. The views in this piece are his alone and do not reflect the views of his employer.