School election results rebuke local culture warriors

By | November 11, 2023


First there were the classroom culture wars.

Now for the backlash.

Conservative activists pushing for parents to have more say over what their children learn in school suffered a series of high-profile defeats in Tuesday’s election, dealing a blow to a movement that advocated for book bans and restrictions on class discussions on questions of gender And race.

Voters in several states have rejected local school board candidates backed by groups such as Moms for Freedominstead choosing moderate or liberal candidates.

Just over a third of the candidates supported by Moms for Liberty won their races Tuesday. The Florida-based nonprofit, which has been at the center of many fights over school agendas, said 50 of the 139 school board candidates it supported were elected. The group’s results for the year as a whole are only slightly better. Overall, the group said 44% of the candidates it supported this year won their races.

Tiffany Justice, one of the founders of Moms for Liberty, said she was pleased with the election results, even though the candidates the group supported lost many more races than they won.

Pointing to the candidates who won, Justice said, “That means you have 50 liberty-minded individuals who are going to serve on school boards, who are going to put the emphasis back on the basics of schooling, and they are going to s ensure that parental rights are respected.

Another group, the 1776 Project, said 58 percent of the candidates it supported — many in conservative areas — won. “Given the national environment, we view this as a strong outcome,” said Ryan Girdusky, the group’s founder.

Since the preparation of last year’s midterm elections, the GOP has sought to strengthen its hold on local elections by targeting school elections across the country. New right-wing party political action committees began pouring money into school board races last cycle — a trend that has continued through 2023 and is expected in 2024 — with the goal of not only overturning control of who governs the schools, but also to change education on a national scale.

But teachers unions, education activists and others on Tuesday described the lackluster performance by Moms for Liberty and other like-minded groups as a rejection of their far-right agenda.

“These results underline what families have been telling us for two years: they do not want culture wars. They want safe, caring public schools where their children can recover and thrive,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Jon Valant, an education policy expert, predicted that the outcome of this year’s elections could also influence future elections.

“This is going to make school board candidates seriously question whether affiliating with some of these far-right groups is good for their chances of getting elected,” said Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution , an institution based in Washington. thinking group.

“I think a lot of them are going to come to the conclusion that that’s not the case and that there’s too much risk in associating with these groups,” Valant said.

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Are voters fed up with the culture wars?

Ohio’s local school boards have become a battleground for culture wars rage in schools. But voters signaled Tuesday that they’ve had enough.

In Stark County, located in eastern Ohio, only one of the nine candidates supported by Moms for Liberty was elected. The only successful candidate was an incumbent.

In the Cincinnati area, two of the eight candidates supported by Moms for Liberty won. Two others, supported by a group called Ohio Value Voters, were also elected. Ohio Value Voters controls a coalition that collects evidence from mostly anonymous tipsters that Ohio schools are indoctrinating children. critical race theorycomprehensive sexuality education and social and emotional learning.

In the Columbus area, several conservatives ran on culture war promises, including excluding transgender girls from girls’ sports teams, protecting parents’ rights, limiting diversity and inclusion efforts, and reducing sex education. Eight out of ten of them lost.

Most candidates who campaigned on hot-button issues lost because “by and large, voters are not looking for extremist candidates,” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association.

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Iowa voters wiped out progressive school board candidates in suburban Des Moines and other high-profile races across the state. Advocacy groups from across the political spectrum and local officials from both parties have weighed in this year on Des Moines’ suburban school elections, which are nonpartisan but have taken a heated political turn in recent years.

Only one of the Iowa candidates officially supported by Moms for Liberty won a seat on the school board. Voters also rejected a slate of four candidates backed by The Family Leader, an influential Christian conservative group led by Bob Vander Plaats. Almost all the candidates promoted by local Republican elected officials also failed in the Des Moines suburbs.

Jenn Turner, president of the Moms For Liberty Polk County chapter, said recent Iowa laws impacting education have made parents more comfortable with what’s happening in schools. Some of them remained on the sidelines of this election, she said.

“Students use restrooms and locker rooms based on their biological sex. Boys cannot participate in girls’ sports,” Turner said. “And sexually explicit books have been removed from classrooms and school libraries across the state, and gender identity cannot be taught in K-6 classrooms.”

“Our opponents have done a good job in their disinformation campaigns, telling the public that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and other classics were being suppressed, when in fact only books containing graphic depictions of sexual acts or books suggesting pornographic sites were removed,” she said.

Elsewhere, Democrats picked up five seats and took control of the school board from Republicans in Pennsylvania’s Central Bucks school district by defeating candidates recommended by Moms for Liberty.

In Loudoun County, Virginia, which has faced ire from conservative activists over its policies on transgender students, critical race theory and other issues, Democratic-backed candidates won or were ahead in six of the nine school elections. Three of the four candidates supported by Moms for Liberty were defeated.

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School boards and the emergence of dark money groups

David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, said Tuesday’s election marks the end of the “stealth school board candidate.”

The emergence of “dark money” groups, which do not disclose their donors, and the involvement of political action committees and advocacy groups helping culture warriors win in school races have changed the way whose races are organized, Niven said.

“What we’ve seen in the past in Ohio is that people with pretty far-flung opinions could run without much scrutiny and, sort of victims of their own success, they have these formal, organized efforts and these adjacent efforts to help figure out who is who,” he said.

Before, “it was much easier to present yourself as a concerned parent, a concerned taxpayer, or a civic-minded person and never be faced with the question ‘Do you want to ban books?’ » Or: “Do you want to change the school curriculum or inject police into schools? » said Niven. “And now the effort is so much more brazen that it’s sort of a double-edged sword.” They work harder to achieve it, but they are almost at odds with themselves.”

Justice, of Moms for Liberty, said her group seeks to expand its influence by getting involved in State Board of Education elections. Eighty-three percent of the candidates the group supported in the November election were first-time candidates, she said. With 50 wins, that means the group has helped 365 people get elected over the past two years.

“The bottom line is this: We’re helping a whole new group of people get involved in the civic process and come in and try to reclaim or reform public education,” she said. “Teachers unions have controlled school elections for years. We’re the new kid on the block.

Valant, however, said the election results could be a sign that voters are losing the appetite for turning school issues into extreme partisan battles.

“These culture wars have been a real distraction in recent years and, I think, have caused real damage to schools,” he said. “I hope that a definite consequence of this will be that we will see school board members think more about the trade-offs that come from affiliation with some of these groups.”

Valant said he also hopes the election will signal that the country is on the right track to “turn down the temperature a little bit” in the culture wars.

Contributors: Zachary Schermele, Chris Higgins, Samantha Hernandez and Associated Press

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