Who Will Stand Up for Public Education?
Our guest author is Karin Chenoweth the founder of Democracy and Education an organization dedicated to providing information and support to school board candidates who are standing up to the extremist threat.
With all the attention on federal and state campaigns in November 2022, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that right-wing extremists had set their sights on winning school board elections.
School board elections tend to be an afterthought among both voters and those most involved in electoral politics. Civic-minded community members running without party affiliation—sometimes without opposition—traditionally have made for rather staid elections. Voters walking determinedly into the polls fully informed about presidential and congressional races can be stopped in their tracks with the question, “Do you know who you’re voting for school board?” They often haven’t thought about it.
And yet, with more than 88,000 school board members in more than 13,000 school districts, there are more elected school board members than any other category of elected official. Often intimately involved in their communities while working many hours for little or no pay, school board members are in many ways the face of small-d democracy in their communities.
The general inattention and even complacency about school board elections has provided a vacuum for extremists to fill. After all, most school board races are won with a fraction of the votes cast for president or congress—and a fraction of the money as well.
A school board dominated by extremists can wreak havoc on a community, sowing distrust of educators and harming the education of children by banning books, curtailing history instruction, and encouraging the bullying and mistreatment of children who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. The end goal of all this roiling is becoming clear as Republican-dominated legislatures in several states have introduced universal tuition voucher systems. In Iowa, for example, any school-aged student will, in a few years, be able to pay for private school tuition with up to $7,598 of public money. What was first touted as a way to help children from low-income families is set to subsidize those already attending private and religious schools and encourage the establishment of private, completely unregulated “micro schools.”
Extremists hope that school board members will help usher in devastation of public schools. For example, the new extremist majority Texas state school board recently dropped its opposition to tuition voucher legislation.
The right-wing effort to elect school board members is not new, but the 2022 elections saw an enormous push of energy and money. Extremist strategist and podcaster Steve Bannon had told his followers in May of 2021,“The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.” His reasoning was that if voters are excited about school board races come out to vote, they will also vote up the ballot—a reversal of the general idea that voters come out to vote for the top of the ticket and then vote down.
Bannon was far from alone in seeing the opportunity represented by school board elections.
Several new organizations with lavish but undisclosed funding have popped up in the last few years. Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education, among others, joined older groups like Heritage Action and the Noah Webster Educational Foundation in ginning up moral panics about critical race theory, school library books, and transgender students and thus creating a general atmosphere of crisis. Many of them provide tool kits or other specific information about running for school board. One of the oldest of the organizations, the Leadership Institute, which boasts of having trained candidates to run for office since 1979, expanded its focus to include school board candidates in 2022. Its new head of school board training is one of the founders of Moms for Liberty. The Leadership Institute calls itself “conservative,” but it is not trying to conserve anything; on the contrary, it is actively colluding in the destruction of public education.
And all this activism has had some success. Although confidence in public schools remains quite high for both Republican and Democratic parents (somewhere in the 75-85 percent range, depending on the poll), confidence has eroded among the general public, particularly among Republicans.
So how did the extremists do in the elections?
Like the rest of 2022, it was a mixed bag.
It’s hard to get an exact handle on the numbers, in part because local newspapers that cover school board races have been decimated. But from careful examination it appears that where communities weren’t ready for them and didn’t organize the majority to support pro-public education candidates, extremists were able to make inroads. The Texas state school board is an example. But in Round Rock Texas, where the community banded together and reminded the public how much they support public schools, extremists lost. This was true all over the country—for example, in the districts around South Bend Indiana, parents and community members organized a PAC to support pro-public education candidates, and they won; in the Indianapolis suburb of Westfield, where people weren’t paying much attention, extremists won. In Michigan, it appears that about 75 percent of the extremist candidates lost.
Official local and state Republican Parties are openly supporting extremist school board candidates. They raise money; they train candidates. And just before Election Day Gov. Ron DeSantis showed up in Sarasota to rally for the Moms for Liberty candidates, which probably tipped the election to candidates who welcomed the support of Proud Boy activists.
And, although school board races got a little lost in 2022, in 2023 some of the only elections will be school board elections. Which means there will be enormous attention and focus on them this year.
So there must be a major organized effort on the other side, right?
Well, if you can find it, let me know. I spent a couple of months talking with candidates and school board members who are standing up to extremists and I didn’t hear of a single national effort to support them. There are some terrific local efforts, but for the most part they are isolated. Local teachers unions do what they can to endorse and support candidates, but rarely mount major efforts to recruit, train, and support candidates. The Democratic Party, for the most part, can’t be found anywhere near school board races, even when Republican legislatures have forced candidates to run with party affiliations.
Some of the new organizations that have popped up since 2016 to train and support non-extremist candidates focus on other races, from city councils, state delegates, and congress. And they often serve specialized demographics. Run for Something, for example, supports candidates for a range of local races, including a few for school board, but only those under the age of 40. School board candidates tend to be older.
I spent some time looking for someone who was providing organized help to school board candidates. Finally, someone who knew what she was talking about said: “There is nothing. You’ll have to do it.”
And that is how I ended up started Democracy and Education, a brand-new organization dedicated to providing information and support to school board candidates who are standing up to the extremist threat.
We have no money—the few foundations I approached had no interest in supporting this effort—but what we have is the power of collective expertise. Folks in Florida, Indiana, Texas, Ohio, Oregon, California, Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia have joined together to share their hard-won experience and I am hoping more will join us.
Our materials are free and open to the public, and we have one-page briefs on a variety of educational and political issues, with more on the way. Jargon-free and with lots of links to more information, they provide school board candidates with a quick way to get up to speed. We also have a five-part podcast, “So You Want to Run for School Board,” which features Kris Amundson, who was herself a long-time school board member in Fairfax, Virginia, and head of the National Association of State Boards of Education. The podcast goes through all the aspects of building a campaign, from the very first questions candidates should ask themselves to the placement of lawn signs. It’s kind of a Campaign 101 for school board candidates.
For those who sign up to be part of our community—folks who are running for school board, thinking of running for school board, or helping someone running for school board—we also have a Forum where we can share information, strategies, and tactics. It is here where hard-won knowledge of how to win against extremists is shared.
As Randi Weingarten said recently of the extremist agenda, “Part of it is to change attitudes and beliefs and part of it is to intimidate and part of it is to create apathy, because apathy is the tool of the authoritarian.” She told Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the efforts of DeSantis, Trump, and their allies to find isolated classroom incidents and gin up a culture war are meant to demoralize everyday parents from getting involved. “There’s nothing random about what they are doing.”
Which means that we can’t be random in what we’re doing to support public education.
If you know of a school board candidate or an effort to help school board candidates, I hope you will send them our way. We welcome all those who support democracy and public education.