Usually elected and unpaid, members of school councils have been at the forefront of Covid politics and the culture wars. Protests have erupted, throwing a national spotlight on local bodies that have historically addressed less controversial decisions about district budgets and staffing.
After months of controversial interactions, in October the National School Boards Association asked the federal government to help investigate threats against school officials and educators – a move that has been sharply criticized by some Republican lawmakers for reaching out to parents who find out about the problems in their children’s schools.
Despite the vitriol, some parents decided that getting involved was more important than ever. While there is no database tracking school board races across the country, new money pouring into the races and a series of efforts to recall incumbents suggest that some boards are experiencing upheaval after Tuesday’s elections will.
Money funnel in
A state-wide PAC in Pennsylvania, largely funded by venture capitalist and Bucks County mom Paul Martino, said at least 101 of its candidates won their elections on Tuesday, though the results for some races on Monday night were too short to win to name.
The PAC, known as Back to School Pa, spent more than $ 600,000 to support 208 school board candidates in 54 communities across the state. They sponsored a platform to keep schools open for personal learning even during a fall or winter spike in Covid. The group is bipartisan, despite the fact that its candidates have distorted Republicans.
Back to School Pa started with a $ 10,000 donation from Martino to help 94 candidates in the primary. Over the summer, requests were received from 200 other local groups seeking money. It wrote checks for $ 10,000 on every accepted check and also offered campaign training.
“We did not support regions and parents on the basis of the attractiveness of their districts. We did not support groups based on wedge topics like masking or CRT (Critical Race Theory). We have supported those who have joined with us on a single matter of keeping our schools open, regardless of the party, “said Clarice Schillinger, Executive Director of Back to School Pa.
“Trump effect” remains
Reimagine Radnor, a parent-run group in suburban Philadelphia, has received funding from Back to School Pa. She supported four candidates who ran unsuccessfully on Tuesday to remove members of the local school board. They campaigned to remove politics from the board, despite the backing of the local Republican Party as well.
“I think we’re still against the Trump Effect,” said Beth Connor, a former teacher with three children in the district who was supported by Reimagine Radnor. She says she was registered as both a Democrat and a Republican in the past, and ran mainly because she felt that national politics were intruding on the decisions of the board.
Still, the Republican-backed candidates in this suburb won a greater percentage of votes than previous school board races, giving Connor hope that progress was being made in balancing the school board.
“We moved the needle. There is a real movement when parents get involved in their children’s education and that I could be a small part of that is great,” she said.
There have been dozens of efforts to recall school board members in the 22 states that allow it.
It remains to be seen how many of these efforts will be successful, as many are still working to collect enough signatures to vote on the removal. A re-election for the Mequon-Thiensville School District in Wisconsin failed on Tuesday, as did one in Nemaha, Kansas.
In San Francisco, where the school district remained closed for much of the 2020-2021 school year, those seeking the recall of 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 topic
Republican Glenn Youngkin, the projected winner of the gubernatorial race in Virginia on Tuesday, clearly believed school matters would resonate with voters and made parenting a centerpiece of his campaign. He turned down vaccination mandates for teachers, vowing that Virginia’s schools “would not teach our children to look at anything through racial goggles.”
Education likely played a role in the elections, but it wasn’t the only issue on voters’ minds. In polls, about a quarter of Virginia voters said education was the top priority for the state, while about a third said the economy was the top priority.
Youngkin turned over Virginia Beach County, a place where a school committee meeting was heated over a masked mandate earlier this year. Attempts are made to recall six Virginia Beach City Public Schools board members. But Loudoun County, trending in blue and also drawing national attention this year after a man was arrested at a board meeting on equity, picked Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The National Republican Party may look to Youngkin’s campaign as a playbook for next year’s congressional election, but it’s unclear whether school issues will remain a priority. School reopening guidelines and concern about racing curriculum may have peaked.
“It’s a real open question whether these will be the issues that are going to move people in a year’s time. I’m skeptical,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Columbia University.