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The GOP’s school board takeover strategy is falling flat

“The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards,” Steve Bannon declared on his podcast last May. Parent outrage, opined the former Trump adviser, could be mined by the GOP for electoral gold — from the most local elections to Congress, all the way to the White House. 

Suddenly the news cycle was awash in stories of formerly staid school board races transforming into partisan battlegrounds, as Republicans seized on parent discontent over mask mandates, teaching about race and gender inclusion policies. After Glen Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia and the recall of three school board members in San Francisco, a narrative of Democratic crisis and conservative triumph was clicked into place.

But what if that narrative is wrong? What if it turns out that even Trump-aligned Republicans happen to like their public schools and support their local teachers? 

As it turns out, GOP candidates running on scorched-earth education platforms have fared quite poorly in school board elections. In places like Georgia, Montana, New Hampshire and New York, voters have rejected culture warriors running for school board, often doing so by wide margins. A recent Ballotpedia review of more than 400 school board contests in Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin found that race, gender and COVID were indeed influential in determining election outcomes, but not in the way one might expect. As they found, candidates who ran in opposition to a “conflict issue” — sexual education curricula, for instance, or a focus on race in the district — were more likely to lose their races.  

Cherokee County, Ga., a rural county northwest of Atlanta, offers an instructive example. The county’s schools made national headlines recently after ProPublica reported on a group of white parents protesting the hiring of a Black educator brought on to serve as the first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer. Yet voters in the county, which Trump won by nearly 70 percent in 2020, overwhelmingly rejected hardline candidates for school board. A self-proclaimed family values slate, backed by the national 1776 Project PAC, and which ran in opposition to critical race theory and school district equity plans, failed to pick up a single seat. 

Voters in Coweta County, Ga., sent a similar message to another slate of candidates endorsed by the 1776 Project. All four challengers were bested by board incumbents in the May primary, while a fifth — a controversial incumbent who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection and claimed that students were being indoctrinated with critical race theory through district-provided Chromebooks — was unseated by a landslide in a runoff election in June. 

It isn’t that these deep red countries have suddenly begun to turn blue. Instead, the culture war approach is falling short because Americans have direct experiences that contradict what they’re hearing from candidates. 

Claims about what is happening at the state level, or around the nation, are hard to contest — they are abstract by their very nature. Deep-pocketed donors and conservative media outlets have been effective at exploiting that fact. But claims about conditions in the local schools are much easier to verify. For candidates seeking to convince parents that their kids’ teachers are left-wing subversives or would-be predators, that means telling parents that they’re wrong about their direct personal experiences with their local schools. Moreover, most parents, regardless of political affiliation, say they’re satisfied with their children’s schools and what’s being taught in them. 

The GOP is increasingly hostile to the very idea of public education. This spring, Christopher Rufo, architect of the critical race theory panic, detailed a strategy for replacing public education with a universal voucher system. “To get to universal school choice,” he argued, “you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.” National school privatization advocacy organizations, meanwhile, proclaim that they want to see school choice, including publicly-funded religious education, become a “litmus” test issue for Republicans — on par with opposition to abortion.  

Yet given widespread support for public education, this may be an even worse strategy than trying to convince parents to ban books, lead witch-hunts for “groomers,” or teach a misleading version of American history. The school board candidates rejected by voters in Cherokee and Coweta counties, for example, were explicit in their support for what incumbent school board member Linda Menk described as “a sound voucher system” where funding is not connected to “the liberal left ‘woke’ programs/curriculum being pushed down from DC.” Her opponent, who ran on a pledge to build on the school system’s successes, received nearly 80 percent of the vote. 

Backlash candidates have not fallen short everywhere. Particularly in communities undergoing rapid demographic or political transition, culture war messaging has proven effective. In Texas, conservative candidates, many of whom were backed by national PACs and high-profile donors, swept nonpartisan local school board races. And in Wisconsin, GOP-backed candidates in Waukesha, a conservative suburb of Milwaukee, ousted incumbents over school district equity policies and COVID responses, in what the Wall Street Journal hailed as results as a “revolt of the parents.” 

But while parent outrage remains a core conservative talking point, it has not proven a reliable recipe for electoral success. Instead, local voters have proven surprisingly resistant to the GOP’s school wars sales pitch. 

A year after Steve Bannon prophesied that school board elections would be a path to “save the nation,” voters seem to be sending a very different message. It’s a prospect that should make us feel a little more hopeful about the future. Sometimes fact is resistant to fiction. 

Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider are co-hosts of the education podcast, Have You Heard, and coauthors of “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.” 

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