Back in August, I wrote that getting “back-to-school” this year would also mean getting back to fighting far-right attacks on education. The threats included a rising number of efforts to ban books, and the Right’s efforts to take over local school boards.
So how did the Right do in this fall’s school board elections? Well, as in Congress, there was no conservative “Red Wave.” However, the Right did score just enough wins to keep coming back. And the groups behind those wins are promising to do just that.
According to news reports, about half the candidates endorsed by one national group, Moms for Liberty, and a third of those endorsed by another, the conservative 1776 Project PAC, won in November. Earlier this year Moms for Liberty racked up notable wins in their home state of Florida, where extremist Gov. Ron DeSantis gave them a boost; and in addition to taking over some school boards in their home state, they took over some boards in a few districts in South Carolina.
Their strategy was to try for a repeat performance of the Virginia election in 2021, where Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race on a similar cynical “parental rights” platform. The platform is code for highlighting culture war battles over issues like COVID mask and vaccine policies, “critical race theory,” and anti-LGBTQ activism. Let’s be clear, despite the marketing behind this movement, it doesn’t represent the views of many parents.
And if the Far Right doesn’t have good ideas, it definitely has plenty of money. The 1776 Project reportedly spent almost $2.8 million on ads and other campaign material for candidates. In Texas, a right-wing cellphone company called Patriot Mobile spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help right-wing candidates in several school districts, and called it “just the beginning.”
In the end, this campaign strategy was not the universally successful formula the Right hoped it would be. For starters, the so-called “parental rights” groups don’t speak for all parents – especially Black and brown parents. In many places, parents and teachers worked together to push back against ultraconservative takeover attempts. Winning candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project were in the few hundreds, far fewer than the thousands endorsed by the National Education Association – of which more than 70 percent won their races.
I’m an optimist at heart, and it gives me hope to see that the dishonest and damaging drive to take over school boards did not sweep the nation. It is very good to know that enough parents, teachers – and students – spoke out to prevent that from happening. We want schools where all kids can flourish. We want schools where history lessons are not whitewashed to hide harsh realities about our nation’s troubled past. As a parent, I don’t want my children lied to in school. That won’t help them succeed in school or in life. As a lifelong student of history, I know that we can’t understand our present reality or begin to shape a more inclusive future without being grounded in the complexity of our past.
But I also know the Far Right wants to make school board races a steppingstone to bigger things. Investing in school board takeovers is a power-building strategy. Ultraconservative activist Steve Bannon said it himself when he claimed the path to “save” the nation will “go through the school boards.” Not only that, but extremists in the GOP – including former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – now want to get rid of public education entirely. And yes, many public schools, including those in Black and brown neighborhoods, need to get better. But privatizing education is not the way to get there.
So we need to stay alert to the Right’s efforts to get control of school boards, because they’ll be back. We who care about honest teaching and inclusive public schools should go to school board meetings. We should pay attention to school board races and candidates. And if we can, we should run for the school board ourselves. Our kids’ educations, and their futures, depend on it.
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Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times best-selling author, his next book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” will be published by Harper Collins in January 2023.