Ever since the pandemic, right-wing activists have poured energy and money into previously sleepy nonpartisan school board elections. But in a number of key races Tuesday, progressives prevailed, locking out conservative majorities and hampering their attempts to push school policies in a reactionary direction.
The progressive wins — particularly in the elections in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — are a sign that right-wing activists aren’t necessarily as formidable as they once seemed. And more broadly, they’re a reminder that the war on so-called wokeness isn’t an issue that Republicans can assume will propel them to victory in 2024.
The pandemic transformed school boards from low-key administrative bodies to high-profile culture war turf.
The pandemic transformed school boards from low-key administrative bodies to high-profile culture war turf. Conservatives who objected to Covid public health measures, including remote learning and mask mandates, began organizing around school board meetings and elections as a way to push back. The premier group that arose out of the moment was Moms for Liberty, an activist outfit that billed itself as a “parental rights group.” The group soon pivoted from raising pandemic concerns to pushing back against LGBTQ inclusivity and antiracist pedagogy, and it grew rapidly, forming hundreds of chapters across the country and gaining over 100,000 members. Last year, the group’s endorsed and recruited candidates for school boards won in hundreds of races.
But Tuesday didn’t go so well for Moms for Liberty and its “parental rights” allies. The biggest letdown for the right was in the Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, where Democrats won five seats and seized control of the board from Republicans, defeating candidates Moms for Liberty recommended in its voting guide. The district is a juicy bellwether scenario. In a “swing county in a swing state,” as The Philadelphia Inquirer calls it, the race attracted national attention and an unusual amount of spending, a large part of which came from a right-wing venture capitalist in the county. Republicans had previously passed laws in the district prohibiting books with “sexualized content” and pride flags in classrooms. That didn’t help them cling on to control. And in Pennridge, another school district in Bucks County, all five open seats went to Democrats.
Another high-profile win for Democrats came in the school board race in Loudoun County, Virginia, where Democrats won a six-seat majority on the nine-seat board and three candidates backed by Moms for Liberty lost. Conservative activists had criticized the board in recent years for, among other things, its racial equity work and for suspending a teacher who refused to use students’ requested pronouns. The county’s controversies were played up in then-gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s election pitch to voters in 2021, which included lots of talk about “parents’ rights” in education. While Youngkin's victory was seen as a vindication of his embrace of education activism, it doesn't appear to be a foolproof strategy for the right. (To be fair, Loudoun County is turning bluer, but it has moderate and conservative pockets and Republicans can still compete in the area.)
In a race activist groups on the right and the left poured money into, progressives also won a majority on the Johnston Community School District Board of Education in Iowa. And Moms for Liberty candidates also lost in Minnesota and North Carolina.
These victories are significant. School boards matter on their own merits — their members approve school budgets, curricula, policies and strategic goals for districts. Each of their victories means a major student population will have education policy set by liberal-minded, multicultural representatives instead of people who want to foster a provincial or outright hostile attitude toward marginalized communities and progressive ideas in the school system.
More broadly, school board policies and school board elections have become proxies for broader culture wars over racial inclusivity, trans rights and free speech. Tuesday’s election results don’t mean the right is destined to lose on these issues in the future, but they do indicate that the issue is far from a layup and that, on education issues, the right can be out-organized.