Why school board seats may be the hottest midterm races

OOn paper, Sarah Stigler and Kathryn Rice have a lot in common. Both are nurses who cared for patients in Michigan hospitals during the pandemic. Both are parents who have begun to pay attention school board meetings after schools were closed in 2020. Both worry about falling test scores which highlight the progress students have lost over the past few years.

But as candidates running for school boards in Romeo, Michigan, their views are vastly different.

Rice, 41, believes parents should have more control over their children’s education. She disagrees with the idea that systemic racism is embedded in American life and worries that children are being taught “revisionist history.” She calls critical race theory and social-emotional learning “the literal hijacking of education.”

Stigler, 40, want students to learn “their own, accurate history.” She disagrees with the backlash to social-emotional learning and s efforts to get some books out which feature LGBTQ characters and themes from the school library shelves. And she worries that students have taken a backseat to partisan debates at too many school board meetings around the country — including in Romeo, a predominantly white school district of about 5,000 students 40 miles north of Detroit in Macomb County; the county voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Rice and Stigler are among six candidates vying for two seats on the Romeo Community Schools Board in the Nov. 8 election. And their positions represent two sides of the culture war debates that have roiled school board meetings for the past two years and inspired new candidates to run for office.

The 2022 midterm elections will determine who controls the US House and Senate, as well as state capitals across the country. But there are also school board elections next week in at least 24 states, according to Ballotpedia. In many of these races, voters must choose between candidates with fundamentally different ideas about what schools should teach and what public education should look like for students today.

In places across the U.S. with few competitive races at the state or federal level, school board candidates are making local headlines. A candidate in Zionsville, Ind. — north of Indianapolis — received national attention for a Facebook post in which he stated that “Not all Nazis were ‘bad’.” In North Carolina, one candidate for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools accused her opponent of making her 9-year-old son cry.

Conservative advocates and legislators sought to limiting racial and gender identity are discussed in classrooms, calling for bans on certain books and the claim that lessons targeting systemic racism and identity will divide children and make white students feel uncomfortable. At the same time, progressive advocates have called on schools to address discrimination and invest in social-emotional learning, comprehensive sexuality education and diversity initiatives to make schools fairer for all students.

Education issues are personal and polarizing for parents because policies directly affect their children. And while school board races are typically nonpartisan (meaning candidates run on their own rather than as part of a party ticket), politics is inevitable. Council members have a significant influence on what students learn and can play an important role in local political organizing. “If I could have a conservative majority on every school board in the country, we’d be in such good shape,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said said at a rally in August.

National politics is played out in school boards

Advocacy groups and political action committees are playing an increasingly prominent role in these local contests. “I don’t want the next school year to be filled with parents, teachers and school boards having to fend off book bans and unnecessary attacks on kids who are just trying to fit in,” says Katie Parris, who founded Red Wine and Blue. a liberal advocacy group focused on mobilizing suburban women that has made school races a priority this year. “I want us to focus on the things that will improve academic outcomes for all of our kids.”

She says the group researched more than 1,000 school board races in North Carolina and Michigan this year, creating voting guide which labels candidates the group believes will or will not “support accurate and honest education.” Paris says the group has identified about 170 candidates running for Michigan school boards who may be sympathetic to book bans or restrictions on sex education, or who have made racist or anti-Semitic comments on social media.

Run for somethinga group that backs progressive candidates in down-ballot races has backed 63 candidates for school boards or other education-related seats this year, seeking candidates who will oppose book bans and resist the backlash of critical race theory— an academic framework at the higher education level that examines how institutions perpetuate racism, which has become a catch-all term among critics who believe public schools are too liberal.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Project 1776 PAC, which supports conservative school board candidates and aims to combat critical race theory, spent nearly $2.8 million on those races from April 2021 to October 2022. according to FEC filings.

And in Michigan, Matthew Wilk launched the Get Kids Back to School PAC in 2021. It initially focused on supporting school board candidates who support the full reopening of schools, but has broadened its mission to include candidates who would opposed the “awakening” in schools and “turn back the tide of erosion of the traditional curriculum.

Wilk was on the Northville, Michigan school board in 2020, but his colleagues voted to remove him as president after he shared social media posts that downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, he opposed broad pandemic restrictions and continued school closures. “When schools started opening on their own, it turned out that closing schools wasn’t the disease, it was just a symptom,” he says. “And the disease was more ‘we didn’t want to listen to the parents.'”

He says the PAC brought in less than $20,000 in donations this year and gave candidates a few hundred dollars each, but mostly focused on holding candidate trainings and offering logistical support. The PAC has endorsed 57 candidates across the state, many of whom have rallied around giving parents more control over what and how their children learn.

Rice, whose advocacy began with her opposition to masking mandates in her district, is one of them. She disagrees with policies that allow transgender students to use restrooms or play on sports teams consistent with their gender identity, an issue that has been Poet by conservative activists and state legislators in various parts of the country. She argues that many schools prioritize social justice at the expense of core subjects such as math or reading.

“We don’t have to worry about pronouns. We don’t have to worry about DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives]. We should not force SEL [social-emotional learning],” she says. She argues that social-emotional learning goes beyond teaching students communication skills and coping mechanisms and teaches some students to be oppressed and others to be oppressors. Proponents of the framework argue that it is a valuable way to teach students how to manage stress, recognize emotions, and work cooperatively Some social-emotional learning principles promote self-awareness and racial equity by encouraging students to reflect on identities and explore biases.

“Teaching a child to be an oppressor is harmful,” says Rice. “Teaching a child that America was built on systemic racism is harmful.”

Running an education

Education has also become an issue in the Michigan governor’s race. Tudor Dixon, a Republican running against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has campaigned to give parents more control over their children’s education. Trump visited Macomb County last month for a rally in support of Dixon, whom he Named “a national leader in the fight to protect our children by removing racial and gender ideology from the classroom.”

Dixon proposed a policy that would prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, modeled after Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.. She also wants to ban transgender girls from participating in women’s sports teams.

That kind of rhetoric worries Stigler, who thinks adults often talk about the students most affected by such policies without considering the impact on them. “We don’t really pay attention to what they have to say,” she says. “These kids are left with the impression that they’re not worth it.”

When she was a student at Romeo in the 1980s, she remembers being taught about Christopher Columbus in a way that glossed over his a legacy of violence and deathand its role in the slave trade. “He brought all these things. Everything was wonderful and beautiful,” she says. “We all know in hindsight that’s not accurate.” And she thinks schools today need to do a better job of providing students with a more comprehensive and accurate historical education than she had.

If elected, she wants to focus on addressing teacher shortage and student learning loss—issues that have taken on greater urgency for public schools following pandemic disruptions.

Some advocates worry that these pressing challenges have taken a back seat to the battles between the culture wars that have captured the national spotlight.

“Instead of dealing with these very real problems … we have politically motivated small groups of people trying to take us back to the 1950s,” said Parris, the organizer of Red Wine and Blue. “I’m concerned about this not only because it distracts from the real challenges we have to deal with, but because it creates unnecessary division in our communities.”

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Write to Katie Riley c [email protected].

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