The School Board Wars Are Just Beginning
With Rev. Warnock’s win over Hershel Walker, the 2022 midterms are finally mercifully over. There’s already been plenty written about what it all means. Most if it - particularly takes written within 24 hours of election night - don’t feel particularly insightful to me. While politics are certainly becoming nationalized, I think it’s tricky to try to apply a simple narrative to hundreds of different races. Too often it feels like political journalists ignore conflicting data from different races in favor of a singular story.
Yes, Gen Z certainly had an impact, as did the Right’s attack on abortion rights, and also Trump and his nominees. But the truth is when you take it all in, it was a pretty mixed bag. Election deniers lost, and election deniers won. Progressive prosecutors won some races, and tough on crime rhetoric won in many parts of New York state and elsewhere.
This stalemate between the forces of “small d” democracy and minority-rule authoritarianism was evident in local school board races as well. Overall Moms for Liberty, The 1776 Project PAC, and other “parental rights” groups spent millions dollars on school board races. Throughout 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis also made endorsements, and his candidates did well. It’s clear that school board elections are no longer flying under the radar.
So what happened? In blue California, red Texas, and many other districts, people fended off conservative candidates. But in Florida and elsewhere the anti-antiracist reactionaries won. And in places where they won, they did not waste time.
Across the country, newly elected school boards immediately took action by firing superintendents. These are superintendents who implemented mask mandates and tried to advocate for culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining pedagogy. In one high-profile story, the board fired the district’s first Black superintendent of a system serving mostly Black and Brown student body, they lost their Black superintendent. These changes in leadership matter.
Research shows that students of color need access to positive and affirming representations of people of color in their curriculum. White students - perhaps more than anyone - need these representations too. Each year that these students are forced to learn under the control of right-wing reactionaries is a year of educational malpractice.*
So what does it all mean? I’ll try to follow my own advice and avoid any sweeping generalizations. But here’s what I think we can say.
Republicans have figured out that anti-bias and anti-racist teaching is a galvanizing issue for white voters. They poured considerable resources into school board races. And while they were thankfully pushed back in meaningful numbers, they undoubtedly learned a lot and accomplished a good deal of organizing. They aren’t giving up.
In the coming months, those of us who care believe all kids deserve access to high-quality education — which entails anti-bias and anti-racist pedagogy — need to take a closer look at the school board election battles that were fought this year, and the ones that are coming up. We should speak to the communities who fought off reactionaries as well as those who did not. There won’t be one winning playbook, because each community’s needs and concerns looks different. But the Republicans are definitely building off of this election cycle and we need to be too.
*It’s worth noting that the majority of school teachers are probably not teaching particularly radical content. And yet, the intention of groups like Moms for Liberty is to calcify this tendency and erase even the slightest pockets of resistance in the system.