Conservatives aim to take control of school boards

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The California Republican Party, churches and conservative organizations have recruited and trained dozens of candidates to run for school board across California.

Some of their goals include fighting against teaching about racism and racial equity and the acceptance of different gender identities. What’s at stake in school board elections?

Education Beat is a weekly podcast hosted by EdSource’s Zaidee Stavely and produced by Coby McDonald.

Transcript:

Anne:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, CEO of EdSource. It’s election time, and that means in many California communities there are school board elections. This year, conservative and parent groups across California have recruited and trained dozens of candidates to run for school board. They’re hoping to leverage parents’ frustration fueled by Covid 19 school closures. Some are also very preoccupied with fighting policies on gender identity and racial equity.

John Rogers:

It will be interesting to know whether an effort like this to win over school board races below the radar is particularly effective.

Anne:

School board elections are no longer just about those local referendums. What’s at stake? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zadie Staively.

Zaidee:

In Riverside County on March 2nd, a church called 412 Temecula Valley hosted an unusual event. A rally to endorse conservative Christians running for school board in several local districts.

Tim Thompson:

Tonight is the night we begin to tape back our state. That’s what tonight is. You’ve seen the sexual indoctrination that’s taking place within our schools. You’ve seen the critical race theory that’s taking place.

Zaidee:

That’s Pastor Tim Thompson who was running this show.

Tim Thompson:

And now you see the kind of control, the mandates they wanna put on our families, cutting the parents out of decision making for their children.

Zaidee:

The event was put on by a political action committee called the Inland Empire Family PAC, and the candidates they were endorsing that night were all concerned about three main issues. Masking and other Covid 19 policies, education about race and racism, and gender identity. Here’s some of what the candidates said.

Speaker 1:

When teachers at Temecula can tell the kids if you’re a boy and you feel like dressing like a girl, if you’re a girl, you can dress like a boy. I saw an instance to that with my own eyes in our community. And I don’t want my son to be affected by it.

Speaker 2:

My children have been subjected to everything that you’ve heard about. Critical race theory, LGBTQ influence, and I’m tired of it. So both of my children attend Thompson Middle School. My daughter accidentally stumbled into a room on a rainy day, and when she looked around, she noticed that it was the gay room, right? So it startled her, her and her friends left. Now, I’m not against anyone in their sexual preference. This is America. You’re free to do what you want. However, it goes against my values and beliefs as a Christian.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat. Getting to the heart of California schools, I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, conservatives aim to take control of school boards. The conservative Christians running in Riverside County are part of a much bigger movement. The Republican Party recently launched a program called Parent Revolt, aimed at recruiting and training conservatives to run in school board elections across the state. My colleague Diana Lambert, wrote about this for EdSource. Hi, Diana.

Diana:

Hi, Zaidee. How are you?

Zaidee:

I’m pretty good. So Diana, give me a kind of a quick overview of what you are seeing in California school board races.

Diana:

Well, this year’s a very different year than previous years. School board races are nonpartisan races. They’re not supposed to be partisan. You don’t list whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. There’s been a lot of emphasis on school board races this year, but particularly from conservative groups and the Republican party who are pouring a lot of money and endorsements into candidates that they’d like to see on local school boards.

Zaidee:

And can you explain what is this program? Parent Revolt?

Diana:

This is a program that endorses and trains candidates to run for school boards with the idea of flipping school boards to entirely a conservative majority. And they said this is an effort they’re gonna continue in future years as well.

Zaidee:

And so, you know it seems that some churches are also jumping into the fray.

Diana:

Yeah. Churches and conservative groups have jumped into the fray, and they also are endorsing candidates and having these like candidates nights where they try to recruit candidates to run for school boards.

Zaidee:

Is there any concern about, you know, the separation of church and state?

Diana:

There is a great deal of concern about the separation of church and state some question where the churches that sponsor political events are disregarding the Bill of Rights, which requires a separation of church and state, and the tax codes, which prohibits tax exempt churches and affiliated groups from participating in political campaigns.

Zaidee:

Okay. And the idea that clergy can’t endorse candidates from the pulpit.

Diana:

Exactly. They’re not allowed to do that.

Zaidee:

Okay. And what is the strategy here for the Republican party? I mean, obviously they wanna flip school boards, but what are they hoping that will achieve.

Diana:

In California when republicans have it very difficult time getting seats in state races. This is their objective. You know, let’s go to a more local race and see if we can get conservative people into those. I think the Republican party’s goal is to ensure that their kids are not taught about gender identity or LGBTQ issues or anything about what they call critical race theory, which is the teaching about race and racism in society. The biggest surprise in my research was that Shawn Steele, who is the California representative to the Republican National Committee, said that there’s actually a goal here beyond the ones we talked about. And that goal is to sort of work as a group and fire the lawyers and the superintendents who didn’t do the things they wanted them to do during the pandemic. Like the lawyers who gave advice about state health mandates that they thought were bad or contrary to their beliefs, or superintendents who encouraged long term mask mandates or who embrace critical race theory. So they do have like a collective goal that they’ll work as a group afterward with these new candidates to upend some of the administration at the school boards in school districts.

Zaidee:

So when they say critical race theory, I think what they’re talking about is not kind of like this, you know, this university level discussion about race and racism. It’s more that anything, any discussion in the schools about racism and how systemic laws and policies may have created racist outcomes. They don’t want any of that taught in schools, right?

Diana:

That’s correct. And they often confuse it with culturally relevant studies or ethnic studies.

Zaidee:

Okay. And so Shawn Steele, who is this representative for California and the Republican National Committee, when you asked him about critical race theory, he had a particular quote. What did he say?

Diana:

Well, his quote was, it’s racist. Anyone who is Caucasian is an easy target. You have to shake their wokeness.

Zaidee:

This effort to flip school boards and to limit discussion of race and racism and gender identity in public schools isn’t just happening in California. John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA, has been watching it play out all over the country.

John Rogers:

There’s been a national effort on the part of conservative philanthropies, nonprofits, conservative legal advocacy organizations over the last couple years to target public schools as a site of conflict and to try to use public schooling as a way to gain partisan advantage. That’s played out since really January of 2021 increasingly over 2021. And then in the last year. And over the last few months, the California Republican Party has decided to take up that strategy and to try to seed candidates across the state in ways that they hope will gain advantage for the Republican party as a whole.

Zaidee:

John has been researching and writing about these efforts. He’s one of the authors of a report called The Conflict Campaign that tracked the campaigns against so-called critical race theory in schools. And he’s currently working on a survey of high school principles nationwide on how they’re experiencing the political environment over the last year. That will be coming out soon.

John Rogers:

I’ve heard principles around the country talk about a trifecta. And what they often are referencing there is that conflictual advocates within the community are advancing concerns relative to masking and or vaccines to issues of how race is dealt with in the school curriculum and to issues related to how schools are supporting or protecting LGBTQ rights. So that this national effort that first began largely as an attack on so-called critical race theory it was never really about the legal theory of critical race theory, but it was an attack on efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in public schools that again, began nationally and was picked up by several California communities. And in a couple California communities, districts actually passed resolutions to limit students’ access to teaching about race and racism. In the last few months, there’s been a more concerted effort to try to win school board races and to try to place candidates in ways that will garner advantage.

Zaidee:

What do you think the reason is behind it?

John Rogers:

Well, I think that nationally conservative and right wing forces thought that there was a political advantage that could be gained from tapping into parental anxieties and parental concerns related to the pandemic. So across the United States, there was a lot of frustration with the pandemic with school closures. People were not feeling very good about their lives, about their ability to support their children. And in some ways that was crystallized into frustration over the local public schools, in part because they were the closest institution and in some places they also were a public space in which people could vent their frustrations in the context of board meetings, oftentimes in Zoom board meetings. And so they were particularly accessible as well. I think part of the dynamic at play is that the Republican party at California has been pushed out of governance control over almost every sector of the government, all the state level offices.

John Rogers:

There is a super majority of Democrats in both houses of the state legislature. Most of the judges at the state level have been appointed by Democrats, and so the Republican party is looking for ways to reassert itself. School boards traditionally in California and in many parts of the country have not gotten a lot of attention. And so oftentimes there’s low turnout. Many of the school board offices go unopposed. And so there’s an opening for concerted efforts to try to win over access to these seats in ways that people in the general public may not be aware of. And so I do think that there’s a possibility that you could have a conservative wave of candidates whose broad interests and ideas would be very much at odds with what the public in those local communities want.

Zaidee:

John says, parents and community members should definitely be involved in their local schools.

John Rogers:

That’s critical to public education. It’s critical to the democratic process. I would draw a distinction though, between robust public engagement for public education and efforts on the part of some community members to use public schools for partisan gain and to advance anti-democratic interests.

Zaidee:

You know you, you said to Diana that the state is at a dangerous inflection point. What what is the danger?

John Rogers:

Well, I think we see a danger across the country in anti-democratic forces seeking to challenge core democratic principles. Principles related to fair and open elections principles related to the ideal of evidence based argumentation in our broader society and in our schools. Principles related to inclusion, to protecting the civil rights of all, including LGBTQ young people. And I think that the extent to which some of the efforts to win school board races are seeking to challenge those ideals that represents a danger to our society as a whole.

Zaidee:

This November conservative candidates all over the state will be angling for a spot on their school boards. Diana, is there a particular school district or or districts that sort of stand out to you?

Diana:

In Morgan Hill Unified, there was one gentleman, Dennis Delisle, that was running for school board and in the Bay Area there haven’t been as many people running for races this year. And there have been a lot of open seats. So he was going to walk right into a seat. But then the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a story talking about a book that he wrote that had some and homophobic comments in it, and then they had two additional candidates come forth and run against him so that he wouldn’t just walk into an uncontested seat. I think what we’re seeing, and that would tie into this, is that in conservative parts of the state, this is really working and they’re getting a lot of candidates for seats. But in more liberal parts of the state, we’re actually seeing a lot of open seats, uncontested seats, and because there’s just not that much of a conservative movement in those areas. And what we’re seeing instead then are people like Dennis Delisle who can walk right into seats and take a seat uncontested, and he has maybe points of view that aren’t the same as the rest of the community. This made me wonder if this is a big effort to get conservative board members on school boards, if indeed if they’re successful, that if after the election we may find school boards that don’t truly represent their communities, especially in more liberal parts of the state.

Zaidee:

How has the Democratic party, you know, responded to this?

Diana:

They really haven’t responded at all. They’re pretty much doing what they always do, and that is focusing on state and federal races. So they told one other reporter that generally there’s leaving the local races up to the county parties, the county democratic parties, and that’s it. So I mean, the California Teachers Association though, to be fair, has always given money to school board candidates. They generally endorse and fund 500 races every year. Not fully fund, but contribute to 500 races every year. And they said they weren’t increasing that this year either.

Zaidee:

And how have other people responded? I, I know you spoke with the California School Boards Association and some other folks.

Diana:

Yeah you know, the California School Board association’s nonpartisan, so they are just keeping an eye on the races and, but they have noticed though, that more incumbents are not running again this year because a lot of incumbents are just weary from one, just all the protocols and regulations they’ve had to learn during covid, but also from school board meetings that are really volatile and they’re just tired of being, you know verbally pummeled at the podium, so to speak.

Zaidee:

John Rogers from UCLA says, it’s unclear yet just how effective the push from conservative candidates will be.

John Rogers:

You can have these elections kind of flowing, flying below the radar in terms of what the public knows and doesn’t know because the public tends not to pay as much attention to these. It’s also the case that there’s no good polling on local school board elections, particularly in small communities. There’s just, there isn’t an easy way to know how much support some of these candidates have or how much turnout there will be, particularly in a midterm election. And so I think it will be interesting to know whether in what historically is a lower turnout cycle, whether an effort like this to win over school board races again below the radar is particularly effective.

Zaidee:

But John says voters should know it does matter who is on your school board.

John Rogers:

I would say they matter on probably three different levels. A first level is symbolic that the extent to which a new school board majority comes into play and articulates ideas about whether or not young people should be talking about discussing, engaging with issues of race and racism, whether or not the schools as a whole should be creating a safe and respectful environment for LGBTQ students that matters greatly and how young people are thinking about their public schools. Secondly, it matters in terms of how local teachers and principals are thinking about the support that they have from the broader community, the extent to which teachers and principals feel like their decisions on a day-to-day basis are gonna be called into question by a local governing board who may not like the fact that they’re engaging with controversial issues or trying to encourage young people to have difficult but important conversations about questions about the history of American racism that can undermine. It can have a chilling effect on the work of teachers, on the work of principals. And then thirdly, there are some policy decisions of import that local school board members will be able to put forward decisions about which textbooks to select decisions about what programs to fund or not fund that do have consequence. So I think across all three of those levels, it’s important who gets elected for our school boards.

Zaidee:

And John thinks parents and others should be paying attention.

John Rogers:

Parents should be concerned with anti-democratic efforts in the state. I mean, initiatives that are seeking to limit young people’s access to meaningful information, limit what young people learn about race and racism and efforts to diminish support and protection for LGBTQ youth. Because they’re not inviting the entire community to come together to forge collective solutions to our shared problems, they’re anti-democratic because they are purposefully seeking to exclude certain ideas and certain people from the public realm.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat. Getting to the Heart of California Schools, a production of EdSource. You can find Diana’s story at edsource.org. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to our guests, John Rogers and Diana Lambert. Our CEO is Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Stewart Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.

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