Has Polarizing School Board Election Politics Begun to Fade?
While moderate and liberal candidates did well in recent school board elections nationwide, experts say it's too soon to call these results a permanent change to extreme partisanship in school board politics.
Schools and school boards have been cultural battlegrounds dating back over a hundred years to when evolution was a hotly contested, controversial subject that was deemed inappropriate to teach students. That tradition has extended well into the present. The recent Nov. 8 elections show that the latest cultural wars and clashes that take place at schools and school boards around so-called wedge issues are still going strong. Ballotpedia notes several main topics broadly fueling conflicts around these elections, pinpointing pandemic responses, race in education and sex/gender in schools as tipping points for candidates entering school board elections.
These wedge issues are where groups like the Florida-based Moms for Liberty (M4L) focused their energy. A conservative “parents’ rights” organization that concentrates on “empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government,” M4L has used the two years since its founding to engage in school board politics and elections at the state and local levels nationwide. In 2022, 55 percent of their 500 candidates won their elections and the group has stayed at the front line of conversations around what’s being taught at schools and what rights parents have to control that.
In 2023, however, that percentage of successful candidates seems to have dropped, with the AP noting that groups like M4L and the 1776 Project lost about 70 percent of their races nationally. In this round of elections, more voters seem to have chosen moderate and liberal candidates in local school board races over conservatives with extreme stances on what should be allowed in schools. Most notable is the way that voters in several high-profile school board races turned in favor of more moderate candidates once parents did more research about M4L and their candidate’s goals. While “parents’ rights” are on the ballot, there is a potential disconnect between the movement and public opinion.
However, while headlines nationwide present this as a turning point and an end to M4L’s influence (calling the election results a “rebuke of culture war politics” or saying that M4L was “annihilated” in school board elections), things aren’t that simple.
“We tend to think of school board [elections] as sleepy, low spending, low turnout, not a lot of attention. And I think that we see now that there's a lot more attention there and that's going to continue,” says Julie Marsh, professor of education and co-director of University of Southern California’s Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance. “People are realizing that school boards are an important area in which you can advance your values and ideas. We've seen time and time again in history, that school boards become sites in which the nation works out its debates and differences. We might start seeing a dip. But history shows us this: We'll come back.”
As Ballotpedia points out, the issues that school board candidates run on have changed according to what “tests” well in front of voters. At the peak of the pandemic, there was a focus on health precautions and presenting them as either necessary or an infringement on parents’ rights to their children’s health. Right now, the “parents’ rights” movement orients itself around curricula and literature accessible in the classroom with a particular focus on LGBTQ+ issues, race and racism.
There will be other issues that polarize future school board candidates as these shifts ebb and flow according to what’s been successful and what’s failed in capturing voters’ attention. That cycle of controversy is yet another reason why it’s too soon to call these elections results a permanent blow to extreme partisanship in school board elections. Complacency and a sense of too-early satisfaction around some wins in school board elections nationwide can’t help protect students and teachers’ rights.
The public is now recognizing the value of school board elections. Experts say that elected and appointed officials need to try to return to the issues that parents care about and that directly affect the well-being of students. They also argue for a greater focus on working with people prioritizing school safety, upping literacy levels and an overall focus on making sure that students have what they need to succeed.
“We need to be thinking about how to make school boards more inclusive, school board members more representative of the community, and more welcoming,” says Marsh. “We might have seen a chilling effect in the past couple of years with the very high-profile, contentious meetings, and I worry about what that's done to citizens, and parents who now don't want to attend meetings won't speak up, and what those messages are to kids.”