MISSION, Kan. – Several high-profile school board candidates who fought COVID-19 restrictions and anti-racism classes lost their election bids Tuesday, while the Republican candidate for Virginia governor won after making education a key part of his campaign.
The defeats in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Connecticut came as voters weighed in on dozens of races that were dominated by debates over masks, vaccines, race and history. Their choices will help decide not just local policies but also whether the education battle has staying power and becomes a rallying issue for Republicans in the 2022 midterms.
The political tracking website Ballotpedia identified 76 school districts in 22 states where candidates took a stance on race in education or critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic in America’s institutions. The National School Boards Association says it is not taught in K-12 public schools.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused the right wing of orchestrating protests to “turn schools into battlegrounds." She cited Republican Glenn Youngkin, who won the Virginia governor's race after seizing on conservatives’ frustrations with schools, as an example.
“Families drained by COVID and its effect on their kids were at the center of a political firestorm meant to distract from our shared goals of creating good jobs and an economy that works for all," she said.
But Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a Melbourne, Florida-based group, whose 142 chapters in 35 states have fought vaccine and mask mandates, said the power of parents was on full display in the race.
“We anticipate seeing the same effects throughout the 2022 midterm cycle," Descovich said. “Parents are engaged and are seeking elected officials at all levels of government who respect their right to direct the education, upbringing and care of their children."
Former Vice President Mike Pence also got into the game, taking a moment during a campaign rally Saturday in Ohio to urge voters to support conservative school board candidates. But conservative-backed candidates for a dozen suburban Cleveland school boards were generally falling behind, unofficial results showed.
In pockets across the country, other school board challenges failed.
In Wisconsin, four members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board held off a recall challenge that cost anti-critical race theory backers nearly $50,000.
In Minnesota, three conservative candidates failed to win a seat on the board in Wayzata. They ran on a “Vote for Three!” platform that denounces “harmful ideologies like CRT,” political indoctrination and “controversial medical mandates.”
In Connecticut, a slate of five five candidates opposed to critical race theory lost the board of education race in the Guilford school system, where a racial reckoning began years ago, first with an episode in which a student wore blackface to a home football game, followed by a fraught debate over the elimination of its mascot, the Indians.
Parents for Guilford Students, which backed the losing candidates, posted on Facebook: “Our five republican candidates lost the BOE election." But, the post said, "those that lost the most are the dear children of Guilford.”
In Colorado, early results showed anti-mask candidate Schumé Navarro trailing in her bid for a seat on the Cherry Creek School District. The mother of three went to court last month to win the right to attend a district candidate event without a face mask, arguing that she cannot wear one because of abuse she suffered as a child.
“The environment and the culture that it’s creating is just stealing from our kids,” she said of masks.
However, the fight against diversity education resonated in the school board race in the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, where Andrew Yeager won on Tuesday night. He was backed by a political action committee that opposes a diversity and equality plan created after a video of students chanting a racial slur began circulating online three years ago. A temporary restraining order has blocked the plan.
1776 Action, a group inspired by former President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded 1776 Commission that played down America’s role in slavery, urged candidates to sign a pledge calling for the restoration of “honest, patriotic education.” At least 300 candidates and elected officials did so, said Adam Waldeck, the group’s president.
Waldeck said his group also sent out mailers and targeted text messages in races in Johnston, Iowa, where three candidates have signed the pledge, and in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where law enforcement was called to investigate threats against school board President Chris McCune.
The backlash stems from his ordering the removal from a July meeting of a parent who kept demanding information about critical race theory after her two-minute time limit had ended. McCune, who is on track to retain his seat, wrote in a letter to the Daily Local News newspaper in Pennsylvania that it is his duty to “maintain order” and insisted that the district doesn’t even teach critical race theory.
“National and local political forces continue to urge residents to rally against local school boards and CRT, even when board members and administrators have offered to meet to share the district’s curriculum to demonstrate that it is simply not what we teach,” McCune said.
In Iowa, masking opponent Sarah Barthole won election to the Ankeny School Board in suburban Des Moines after receiving a high-profile endorsement from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Barthole worked with Reynolds last year to reopen schools and is credited with inspiring the state’s now-blocked law prohibiting mask mandates in schools.
Laura Zorc, who leads the Washington, D.C.-based conservative group Freedom Works’ education initiative, said she was heartened by the showing in Douglas County, Colorado, where a conservative slate of four candidates appeared poised to unseat incumbents. The board has been under fire for suing the county health department to uphold the district’s mask mandate.
“School board races, for way too long, have been overlooked," Zorc said, adding that the pandemic changed everything. “It really brought a lot of attention to these races, and that’s why I think we’re seeing the sweep that we have.”
Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York. Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Scott McFetridge in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Navarro is a mother of three children, not five.