color photograph of a young black girl wearing a backpack and light pink hoodie with a blue medical face mask standing in front of a chain link fence. her guardian wears a black leather jacket and a medical face mask and has one arm around her
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 29: Elementary school students are welcomed back to P.S. 188 as the city's public schools open for in-person learning on Sept. 29, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This year, 30,000 school board races will take place across the country, and while elections outside of midterms or general elections are seldom given attention, advocates say votes are more crucial than ever to protect student-centered policies. 

According to Campaign for Our Shared Future Action Fund (COSF-AF), the advocacy arm of the education nonprofit COSF, what’s playing out in the larger political landscape is shaping school board elections. First, Wisconsin’s spring primary elections will see two Milwaukee school board races on Feb. 21, with all three Elmbrook School Board candidates eager to ban books. Missouri and Pennsylvania will hold theirs in April and May, respectively. 

In Arkansas, Republican lawmakers are attempting to make school board races explicitly partisan. SB 206, a new bill introduced this month and sponsored by state Sen. Clint Penzo (R-Springdale) and state Rep. Howard Beaty (R-Crossett) would require school board members to be elected through a “partisan election.” Moms for Liberty, founded in Florida by former school board members turned right-wing activists, supports conservative activists running for school board elections to battle mask mandates and ban books related to LGBTQIA+ and racial identity.

“We are looking at where there have been school board disruptions that started off with reactions to masking during the pandemic and students going back to school,” said Joaquín Guerra, political director for the COSF-AF. “That’s where all of the disruptions around schools and public education really started. Then it evolved into the manufacture of hysteria around critical race theory. That just started a whole whack-a-mole for all of the attacks on equity, social emotional learning, LGBTQIA+ students.”

Politicians from Florida to Montana are actively censoring classrooms, with at least 10 states censoring education and books described as “critical race theory,” broadly meaning anything that may cause students to “​​feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” on account of their race or gender. These policies are openly racist, homophobic, and transphobic, and, according to advocates, they harm populations of students that are already vulnerable and experience higher rates of suicidal ideation. However, the GOP frames its attacks as “parental rights” policies. 

According to Guerra, the larger motivation behind these policies is to sow enough discord within the public to defund public education. 

“That is the attack on equity, especially from the standpoint of where you have school districts that have high populations of students of color,” said Guerra. “Some are already at a disadvantage for learning and being set up for success.”

According to Ballotpedia, across 1,700 school board races in 2022, conservative candidates won 30% of the races. A New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll from last year also found that 70% of registered voters oppose instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school. 

While the state legislature and the board of education typically decide what’s included in the curriculum, school boards approve the budget and guide educators and their districts in how to implement education programs.

“If you have a school board that has culture warriors on it, it distracts from the business of learning,” said Guerra. “You’re bringing the culture wars that exist in Congress and in state legislatures across the country, and you’re bringing it down to the most grassroots local level, where the focus should be on education.”

Guerra says school board candidates should focus on how to set students up for success, how to provide resources for teachers and school employees to set students up for success, and how to communicate with parents so they can be partners in setting their students up for success. Instead, the political director said groups trying to destroy public education talk in the abstract, which is why it’s important for groups like COSF-AF to make it clear what conservative groups’ real goals are. According to Guerra, this means posing questions like: Do you want to teach both sides of slavery and the Holocaust? 

“Once you start to really define it, parents understand what is going on,” Guerra said. “They don’t want the politics of Congress … to come down to their school district. They want politics out of their school districts. So we’re going to continue to educate parents; we’re going to continue to endorse candidates who are pro-equity champions.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...