School board wars: Republicans’ anti-CRT strategy less successful than they hoped
Students arrive masked to Bethel Memorial Elementary School, Aug. 24, 2021, in Bethel Park, Pa. Republican astroturf efforts have tried to gin up support around opposition to mask mandates and the teaching of racism's role in U.S. history. Though they've met with success in some locales, such as Virginia, overall the results are not as successful as the GOP has hoped. | Andrew Rush / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

One of the biggest storylines of the Nov. 2 elections was how right-wing billionaires poured massive amounts of “dark money” into astroturfing manufactured grassroots outrage around Critical Race Theory (CRT) and school masking mandates. They exploited white racial fears to gin Republican Party voter turnout.

The right wing mobilized angry parents and residents to disrupt school board meetings and threaten officials with violence throughout the summer and fall, reminiscent of the Tea Party Town Hall disruptions in 2009. Hundreds of right-wing candidates were recruited in a well-orchestrated campaign to unseat or recall incumbents and take over local school boards.

In the meantime, GOP-dominated legislatures dutifully passed legislation to ban CRT in schools, even though none teach the subject, and extend academic censorship to the universities.

One goal is to destroy teacher’s unions, one of the backbones of the Democratic Party. In New Hampshire, new state law prohibits CRT from being taught, and teachers found teaching such “divisive concepts” will be hauled before a disciplinary hearing.

A Republican astroturf protest against Critical Race Theory, May 25, 2021, in Reno, Nev. | Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal via AP

The N.H. Department of Education set up a website for parents to lodge complaints against teachers. Moms for Liberty offers (a la the Texas abortion ban) a $500 bounty for snitching on offending teachers. The New Hampshire American Federation of Teachers and parents filed a federal lawsuit to block the law.

The Republican Party and its right-wing coalition plan to use the same playbook in the 2022 and 2024 elections to mobilize and expand their base of supporters. But how successful was this scheme nationally in 2021?

No doubt the anti-CRT hysteria was central to the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor in Virginia, a sweep of other statewide offices, and a two-seat GOP majority in the state House of Delegates. But the rest of the results nationally are mixed, and it’s not clear the GOP made many gains in local school board elections beyond areas they already dominate. At least, they’re not bragging about it.

For example, Moms for Liberty, affiliated with the GOP and Heritage Foundation (funded by the Koch Brothers network), and 1776 Project PAC, supported many targeted school board campaigns, winning 44 of 58 races in Ohio, Colorado, Kansas, and Minnesota. But most seats won were already held by GOP officials.

In Pennsylvania, venture capitalist and longtime GOP donor Paul Martino spent $600,000 funding 60 local political action committees and hundreds of candidates for his “Back to School PA” campaign. Although it’s unclear how many pro-masking, pro-diversity-in-education incumbents were defeated, nearly two-thirds of its backed candidates won.

But in several areas, teacher’s unions, parents, and students formed coalitions to fight the takeover of school boards and city councils successfully. Nationally, right-wing groups targeted the Guilford, Conn., school board for takeover. A broad alliance organized a “Fusion” slate of Democratic and Independent candidates in response. The result was the highest voter turnout in the state and the defeat of every anti-CRT candidate.

In Sequim, Wash., armed vigilantes tried intimidating residents, and at least one activist received a death threat leading up to local city council elections. But that didn’t stop voters from ousting four QAnon incumbents.

“Voters inflicted a crushing landslide defeat Nov. 2 on four QAnon-connected Sequim City Council incumbents nicknamed the “Gang of Four.” Voters replaced them with five “Good Governance” City Council candidates who spoke out clearly for honesty, transparency, racial equality, and medical science, People’s World correspondent Tim Wheeler earlier reported.

“Voter turnout in Sequim was 58%, very high for an off-year election,” he reported, and residents voted two-thirds against the QAnon candidates. Nearby in Port Angeles, Wash., voters also defeated every QAnon candidate.

Charles Koch, chief executive officer of Koch Industries. Leaders in the network built by the billionaire Koch family have been central players in the campaign supporting government bans and efforts to recall school board members over teaching about race and history in schools. | David Zalubowski / AP

Ohio saw a record number of candidates for local school boards—and the most nationwide—due to right-wing money poured into the state. Freedom Works, part of the Koch Brothers network and a critical force behind the Tea Party, recruited and trained candidates and funded many campaigns.

And when the dust settled, the candidates Freedom Works had targeted for defeat won most races. Anti-mask, anti-CRT candidates were wiped out in many Northeast Ohio communities, including Chagrin Falls, Cleveland Heights, Bay Village, Nordonia, and Eastlake. Anti-masking, anti-CRT candidates won only 11 of 36 races.

The pattern was essentially the same in Colorado, where significant gains by anti-masking and anti-CRT candidates didn’t materialize. “While conservative slates dominated in districts that already leaned conservative and Republican, teachers’ union-backed candidates advocating for progressive values won not only in Democratic strongholds but also in many politically mixed areas that swing back and forth along partisan lines,” reported Chalkbeat.

Teachers’ unions spent heavily to back pro-masking, pro-diversity-in-education candidates. National Education Association President Becky Pringle campaigned in the state for candidates, and it paid off. In Denver, every union-backed school board candidate won. The school board there is now entirely made up of union-backed members, the first time in history.

Another nationally watched race occurred in Wisconsin, where the second-most recall attempts occurred. Right-wing challengers sought to recall incumbents in the Mequon and Thiensville school district, a northern Milwaukee suburban area. Right-wing billionaire Richard Uihlein of Uline company was the main financial backer of the recall committees, which outraised incumbents nearly two to one.

Students, parents, and community members chant ‘Allow teachers to teach the truth’ during public comments on Florida’s plan to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory in June 2021. | Bob Self / The Florida Times-Union via AP

In what many see as a preview of the 2022 elections, ex-Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, the leading GOP challenger to Gov. Tony Evers, campaigned vigorously for the recall. Voter turnout was nearly double the spring school board elections, and in the end, voters re-elected every incumbent by almost 60% of the vote.

Wisconsin voters have now defeated 36 recall efforts in 16 districts since the beginning of the pandemic.

Right-wing school board candidates suffered a massive defeat in Minnesota, too. Over 230 candidates ran in 46 districts. Anti-masking, anti-CRT candidates ran in blocs to take over local boards, but only a handful won.

Images of “irate parents protesting COVID-19 precautions and CRT—even assaulting other attendees in some cases—at school board meetings” worked against these candidates, according to Denice Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide union resulting from the merger of AFT and NEA locals.

“People are looking for common-sense leaders who are going to do good things for their kids,” Specht said. “It’s a sign that voters are shouting out for sanity.”

A big lesson of the 2021 elections in defeating the GOP and right-wing insurrectionists will take a broad coalition of labor, community, and democratic movements, organizing grassroots voter mobilization and education. One that communicates what’s at stake and who’s behind the assault on democratic rights. The Nov. 2 results should give confidence that a united and mobilized majority can win electoral victories in 2022 and 2024.


CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

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