In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many school districts turbocharged their focus on racial equity, examining their curriculum, hiring, discipline practices and more.
And race was a factor in hundreds of school board elections and attempted recalls of school board members. It appears these challengers may have lost the majority of their races, though there is no comprehensive tally. Still, many observers argue that the victories these conservative candidates did notch, and the intense heat the races generated, will have ramifications nationwide.
People on both sides of the debate predict a chilling effect on school board members, superintendents and teachers who may now fear any effort to address racism inside their school systems will be called out as divisive, and that parents who oppose these efforts will feel newly emboldened to loudly protest.
“I think it’s a major impact frankly,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. He said curriculums might be modified when parents complain and superintendents who support robust racial equity work might not be hired.
He noted that most school board members are elected in the spring and predicted these debates will grow more intense in the run-up to those contests.
“In those places where they have not had these problems yet, they are very cautious, concerned and careful,” he said. “This isn’t going to go away. This is going to spread and this is going to grow.”
And in communities where conservatives won seats, school boards may reconsider lessons about systemic racism, which often get labeled “critical race theory,” and scrutinize policies aimed at promoting diversity.
Scott Henry easily ousted an incumbent to take a seat on the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston after a campaign focused on how race is taught in schools. Teaching critical race theory, an academic area of study, is against the law in Texas already, but Henry alleged it is “sprinkled in” to lessons nonetheless.
“That’s what we have to address and be careful about,” he said.
Henry campaigned with fellow conservative candidates Lucas Scanlon and Natalie Blasingame. The trio were supported by national conservative political action committees that sent out mailers and created websites for them, touting the group as “Christians, conservatives [and] patriots” who believe in a “Biblical World View.”
Ballotpedia, a website that tracks U.S. politics, identified 96 school districts with a total of 302 seats up for election where social issues and the coronavirus response were major campaign issues. That includes, for example, questions of mandatory masks in school, comprehensive sex education, rights for transgender students and how race is taught in classrooms.
The group found school board members in these districts were less likely to run for reelection than is typical, and incumbents who did run were less likely to win.
Still, Ballotpedia found that candidates who took conservative stances on race, gender and pandemic issues did not win most of their races. Of the 275 candidates that Ballotpedia was able to label, about 28 percent of the winners had taken a conservative stance.
Teachers unions, which support the racial equity work, said their tracking also found more wins among liberal candidates. “The vast majority of them won even when they were facing right-wing candidates who were well-funded,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, though she did not have data to support that assertion.
But others see a chilling effect from the run-up to Election Day and the results. Pedro A. Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, said he has received a lot of questions from superintendents about how to handle the backlash.
“My hunch is many will be silenced out of fear,” Noguera said. “These are mobs that are angry, coming to the board meetings. It’s not easy to go out and talk to folks in a reasonable manner when dealing with angry people.”
Threats of violence against school board members were so intense that the National School Boards Association wrote President Biden in September suggesting they might constitute a form of domestic terrorism. The group later apologized for some of the language in the letter after it was criticized by some of its state affiliates, though the FBI said it would create a task force to respond to the violence.
The intense focus on racial equity by school districts came in the wake of the accountability movement in education that aimed to improve schools by holding officials responsible for results. Testing required by the No Child Left Behind law put a sharp focus on racial achievement gaps across the country, but the accountability measures in the law failed to solve the problem.
After that, many schools turned their attention to “equity” and how they were handling issues of race. Efforts included trying to hire more teachers of color and adopting alternative discipline practices aimed at reducing suspensions, which often were delivered disproportionately to students of color. In the classroom, teachers worked to better incorporate diverse perspectives and cultures.
Floyd’s murder in May 2020 set off a more intense drive to confront systemic racism directly. But critics, including President Donald Trump, argued these lessons cast all White people as oppressors and all people of color as victims. Spurred on by activists such as Christopher Rufo, Trump labeled any effort by schools to address systemic racism as critical race theory, which is not taught by any K-12 systems but does take as its starting point that racism is baked into American institutions.
This year, conservative donors and groups focused money and resources on school board races.
That includes the 1776 Project PAC, a conservative group that opposes anti-racist education and says it spent about $137,000 in 58 races. A separate group called 1776 Action, inspired by Trump’s now-defunct 1776 Commission, recruited at least 75 conservative school board candidates to sign a pledge vowing to “defeat toxic, critical race theory-inspired curriculum,” said Adam Waldeck, the president of 1776 Action.
More than 200 other candidates, including many on ballots next year, have also signed the pledge, a six-point promise that calls for ousting officials “who promote a false, divisive, and radical view of America and our fellow citizens with new leaders who respect our history, our values, our rights, and the God-given dignity of every person.”
South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, considered a potential Republican contender for the White House in 2024, was the first to sign the pledge.
“If you asked most people years ago, they probably didn’t know who was on their school board,” Waldeck said in an interview. “So much of the focus for people is on the White House and Congress, and I think people sort of almost forgot that the decisions that are most important and affect us are right under our noses on the local level.”
Conservative influence was intense in Douglas County, Colo., where a slate of four conservative school board candidates ran a pitched campaign against critical race theory and other diversity initiatives. All four won.
Krista Holtzmann, a four-year incumbent who lost reelection, blamed national conservative groups, which she said “stirred up a far-right base that kind of puts all of their anger and fears in a bucket called CRT [critical race theory] and uses it as something that’s divisive.”
“CRT was an issue that no one on the other side could ever give me an example of that happening locally,” said Holtzmann, 52. “It was a national talking point that was brought to our district.”
Juli Watkins, another losing candidate in the race, initially dismissed “a loud minority” of people who accused teachers of “indoctrinating students with critical race theory.”
But she saw mounting anger toward issues about race, gender and pandemic restrictions during school board meetings debating when children could go back to school in person. In the months that followed, billboards and signs for previously unknown school board candidates flooded Douglas County, a Trump stronghold south of Denver. The group even ran campaign ads denouncing the teaching of critical race theory during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
“I thought it was a joke when people told me that,” Watkins, 52, said of the school board ads on “Monday Night Football.” “I was always aware of [the conservative candidates], but I truly didn’t think of them as much of a threat.”
Other communities rejected similar conservative campaigns.
In 2020, the seaside community of Guilford, Conn., reckoned with the murder of Floyd by a White police officer in Minneapolis by implementing more diverse perspectives into the school curriculum and changing the school’s nickname, the Indians.
As this was unfolding, some students expressed confusion and frustration talking to their parents about the complex issues around race, gender and history that were being addressed in the classroom, said Guilford resident Arnold Skretta, an attorney who was not on the school board at the time.
Educators and the school board emphasized to families that critical race theory was not being taught in the classroom, but some parents and officials didn’t believe them, accusing the district in a Zoom forum of trying to make people of color feel more welcome “at the expense of White Judeo-Christians,” Skretta said.
“At that point, it was blatant, overt racism,” said Skretta, 42.
Five conservatives were already running for the school board, having ousted three more traditional Republican school board members in the GOP primary in September. Skretta had tracked their rise and joined a group of Democratic and independents to run against them.
The conservatives drew national interest and money to their race, appearing on Fox News several times, but last week, they lost by 2-to-1 margins.
Skretta credited high turnout and said he could not have won without significant voter engagement. He hoped that could be a blueprint for races elsewhere.
“What happened here in Guilford is the consequence of a town getting engaged,” he said. “Democrats can’t let the right wing weaponize school boards.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of a photo caption misspelled the name of Elsie Arntzen, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana. It has been corrected.