In 1996, conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed declared, “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members.” As today’s school board meetings devolve into screaming matches and fistfights over mask requirements, vaccine mandates and anti-racist curriculums, conservatives are once again growing their influence within one of the most underrated power structures in American politics.

Back in the 1990s, leaders on the religious right began to realize that school boards wield an enormous amount of power — both in their control over students’ experiences, and in the way they can shape the debates that define other races on the ballot. So the Christian Coalition led a campaign to elect as many social conservatives onto school boards as they could.

Today, the right is turning its attention back to school boards, and the consequences for progressives and students across the country could be dire. While most school board races are officially nonpartisan, most candidates nevertheless identify with a particular political ideology — and securing wins down-ballot can improve a movement’s prospects up-ballot. By mobilizing conservative candidates to run for school elections — and encouraging their base to disrupt public meetings — Republicans are building a strong organizational structure to help them fight culture wars on the ground and seize power from the bottom up.

Progressives can no longer cede school boards to the GOP. They would be wise to treat these boards as political arenas to fight — and win.

Few government bodies impact our day-to-day lives as much as school boards. They determine what subjects are taught, how tax dollars are used, and which public health measures are implemented for tens of millions of public school students. If progressives are committed to changing Americans’ lives for the better, school boards are centers of power that cannot be ignored.

Yet voter turnout for school board elections is often just 5 to 10 percent, and candidates are frequently uncontested — which means the most engaged voices currently have a disproportionate influence over policy. If we don’t encourage and support grass-roots candidates with empathetic, inclusive visions, today’s most intolerant school board protesters will be tomorrow’s school board members.

Investing in school board races could also address Democrats’ tendency to write off rural and traditionally conservative areas. Over the past decade, Democrats have been wiped out in rural America, making it all the more difficult to build a diverse, strong bench of talent that can appeal across all communities. School board members can make exactly the kind of local impact that could help Democrats rebuild their eroded presence in these areas.

Finally, this month’s gubernatorial election in Virginia demonstrated that the culture wars being fought in local school boards can turn out voters and earn their support. Republican nominee (and now governor-elect) Glenn Youngkin made parental control over education a focus of his campaign strategy. Exit polling shows that the majority of Virginia voters who saw education as their biggest issue voted for Youngkin.

Conservatives are planning to use Youngkin’s playbook in 2022. Already, because of the GOP’s efforts, school board members have faced more recall campaigns in 2021 than any other officeholders. These fights have mobilized the conservative base to great effect, and will likely continue to do so if progressives fail to engage in the debates catching fire in school boards across the country.

But progressives have a playbook to follow as well. As my Nation colleague John Nichols pointed out, on the same night that Youngkin won, voters in one Wisconsin school district successfully stopped one of the aforementioned right-wing recall efforts. “Progressive parents organized and communicated effectively about the value of a curriculum that embraces diversity and teaches students critical thinking,” Nichols wrote. In other words, a local community mobilized to face conservative misinformation about critical race theory head-on — and won on the merits.

As more school board battles loom in the midterms and beyond, progressives would be smart to invest attention, resources, and words where the power lies. That’s how it is with education: if we don’t learn our lesson, we’ll be held back.