Local school authorities are turning out to be hot races in the November elections
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – In a school district near the Ohio state capital, school board members running for re-election this year have been exposed to a constant stream of lawsuits and attacks, both in person and online. In another case, a re-elected incumbent who supports the mask requirement for students received a letter from someone who was upset with her stance warning, “We are after you.”
A 15-year-old veteran board member in another Ohio district decided against re-election because of the escalating public attacks.
It’s not just in Ohio. Across the US, local school board races have become an intense political battleground in the November 2nd elections, with high stakes for students.
Parent protests against COVID-19-related masking requirements, gender-neutral toilets, and teachings about racial history, sexuality, and socio-emotional learning are used in full-fledged board adoption campaigns that will receive their first widespread test in just a few weeks.
“What happens in 2021 is a prelude to some of the messages, some of the problems we’ll see in the mid-term elections,” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Local school elections have usually been relatively calm affairs, with incumbents sailing for re-election, often unanimously. This year, candidate training academies and state recruitment efforts organized by national conservative groups are promoting the challenges of right-wing political newcomers. The results could have implications for public education and coronavirus security measures across the country.
The thousands of local school districts across the US make it difficult to know how many board members will be challenged by conservative community members next month. But the challenges seem widespread.
In Wisconsin, a conservative law firm offers parent groups free legal advice on callbacks from school authorities. In Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds took the unusual step of sponsoring a Conservative candidate for a seat on the local school board. And in Colorado, a group called the MAD, who speak out against distance learning during the pandemic, and what they call biased curriculum biases, is advocating like-minded candidates for the school board.
“It feels like schools have become a political battleground, and they shouldn’t be,” said Dan Maloit, a former Army Green Beret who heads the Colorado group. âChildren should be able to go in and not know what their teachers or administrators believe politically, and be protected from what society is arguing about, so they can focus on learning to read and write, understanding math, and an unbiased story to learn.”
Teachers’ unions, which have been helping elect their own allies to school councils for years, are resisting the push. Their position is that many right-wing candidates are conspiracy theorists who take moderate positions in order to be elected, but once in office defy masking duties and other COVID safety protocols, micro-manage educators, and censor classroom content they dislike.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it “a cowardly and anti-democratic attempt to usurp local control over our children’s education”.
“Her goal is to limit students’ understanding of historical and current events and to attack reasonable security measures like masking by harassing those who believe in science and teach honest history,” she said in a statement to The Associated Press.
FreedomWorks, a conservative group that supported the rise of former President Donald Trump, launched a candidate academy in March that has trained about 300 people nationwide, most of them from Ohio, said Laura Zorc, the group’s director of education reform . About 1,000 people have signed up, she said.
“My message to these parents is: apply for office if you don’t like it and you don’t feel like your voice is being heard,” said Zorc.
Among those who responded to this message is Jennifer Feucht, a candidate in the Olentangy Local School District outside of Columbus who graduated from FreedomWorks Academy. After the mother of three struggled to lift mask mandates and get the district to speak out against critical racial theory, she said she was also the victim of “vicious” attacks on social media.
âI’ve learned that you can say things that are untrue because you are a public figure. At the local level, I would never have imagined it, âshe said.
A particularly common claim among challengers is that schools teach black children to be victims and white children to be villains as part of their curriculum, which they attribute to critical racial theory. It is a characterization of the districts’ reactions to last year’s racist protests, which national education and civil rights organizations have rejected as false and dangerous.
Critical Racial Theory is a way of thinking about American history through the lens of racism that was developed in the 1970s and 1980s. While there is little evidence that it is taught in schools, the concept has become a focal point in the Culture Wars since the assassination of George Floyd sparked a national calculation of race.
Julie Feasel, who has been on the Olentangy school board since 2006, decided to retire this year because all the ugliness made the job tiresome. She said she hasn’t faced a candidate challenge since 2013.
“It’s the storm of all ages when it comes to the civil service,” she said. âPeople have to find out for themselves who is hiding behind the curtain. It’s like the Wizard of Oz – who is pulling the strings? “
One of the active groups in Ohio is Ohio Value Voters, who formed their own spin-off – Protect Ohio Children Coalition – in April, state business records show. The group’s leaders didn’t respond to phone calls or emails asking for comments, but their website trains parents to show up in groups of 30 and use a “tsunami strategy” to address hot social issues and disrupt board meetings.
The group also maintains an interactive “indoctrination map” targeting districts that offer what they call critical racial theory, comprehensive sex education, and socio-emotional learning. It also directs parents to the FreedomWorks training academy and cites “to replace radical school board officials with the electoral process” as one of its goals.
Charlie Wilson, a school board member in Worthington, another suburb of Columbus, and the immediate past president of the National School Boards Association, said the board seats were particularly vulnerable to challengers from that movement in a year like this. It’s an off-year election cycle with mostly local races on the ballot, and turnout is expected to be low for all but the most motivated voters.
Wilson said he believes the conservative insurgents – who often use the terms “educational transparency” and “putting our children first” – are a political minority.
“You basically run with identical messages,” he said. âI think what they really want is that they want to end all mentions of race, racism, slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the Holocaust. I cannot tell you from the emails I and other board members have received that we are racist in mentioning the race. “
Zorc described this characterization of the candidates as “intimidation tactics”.
As a foretaste of what the incumbents have before them, Wilson’s colleague Nikki Hudson, who apologized at a meeting last year for suggesting that school resource officers supporters were racist, received a letter threatening, âWe’re after you . âIt added,â They are forcing her to wear (a) mask – for no reason in this world other than control. And you’ll pay dearly for that. âThe letter was referred to the US Department of Justice, which is investigating.
“It’s really demoralizing and sad that we’ve lost our focus on what we should really be about, the students,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “It really seems like adult issues monopolized the conversation instead of thinking about our students’ needs.”
Nieberg reported from Denver. She is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
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