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‘This is Ground Zero’

Schools may not be the ticket to victory many Republicans are hoping for, despite what last night’s top election results seem to suggest. In recent months, Glenn Youngkin has flooded Virginia’s cable networks, mailboxes, and radio waves with ads about dysfunctional state public schools. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, did not believe that parents should have any say in what their children learned, Youngkin would explain. Meanwhile, he argued that Virginia students were being indoctrinated by what he and other Republicans described as “critical race theory,” or CRT — a term that has become a catch-all for a range of conservative concerns about how schools teach history and literature. Time and again, Youngkin tapped into the fears and animosities that many mostly white parents have felt during the pandemic.

It seems to have worked and propel Youngkin to victory. But in several other well-funded, lower-vote races across the country, an emphasis on similar grievances didn’t yield any wins for anti-CRT, anti-mask candidates.

For example, four of the seven members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board in Mequon, Wisconsin, had to be recalled. Backers of the recall had raised nearly $50,000 in their campaign to rid the district of stock consultants and what they described as critical race theory. But when the votes were counted late into the evening, it became clear that the push was in vain. Each board member scheduled for recall retained his or her seat with approximately 60 percent of the vote. Likewise, in Guilford, Connecticut, a group of five rebellious candidates who wanted to “keep the bad teachings of CRT” out of their children’s education, as one candidate put it, lost their races. And in Ellsworth, Maine, a candidate who campaigned in part to eliminate mask mandates from schools was defeated in an open race. These unsuccessful bids — even if scary in some cases — suggest that while the anti-CRT rhetoric is divisive and could likely push candidates over the top in certain cases, it may not be a winning issue at the local level, on the other hand. at least not yet.

This election was the first time Americans could tell if the loudest votes in the room would also be the loudest votes in the ballot box — they weren’t — and a chance to see if the increased partisanship in recent years signals a shift in local politics in the future – which it certainly does. Even if anti-CRT rhetoric isn’t a winning issue for conservatives, it still has a profound impact, leading to incredibly bitter local politics and resulting in many veterans’ departures from school boards.

And it’s not just about CRT. While that battle has received a lot of attention, the current drive against school boards and the members who sit on them goes back to the beginning of the pandemic, when many schools were closed, sparking intense anger from some parents. Pamela Lindberg, a six-year-old school board member from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, was on the receiving end of that anger. Last summer, on July 19, at the close of the regular board meeting, Lindberg announced that she would be stepping down. “I will not continue to accept that hateful and disrespectful behavior with my service to the community,” she said. “The hatred is too great. I no longer feel respected or effective.”

Lindberg is one of dozens of school administrators who have resigned in the past year. in Minnesota, almost 70 members have stepped down or retired since August 2020 — according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, there would be fewer than 20 such departures in a typical year. In Wisconsin, three board members jointly left the Oconomowoc Area School Board, calling the board’s work “toxic and impossible to do.” And in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, a board member who voted? twice before mandating masks for children, resigned after various threats and observing a vehicle idling outside his home late at night.

School board meetings, once ho-hum business punctuated by lengthy conversations about public works projects and curricula, and presentations about the successes of local students, have become one of the most prominent places in the past 20 months where people feel they can share their thoughts. voicing opposition to everything, including masks, vaccine mandates, and equity initiatives. From 2006 to 2020, Ballotpedia, which monitors elections, made 23 recalls a year against 52 school board members; this election they tracked 84 attempts against 215 officials.

And school board elections tend to be low-turnout events. But that was not the case this round. When Wendy Francour, who faced a recall in Mequon-Thiensville, was chosen for the first time in 2014 she got 2,300 votes – this year she has received almost 6,800. These elections are disproportionately attended by stakeholders such as parents and teachers, some of the public but not one broad representative of the larger public interests. But this year’s turnout figures suggest that a larger group of people were motivated to vote on education — an issue that, while important, rarely ranks high among voters’ most pressing concerns.

In a way, this is in line with established patterns. School board meetings have traditionally debated some of America’s thorniest issues, and not always warmly, William G. Howell, the editor of Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, has told me. “They are places where issues related to race, our obligations to the less privileged, citizenship and immigration status,” he said. “And they attract all the attention: threats, lobbying and of course some positive involvement from people who want to be helpful. But boy, that temperature often goes up.”

As such, there has been a long, partisan shadow over school board elections and the boards themselves for years, even if most board elections are nominally impartial. As Howell put it, “the idea that school boards are left alone to serve the interests of students couldn’t be further from the truth.” Instead, the boards are subject to constant pressure from mayors and other local officials, regulations from state and federal legislators, and, as several board members realized over the past year, threats of violence. Now school administrators are once again the subject of deep rifts in American politics that transcend public education, he said, questioning the greater purpose and reach of government. “We can think of school governance politics as a kind of zero point for much larger debates that go way beyond whether or not one curriculum is better than another.”

The other reinforcing factor is that these cultural and value issues arise in spaces intended for children. “There are things that many adults are willing to say, ‘Well, let someone else worry about it,’ but if their kids are involved, they worry,” Joseph Viteritti, a political scientist at Hunter College, told me. who studies educational politics, me. . Today’s partisan environment, mixed with fears people have for their children, makes things even more toxic.

There were no elections this year for the seat vacated by Minnesota school board member Lindberg. The timing of her resignation allowed the board of directors to appoint someone to serve the remainder of her tenure, which expires next year, leaving her seat open for general elections. Last night’s insurgent losses are unlikely to mean that the bitterness will abate. American communities will continue to be divided into two very conflicting camps, and election after election will be an opportunity to retake power.