By Giulia Heyward, Capital B, October 10, 2022
The impending midterm elections could have a dramatic impact on several hot-button issues, from reproductive rights to immigration. But further down the ballot, another battle is brewing. In school board elections, contentious matters of race and identity have become defining issues in many local campaigns.
Conservative groups have been funneling money into school board races and backing candidates who support “parental rights” in instituting book bans, restricting curriculum, and limiting classroom discussions about systemic racism and gender identity. The growing influence of these groups, such as Moms for Liberty, has attracted a wave of school board candidates who now are pushing back.
The ideological war over public education has made school board races particularly contentious. In San Diego, both conservative and union-backed candidates are raking up six-figures in donations as all five school board seats are up for grabs. In Boise, Idaho, an 18-year-old climate activist won his race against an incumbent last month by taking a stance against book bans, which have targeted literature related to race, gender, and sexuality.
“We’ve all in the past been so comfortable with just showing up at the ballot box and not even thinking about school board races,” said Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs, deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents 90,000 school board members across the nation. “I think what we’re seeing is people started waking up … and recognizing that school boards have an enormous amount of authority and power, quite frankly, in the policies.”
Nationally, school boards are less diverse than the public school students they serve. A 2018 survey of NSBA members found that 78% of respondents were white and 10% percent were Black. Meanwhile, less than half of public school students are white, and 15% are Black.
The disparity could be fueled in part by who is casting ballots. A 2020 study found that the majority of voters in school board races are affluent and white, even when the school district serves more students of color. The inclusion of just one school board member of color has been shown to increase a district’s investment in Black and brown students, according to a report from Education Week.
While local school board races happen throughout the year, it’s common to see many clustered around a midterm or presidential election, McCotter-Jacobs said. And while school board races have been contentious in the past, she said this election season seems particularly bad.
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