By JULIE CARR SMYTH and PATTY NIEBERG Associated Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – In a school district near the state capital of Ohio, school board members running for re-election this year have been subjected to a constant stream of lawsuits and attacks, to both in person and online. In another case, a re-election candidate who supports the requirements for student masks received a letter from someone angry with their position who warned: “We are coming after you.”
A 15-year veteran board member in another Ohio district has decided not to run for re-election due to escalating public attacks.
It’s not just in Ohio. Across the United States, local school board races became an intense political battleground in the November 2 election, with high stakes for students.
Parents’ protests against COVID-19 mask warrants, gender-neutral bathrooms and teachings on racial history, sexuality and socio-emotional learning are used in takeover campaigns full-fledged who will get their first generalized test in just a few weeks.
âWhat is happening in 2021 is a prelude to some of the messages, to some of the issues that we will see ahead of the midterm elections,â said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, the largest union in state teachers.
Local school board elections have generally been a relatively calm affair where incumbents have sailed for re-election, often unopposed. This year, candidate training academies organized by national conservative groups and state-level recruiting efforts are encouraging the challenges of right-wing political newcomers. The findings could have implications for public education and coronavirus safety measures across the country.
The thousands of local school districts in the United States make it difficult to know how many board members will face challenges from members of the conservative-leaning community next month. But the challenges appear to be widespread.
In Wisconsin, a conservative legal institute provides free legal advice on school board recalls to parent groups. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, made the unusual decision to approve a Conservative candidate for a seat on the local school board. And in Colorado, a group calling themselves MAD that opposes distance learning during the pandemic and what it says are partisan leanings in the curriculum is endorsing like-minded school board candidates.
“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. “Children should be able to come in and not know what their teachers believe politically or their administrators and be protected from what society argues so that they can concentrate on learning to read and write, understanding math, learning an unbiased story. “
Teachers’ unions, which for years helped elect their own allies to school boards, are opposing the push. Their position is that many of the right-wing candidates are conspiracy theorists who take moderate positions to get elected, but once in power they will oppose mask requirements and other COVID security protocols, micromanage educators and censor content in classrooms they don’t like.
Randi Weingarten, president of the National Teachers’ Federation, called it a “cowardly and undemocratic attempt to usurp local control over the education of our children.”
“Their aim is to limit students’ understanding of historical and current events and to attack common sense security measures such as masking by intimidating those who believe in science and teaching honest history,” he said. she said in a statement to The Associated Press.
FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has backed the rise of former President Donald Trump, launched a candidate academy in March that has already trained around 300 people nationwide, the largest number coming from the United States. Ohio, said Laura Zorc, director of educational reform for the group. About 1,000 people have registered, she said.
âMy message to these parents is this: run for office if you don’t like it and don’t feel your voice is being heard,â Zorc said.
Among those who acted on this message is Jennifer Feucht, a candidate for the local Olentangy School District outside of Columbus who completed her training through FreedomWorks Academy. After battling to lift mask warrants and get the district to declare opposition to critical race theory, the mother-of-three said she had also been the victim of “vicious” media attacks. social.
âI have learned that they are allowed to say things that are wrong because you are a public figure. I would never have imagined this at the local level, âshe said.
A particularly common claim among challengers is that schools teach black children that they are victims and white children that they are villains, which they attribute to Critical Race Theory. It’s a characterization of district responses to last year’s racial protests that national education and civil rights organizations have dismissed as bogus and dangerous.
Critical Race Theory is a way of thinking about American history through the prism of racism that was developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Although there is little evidence that it is taught in schools, the concept has become a flashpoint in culture wars since the murder of George Floyd prompted a national reckoning on race.
Julie Feasel, who had been part of this Olentangy school board since 2006, chose to retire this year because all the ugliness made the job exhausting. She said she had not faced an application challenge since 2013.
âIt’s the storm of all ages when it comes to public service,â she said. âPeople need to know who is behind the curtain. It’s like the Wizard of Oz – who’s pulling the strings? “
One of the groups active in Ohio is Ohio Value Voters, which formed its own spinoff company – Protect Ohio Children Coalition – in April, according to state business records. The group’s leaders have not responded to phone calls or emails asking for comment, but its website urges parents to come in groups of 30 and use a ‘tsunami strategy’ to raise searing social issues and disrupt board meetings.
The group also maintains an interactive âindoctrination mapâ that targets districts offering what it describes as critical race theory, comprehensive sex education, and socio-emotional learning. It also directs parents to the FreedomWorks training academy, declaring as one of its goals “to replace radical school board officials through the electoral process”.
Charlie Wilson, a school board member from Worthington, another suburb of Columbus, and past president of the National School Boards Association, said board seats are particularly vulnerable to challengers emerging from this movement in a year like this. This is an off-year electoral 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 phrases âtransparent educationâ and âputting our children firstâ – represent a political minority.
âThey basically work with identical messages,â he said. âI think what they really want is that they want to end all mention of race, racism, slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust. I cannot tell you the emails I have received with other board members saying that by mentioning race we are racist.
Zorc called this characterization of the candidates a âfear tacticâ.
To give a taste of what the incumbents are up against, Wilson’s colleague Nikki Hudson, who is running for re-election, received a letter that threatened: âWe’re coming after you. He added: “You make them wear (a) mask – for no reason in this world other than control. And for that, you will pay dearly. The letter was forwarded to the US Department of Justice, which is investigating.
“It’s really demoralizing and sad that we have lost this focus on what we really should be – students,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the largest union of teachers in the state. “It really seems like adult issues have monopolized conversations rather than thinking about the needs of our students.”
Nieberg reported from Denver. She is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.