School & District Management Q&A

Behind a New Effort to Recruit and Support Progressive School Board Candidates

By Evie Blad — September 28, 2023 6 min read
Voters fill out their ballots in booths on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, at Petersen Residence Hall on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.
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A group that has spent six years recruiting progressive candidates to run for local offices has launched a new campaign focused on school board seats.

The group, Run for Something, aims to be an ideological answer to conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, which used frustration from COVID-related school closures to fuel more recent agendas to expand private school choice programs and to restrict school materials and discussions about race and sexuality.

Run for Something recently announced its strategy to demystify the process of running for school board seats, support would-be candidates, and ensure fewer of the hyper-local races are uncontested, said co-founder Amanda Litman.

The group launched a $3 million pilot program that it hopes to expand in future years.

“Our goal is that we’re able to have the infrastructure in place to be able to recruit candidates to run everywhere that they’re pushing book bans, and that there is not a single Moms for Liberty or 1776 Project [a conservative political action committee focused on school board races] candidate who is running without a challenger,” Litman said. “We want to be sure that they are well funded, that they are well supported, and that they’re able to have the resources they need to knock on doors and make calls.”

The effort comes as conservative organizations continue to focus on school board races, and as statewide and presidential candidates use messages about critical race theory and transgender students in their campaign messaging.

Run for Something organizers say such messaging can harm vulnerable students, hamper classroom learning, and take attention away from the important, nuts-and-bolts work of school governance.

Education Week spoke with Litman about the school board effort. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why have school boards been the target of so much political attention recently?

Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something

I think we’re seeing a really concerted effort from the right to engage school board races to try and change the focus of their activists’ energy.

They understand, and have understood for decades, that to shape what kids are learning in schools and to shape how parents feel about their schools in their community is a really powerful political motivator. And especially as they’re trying to redirect attention from the top of the ticket and from the broader party—they’re putting all their eggs in the school board basket, so to speak.

Why do you think this distrust in school governance is resonating with voters right now?

I think we started to see some of this in 2020, when kids were learning from home and parents had visibility into what was happening in the classroom through Zoom school. It was sort of the beginnings of sowing distrust that the schools and school boards were making decisions that made life a lot harder for parents. That’s perpetuated over the last three years, and it has turned into a broader conversation about how schools are run, how they’re governed, and how decisions are made.

We know that “parent” is a really powerful identifier. If you ask someone who they are, before they say, “I’m a Republican,” or “I’m a Democrat,” or “I’m a Christian,” they’ll say, “I’m a mom,” or “I’m a dad.” So when you can make that the most powerful identity that someone brings with them into their political action, that can become a really meaningful force.

Run for Something plans to pilot a school board strategy for 2024 and scale up in 2025. How will it work?

Run for Something has been around since 2017. We have recruited and supported young, diverse progressives to run for state and local office all across the country. And since we’ve launched, we’ve helped find more than 135,000 young people who want to run; we’ve endorsed more than 2,500 [candidates]; and helped elect more than 850 across nearly all 50 states, including 150 education-related candidates [for positions on school boards, state boards, and library boards].

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People in privacy booths vote in the midterm election at an early voting polling site at Frank McCourt High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City on Nov. 1, 2022.
People in privacy booths vote in the midterm election at an early voting polling site at Frank McCourt High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City on Nov. 1, 2022.
Ted Shaffrey/AP

What we’ve identified in the last two years is that the energy on the anti-book ban, pro-equity side is strong, but there wasn’t a national infrastructure thinking about recruiting candidates to run for these offices. And 60 percent of school board races go uncontested, so if you’re not actively recruiting, there’s a high likelihood that only one person is going to run.

At the same time, there’s been a rise in the right’s infrastructure on this. So to that end, we are building our 50-state school board strategy. It starts with a $3 million pilot over 2024. And hopefully growing into what will likely ideally be at least a $7 million a year program, to recruit and support candidates anywhere and everywhere education is under attack.

There are thousands of school board races across the country, with 20,000 to 25,000 of them happening in any given year. Only half of those happen in November, which means we need an always-on, all-the-places kind of program.

Your ideological opponents have a strong message, strong funding, and they’re organized. Is that going to be a challenge for you?

Oh, it’s absolutely a challenge, in part because the right has a very specific viewpoint on public education, and, ultimately, they want to undermine it. That’s part of what they’re trying to do—to undermine parents’ faith in the school system itself.

What we’ve heard from the school board races we’ve worked with over the last six years, especially in the last two, is that most of the time when [candidates and their supporters] are knocking doors, they’re not hearing about book bans or anxiety about curriculum. Instead they’re hearing about teacher pay, facilities funding, and whether or not the schools are safe for their kids from bullying and gun violence. That’s what parents and voters really care about.

Who should be running for school board seats?

Anyone who cares about the quality of their schools and the kind of education that kids are getting should consider running for school board. And you don’t have to be a parent. It’s definitely good when parents are able to give the time to their communities, and they certainly have a really personal relationship with the schools. But if you care about whether or not your place is somewhere that people want to live, that people want to work, you care about your schools.

What’s stopping them from running?

There’s a lot of stuff that gets in the way—not the least of which is is the harassment and hostile environment that the right has created around these seats.

School board races can also be very time-intensive. Many of these positions are not full-time. Many of them are also not paid, which does make it harder. But even still, many school board members will say they spend 10 hours a week or fewer on their board responsibilities. So while it’s a full-time volunteer effort, it’s not the same necessarily as full-time 40-hour-week work.

We also want to create resources for [prospective candidates who are] caregivers—both parents and people taking care of older family members—to help them understand their states’ rules on using campaign funds for things like child care. And we want to offer them life hacks and support for arranging babysitters and taking the kids along—best practices for campaigning with a stroller.

There’s a perception that young progressives pay a lot of attention to the top-of-the-ticket national races. School board races are the most local race you can have. Could this effort fuel a candidate pipeline for other races?

It’s absolutely a key part of it. You know, many school board members stop at school board, but many others will go on to run for higher office. Patty Murray, the [Democratic] senator from Washington, started out as a “mom in her tennis shoes” running for school board. There have been school board members who go on to serve as governors, as senators, as members of Congress.

There are half a million elected offices in the United States, and 80,000 of them are school board seats. That gives you a sense of the kind of funnel we’re able to create here.

And I’d also say for young progressives, when you are knocking doors and making calls on behalf of a school board candidate, you are talking to voters about something that’s incredibly personal for them, and something that will get them to show up at the polls. You can really drive turnout for the whole ticket simply by showing up on behalf of the candidate that you care about.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Behind a New Effort to Recruit and Support Progressive School Board Candidates

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