This year’s battles over local school board control didn’t materialize into the “red wave” conservative advocates had hoped for despite considerable effort in local campaigns.
But leaders of those groups don’t see the results as a waste of their time, money, and effort. Instead, they view their middling performance in the 2022 midterms as a steppingstone to a successful parental-rights movement at the local level.
“For moms, we’re used to practicing and trying things and then working on them until we get better,” said Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty. “So I think this was a great success for the first time around. We’re really excited about it.”
About half of the 270 or so candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty, the parents’ rights advocacy group that materialized out of the pandemic, won their races in the Nov. 8 election. And about a third of the candidates endorsed by the conservative 1776 Project’s political action committee secured wins in the midterms.
They and other conservative organizations spent the 2022 election cycle campaigning for conservative-leaning candidates in oftentimes nonpartisan school board races across the country. They chose candidates who stood for conservative parental-rights policies that aim to root out critical race theory, the academic concept typically found in higher education that teaches race is a social construct and embedded into legal systems and policies, and curricula surrounding so-called divisive topics like race, gender, and sexuality.
The efforts prompted liberal-leaning groups, like teachers’ unions and PACs, including the Campaign for Our Shared Future Action Fund, to try and counteract the conservative efforts. Seventy-one percent of the thousands of candidates that the National Education Association and its affiliates endorsed have won their races so far, and 24 of the 38 candidates endorsed by the shared-future fund won theirs.
“We had some right-wing extremists and politicians trying to drive a wedge between educators,” said Karen White, the deputy executive director of the NEA. “This election showed us again that parents and educators are united in wanting to see every student succeed and to build stronger public schools.”
But even with considerable attention from national groups on both sides, local school boards remain a sleeper issue, said Carrie Sampson, an educational leadership professor at Arizona State University who researches school board policy and politics.
“It’s quite amazing the movement that was made and the amount of money that went into it and the amount of organizing that went into it,” Sampson said. “[But] I’m not surprised about the losses. Even though there was a lot of money that went into it, voters don’t really pay attention to school board elections generally.”
Political groups look to restrategize
Going forward, Moms for Liberty plans to throw more money behind local elections, Justice said. The group’s Florida PAC, the only PAC it has funded so far, spent over $37,000 in direct donations to candidates through Nov. 1, according to campaign-finance data.
That money helped the group have greater influence throughout Florida. Eighty percent of the candidates the group endorsed in that state won their races. Florida is Moms for Liberty’s home state and a hub for conservative school policies thanks to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won reelection by 19 percentage points. Moms for Liberty has already established three PACs that allow the group to raise funds on the federal level but didn’t fund those committees during the 2022 election cycle. That’ll change going forward, Justice said.
“We’ll be funding those in the future,” she said. “I’m working on that right now and I think you’re going to have a lot of donors who saw success in school board races that are going to want to be a part of making sure that more parents and community members who care about parental rights get voted on by school boards.”
Even with lackluster results in some areas, the group was able to have a major influence over some large districts, mostly in the South.
In Charleston County, S.C., for example, five Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates won elections, flipping what was a largely liberal-leaning board. The group also claimed a role in winning conservative majorities on school boards in Berkeley County, S.C., outside Charleston; Cape May County, N.J.; New Hanover County, N.C.; and York County, S.C. That’s in addition to endorsed candidates with a majority parental-rights view in Brevard, Clay, Duval, Miami-Dade, and Sarasota counties, all in Florida, which held elections on Aug. 23.
Justice also believes that more time will lead to more success for Moms for Liberty. Seventy-six percent of the candidates the group endorsed were first-time politicians, who faced an uphill battle against well-established incumbents, Justice said.
But money alone doesn’t appear to be the key to success. The 1776 Project spent nearly $2.8 million on mailers, digital ads, and other campaign materials for candidates it endorsed, according to the most recent campaign-finance data available through Oct. 19, and only 16 of the nearly 50 candidates it endorsed won or were winning their races as of Nov. 16.
In contrast, the PAC endorsed 116 candidates in elections throughout 2021 and in 2022, prior to the Nov. 8 election, and 83, or 71.5 percent, of them won. While the group’s 2021 endorsements included a mix of red and blue states—Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—the candidates the 1776 Project endorsed in 2022 elections prior to Nov. 8 were all in Texas and Florida, heavily conservative communities.
The group’s Nov. 8 endorsements were in Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia. Those races may not have been as successful because voters in swing states may have been turned off by the partisan nature of conservative candidates’ campaigns, Sampson said.
“Folks maybe took a step back and said, ‘OK, do we want our school districts, our school boards to become focused on a political agenda rather than educating our kids?’” she said.
Liberal-leaning groups prepare to continue pushback
Just as the conservative groups aren’t taking losses as a sign of defeat, liberal-leaning groups don’t plan to let up on their efforts to counteract conservative influence on school boards.
Karen White, the deputy executive director of the NEA, said the association won’t be changing its election strategy after seeing widespread success for the candidates it recommended. The organization took time this year to train its members who wanted to run for office and increased its help for local campaigns.
“Our strategy works,” White said. “It’s a successful strategy of working with educators at the local level and giving them the tools and the resources they need to effectively build local campaigns.”
Joaquin Guerra, the political director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future Action Fund, said he doesn’t expect the conservative attention on school boards to go away anytime soon. But Guerra was pleased to see that voters were drawn to many of the candidates the action fund endorsed, who all ran on equity-centered platforms.
Guerra sees the conservative strategy as a “Whack-a-Mole” with political advocacy groups and candidates cherry-picking issues such as masks and vaccines during the pandemic and critical race theory.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see what their next move is going to be as far as the politicization of schools,” he said. “But you can bet we will be there and we’re going to be there to essentially help tell the truth and create a space for people who are looking for a way to organize and fight back against these groups.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Conservative Advocates Vow Continued Push For School Board Seats Despite Middling Midterms