School & District Management

Tea Partiers Playing a Role in Some School Board Races

The winds that swept conservatives into federal and state office are figuring in ‘downticket’ contests
By Christina A. Samuels — April 05, 2011 6 min read
John Tedesco is one of four conservative-leaning candidates elected to the Wake County, N.C., school board in 2009. The new members led in the dismantling of an integration policy based on socioeconomic factors.
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Beth Roberts, a co-founder of the tea party group York 912 Patriots in York, Pa., said her organization’s guiding principles are to educate, organize, and campaign and that means keeping an eye not just on national elections, but on so-called “downticket” races, including for the local school boards.

“I can’t control what’s going on in Egypt and Libya,” said Ms. Roberts, a former elementary teacher who is now certified as a substitute. “But I can control what’s going on in Dover Township,” her home town.

Though difficult to quantify, the same forces that swept conservative candidates into office on the congressional and state levels appear to be working their way down to some local races.

The best-known example in education circles is Wake County, N.C., which elected four conservative-leaning school board members in 2009 to the nine-member board. Though chosen in a nonpartisan race, the new school board members garnered much of their support from voters displeased with a school assignment policy based on socioeconomic diversity, including some conservative community organizations that viewed the policy as social engineering.

The four new members, along with a Republican member already on the board, voted to do away with the old school assignment policy in March 2010. That decision drew criticism from the district’s accrediting agency for high schools, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, and federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said “America’s strength has always been a function of its diversity.”

District staff members are currently working on a proposal that would assign students to schools based on parent choice and student test scores. (“Cooling Signs in Wake Debate,” Feb. 23, 2011.)

A split Wake County board also voted along party lines in December 2010 to hire as superintendent Anthony J. Tata, a former Army general and graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Mr. Tata, who served as chief operations officer for the District of Columbia public schools, blogged for conservative websites and appeared as a commentator on military affairs for Fox News.

But Wake County is only one example.

Keeping Focus Local

In Gaston County, N.C., about 20 miles west of Charlotte, newly elected school board member Mark A. Stephens believes that tea party activism helped spur turnout in his election last November. Mr. Stephens, a Republican and certified public accountant, was running for the office for the first time, and was listed by the Tea Party of Greater Gaston County as a candidate who aligns with the group’s priorities of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.

“Because of the political climate, people were a lot more interested in everything,” Mr. Stephens said, including school board races to which they might not normally have paid attention. Mr. Stephens said he promoted himself as a school district outsider who would use his finance knowledge to prevent spending cuts from affecting classrooms in the 32,000-student district.

“The biggest issue in education right now is where’s the money going to come from. How are we going to try and save teachers’ jobs?” he said.

In rural Baraboo, Wis., about 40 miles north of Madison, local tea party organizer John Meegan ran for a seat on the school board of the 3,000-student district—one of six candidates vying for three open spots. In the February primary, he was the top vote-getter, with 840 votes.

Mr. Meegan, an organizer of the Sauk County Tea Party, said he wanted to join the board to return its focus to education basics.

“The public schools tend to want to be more and more to people and to the community,” said Mr. Meegan, who also served a stint on the Baraboo City Council. “Nonacademic programs are being added, but they’re being added to the detriment of the education program.”

Groups like the Purcellville, Va.-based American Majority, formedin 2008 to train fiscally conservative political candidates, see local races as a perfect opportunity to create a “farm team” of people who can influence local policy and eventually run for higher office, said Matt Robbins, the organization’s executive director.

American Majority, which trained 614 candidates in 2010, said it supports candidates who believe in free markets and limited government.

The organization said Oklahoma was a particular success story for them last year: Eight of 12 school board candidates that the organization trained in the state were elected. The organization also trained the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Janet Barresi, who was elected last year.

The environment created by active tea party groups helped with American Majority’s success in Oklahoma, said state coordinator Brett Farley. Now, he added, it’s just a matter of steering that energy in a meaningful direction.

“One of our recurrent themes is that there’s plenty to be upset about nationally. But nearly half of all government spending is done on the state and local level,” he said. “We’ve got to be equally attuned to that.”

New Energy

Ann Stephenson Cameron, a school board candidate for the 21,300-student Edmond district in Oklahoma, said her training reinforced some of her own knowledge, while filling in gaps on issues such as campaign financing. Ms. Cameron, who describes herself as conservative and was endorsed by a tea party-backed candidate who lost in the primary, faced retired teacher Lee Ann Kuhlman in the April 5 election. Ms. Kuhlman won by a margin of less than 3 percentage points.

“Your message has to be very succinct. You have to learn to identify with the voters,” said Ms. Cameron, who said the current board too often “rubber stamps” the recommendations of the school administration.

Even with these pockets of success by tea party-backed candidates, it’s difficult to say if that type of conservatism is widespread.

A national survey of school board members released in February indicated that about 47 percent of school board members describe their political views as ideologically moderate, 32 percent as conservative, and 20 percent as liberal. The survey was conducted in fall 2009. (“School Board Members’ Focus Shifting, Survey Says,” Feb. 9, 2011.)

Those numbers don’t reflect a dramatic change from the statistics collected in 2002: At that time, about 44 percent of members considered themselves moderate, 36 percent conservative, and 16 percent liberal.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the author of both reports, suggested that even though the number of self-identified conservatives may be holding steady, the nature of conservatism may be changing on some school boards.

“Given how much of the conservative criticism has been the need to reassert local governance and preserve community values, it would make sense” to see tea party conservatives focusing on school board races, he said.

Ms. Roberts, the Pennsylvania tea party member, said her organization hopes to encourage like-minded candidates to join the local races, particularly to try to rein in property-tax hikes used to pay for school programs.

“This is how we’re being perceived—we’re a bunch of crazies after your seats,” Ms. Roberts said. “But these aren’t your seats. They’re the citizens’ seats.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week

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