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School Days

How to Keep Wingnuts Off the School Board

In Tuesday’s elections, liberal and progressive parents banded together to push back against the right-wing takeover of local government.

A woman rests her hands on stacks of books.
Jennifer Pippin, president of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for Freedom, attends Jacqueline Rosario’s campaign event in Vero Beach, Florida, on October 16, 2022.

Two months ago, parent Lela Casey told the Central Bucks school board, in the third-largest school district in Pennsylvania, that things had gotten out of hand. In March, a man signed up to speak using an alias that referenced the comic book vigilante The Punisher, accused the school library of possessing “child pornography,” and suggested that the Democratic school board members on the Republican-majority board belonged in prison. Casey also saw him carrying a concealed weapon—something the man’s lawyer later denied—and reported this to the board. The board did not respond, she told the meeting in September, but she received a cease-and-desist letter from the man’s lawyer and was subsequently harassed on social media. She could only conclude that the board had shared her concern, along with her name, with the man in question. “I trusted you to put aside your partisanship and keep our community safe,” Casey said. If these board members can’t do that, she concluded, “I ask you to step aside.”

In this week’s elections, liberal and progressive voters sided with Casey, showing up to wrest control of the school board from the Republican majority. Democrats won all five open seats—part of a movement across the nation to stand up to the so-called “parental rights” groups that have turned school boards into hotbeds of reactionary conspiracy theories and anti-LGBTQ fearmongering.

Once upon a time, you wouldn’t have expected school board meetings to host armed would-be vigilantes casting board members as prison-bound child pornographers. But since the start of the 2020 Covid pandemic, the Central Bucks board and others have become destinations for far-right conspiracy theorists stoking moral panic. In 2021, school board candidates affiliated with “parental rights” groups flipped the board. The most prominent of these groups, Moms for Liberty, claimed to have elected 33 candidates across all of Bucks County that year alone, winning a “parental rights” majority in eight districts.

Ahead of this Tuesday’s election, Moms for Liberty endorsed at least 135 school board candidates across the United States, according to a data analysis by Radical Reports, some of the more than 300 candidates endorsed by such “parental rights” groups overall. But this time, liberal and progressive voters have managed to push back. That school board in Central Bucks was just one of many notable losses for Moms for Liberty and “parental rights” candidates more broadly in this election, from Iowa to Ohio, even to Loudoun County, Virginia, a now infamous “parental rights” battleground.

Launched in 2020, backed by the Heritage Foundation and the Leadership Institute, Moms for Liberty quickly turned school board elections into an opportunity to advance the MAGA agenda and to gain a political foothold for themselves. Much like other conservative women’s groups that came before them, M4L position their work as somehow outside the domain of politics—as just regular moms on a mission to protect their children and ensure what they call “parent’s rights.” Co-founder Tiffany Justice has described their efforts as “redrawing the boundary between school and home,” a kind of maternal dominionism in which all children are ruled as if they were their children. This is not It Takes a Village; it’s a takeover. According to Education Week, in 2022 Moms for Liberty endorsed around 270 candidates in school board races, and around half won their races. (Moms for Liberty claim they endorsed more than 500 candidates in that cycle and that 275 won—still around half.) In response, liberal and progressive groups have begun prioritizing school board elections—which, even in years like 2023, off the midterm and presidential cycles, numbered 30,000 races across the country.

Among these liberal groups are the Campaign for Our Shared Future Action Fund, who have backed several dozen candidates, including in races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia in 2023. In 2022, they spent around $100,000 on school board campaigns and endorsed 38 school board “liberal-leaning” candidates, as reported by Education Week. “We are looking at where there have been school board disruptions that started off with reactions to masking during the pandemic and students going back to school,” the group’s political director, Joaquín Guerra, told Prism Reports earlier this year. “That’s where all of the disruptions around schools and public education really started. Then it evolved into the manufacture of hysteria around critical race theory. That just started a whole whack-a-mole for all of the attacks on equity, social emotional learning, LGBTQIA+ students.” They are one of several groups that are getting more into the school board race fight, like Run for Something, who have pledged $10 million to support progressive school board candidates in 2024 and 2025, and like the nonpartisan 501c4 We the People for Education. The latter group’s executive director, Tiffany Van Der Hyde, has said their goal is partly “to make school boards boring again.”

A typical race might look like the one in Henrico County, Virginia, in which high school teacher Madison Irving, endorsed by Run for Something and the Campaign for Our Shared Future, was vying for a seat against Eleina Espigh, who has described herself as “anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-abortion … the school board’s worst enemy.” Irving defeated Espigh on Tuesday: 10,108 votes to 7,484. One schoolteacher who voted for Irving told the Henrico Citizen that she had canvassed for him too, in part because “I don’t think that [Irving] stands for any type of banning of books. He wants all children to be represented.” Another voter said he cast a vote for Irving largely because “Republicans suck.”

This race, like others that played out this week, illustrates a broader principle. These campaigns don’t have to be complicated in order to prevail; when the Republican-based candidates are so openly unhinged, their opposition need only not be. Some liberal candidates are parents themselves who want to push back on what they and their children have experienced during the far-right swing on school boards and education policy generally. Moms for Liberty became a useful shorthand for all they were running against.

In Clark County, Washington, new school board member-elect Kat Stupka is a parent of a public school student. She and her family moved from Texas, in hopes they could “get away from the hatred,” only for her child to experience it in their new school, getting bullied and called names, Stupka told the Washington State Standard. But that also led her to a group of supportive parents whose kids had been through similar harassment. “They tell you the stories about what’s been happening to their children.… I had to apologize to my 14-year-old,” Stupka said. And she decided to run for school board. Although she ran unopposed, she said she faced opposition. “On social media, a former Hockinson teacher screenshotted the Facebook profiles of [Stupka] and a fellow candidate, which have pride flags in them, and used the photos to call on people to run against them,” the State Standard reported. The call-to-run mentioned a Moms for Liberty–aligned local group, saying, “Moms for America will back you and so will many others!” Through a local opposition group called STOP Moms for Liberty, other parents have come together after getting harassed at school board meetings for speaking out against anti-LGBTQ+ policies and books bans. “It’s not just about gender identity and books,” one mother said about groups like Moms for Liberty and their impact. “It’s about literally destroying public schools.” Whether or not voters saw their own school board races in such stark terms, as Tuesday’s results showed, enough turned out to throw the “parental rights” agenda off course for now.