Schools Aren’t the Republicans’ Ticket to Victory

School issues are pitting Americans against one another, but they aren’t surefire winners for either party.

Illustration of a checkmark made out of chalk
Getty; The Atlantic

Schools may not be the ticket to victory that a lot of Republicans hope they will be, despite what the top-line results of last night’s election seem to suggest. For the past several months, Glenn Youngkin has blanketed Virginia cable networks, mailboxes, and radio airwaves with advertisements about dysfunction in the state’s public schools. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, did not believe parents should have any say in what their children learned, Youngkin would declare. Meanwhile, he argued that Virginia students were being indoctrinated by what he and other Republicans described as “critical race theory,” or CRT—a term for an area of legal academic study that has become a catchall for a range of conservative concerns about how schools teach history and literature. Over and over again, Youngkin played on the anxieties and animosities that many—predominantly white—parents have felt during the pandemic.

It does seem to have worked, propelling Youngkin to victory. But in several other well-financed lower-ballot races across the country, an emphasis on similar grievances did not deliver victories to anti-CRT, anti-mask candidates.

For example, four of the seven members of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board in Mequon, Wisconsin, stood to be recalled. Backers of the recall effort had raised nearly $50,000 in their campaign to rid the district of equity consultants and what they described as critical race theory. But as the ballots were tallied late into the evening, it became clear that the push was for naught. Each board member slated for recall retained his or her seat with roughly 60 percent of the vote. Likewise, in Guilford, Connecticut, a group of five insurgent candidates seeking to “keep the evil tenets of CRT” out of their children’s education, as one candidate put it, lost their races. And in Ellsworth, Maine, a candidate who campaigned, in part, on eliminating mask mandates from schools was defeated in an open race. These unsuccessful bids—even if, in some cases, narrowly so—suggest that though the anti-CRT rhetoric is divisive, and could likely push candidates over the top in certain instances, it may not be a winning issue on the local level, at least not yet.

This election was the first time Americans were able to see whether the loudest voices in the room would also be the loudest voices at the ballot box—they were not—and a chance to see whether the enhanced partisanship of the past several years signals a shift in local politics going forward—which it definitely does. Even if anti-CRT rhetoric is not a winning issue for conservatives, it is nevertheless having a profound impact, leading to incredibly acrimonious local politics, and resulting in departures of many school-board veterans.

And it’s not all about CRT. Although that fight has garnered a lot of attention, the current animus toward school boards, and the members who sit on them, goes back to the start of the pandemic, when many schools shut down, prompting intense anger from some parents. Pamela Lindberg, a six-year Robbinsdale, Minnesota, school-board member, was on the receiving end of some of that ire. This past summer, on July 19, at the close of the board’s regularly scheduled meeting, Lindberg announced that she was resigning. “I will not continue to accept that hateful and disrespectful behavior with my service to the community,” she said. “The hate is too much. I no longer feel respected nor effective.”

Lindberg is one of the dozens of school-board officials who have left their positions in the past year. In Minnesota, nearly 70 members have resigned or retired since August 2020—a typical year would see fewer than 20 such departures, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. In Wisconsin, three board members left the Oconomowoc Area School Board in unison, calling the board’s work “toxic and impossible to do.” And in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, a board member who had voted twice in favor of requiring masks for children resigned after receiving several threats and observing a vehicle idling outside his home late at night.

School-board meetings, once ho-hum affairs punctuated by lengthy conversations over public-works projects and curricula, and presentations about the successes of local students, have, over the past 20 months, become one of the most prominent outlets where people feel they can voice their opposition to everything including masks, vaccine mandates, and equity initiatives. From 2006 to 2020, Ballotpedia, which tracks elections, covered an average of 23 recall efforts against 52 school-board members each year; this election, they tracked 84 efforts against 215 officials.

And school-board elections are typically low-turnout events. But that was not the case this go-round. When Wendy Francour, who faced a recall in Mequon-Thiensville, was first elected in 2014, she received 2,300 votes—this year she received nearly 6,800. These elections are disproportionately attended by interested parties such as parents and teachers, a slice of the public but not one broadly representative of the larger public’s interests. But this year’s turnout numbers suggest a wider swath of people were motivated to vote on education—an issue that, though important, rarely polls highly among voters’ most pressing concerns.

In some ways, this is in keeping with established patterns. School-board meetings have, historically, been where a number of America’s thorniest issues have been debated, and not always cordially, William G. Howell, the editor of Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, told me. “They’ve been places where issues involving race, involving our obligations to the less advantaged, involving citizenship and immigration status” have been sorted out, he said. “And they invite all kinds of attention: threats, lobbying, and, of course, some positive engagement from people who want to be helpful. But boy, that temperature will often go up.”

As such, for years, there has been a long, partisan shadow over school-board elections and the boards themselves—even as most board elections are nominally nonpartisan. As Howell put it, “the notion that school boards are left alone to serve the best interests of students couldn’t be further from the truth.” Instead, the boards are consistently subject to pressures from mayors and other local officials, rules from state and federal lawmakers, and, as several board members have realized in the past year, threats of violence. Now school-board officials are again the subject of deep cleavages in American politics that transcend public education, he said—questions about the larger purpose and reach of government. “We can think about school-board politics as being a sort of ground zero for much larger debates that go way beyond whether or not one curriculum is better than another.”

The other compounding factor is that these cultural and values issues are happening in spaces designated for children. “There are issues that many adults are willing to say, ‘Well, let somebody else worry about it,’ but when their kids are involved, they worry,” Joseph Viteritti, a political scientist at Hunter College who studies education politics, told me. Today’s partisan environment, mixed with fears people have about their children, makes things even more toxic.

There was no election this year for the seat vacated by Lindberg, the Minnesota school-board member. The timing of her resignation allowed the board to appoint someone to serve the rest of her term, which expires next year, leaving her seat open for a general election. Last night’s insurgent losses are unlikely to mean the acrimony will subside. America’s communities will continue to be divided into two very at-odds camps, and one election after another will be a chance to take power once again.