A ‘Parental Rights’ Movement Comes of Age in Latest School Board Votes

Supporters of the conservative opposition to progressive education policies say Tuesday was something of a watershed for their budding movement.

AP/Matt Rourke, file
Desks are spaced apart ahead of planned in-person learning at an elementary school on March 19, 2021, at Philadelphia. AP/Matt Rourke, file

Conservatives smarting about midterm elections losses and searching for a bright spot may want to look local for some solace — to the thousands of school board positions decided during Tuesday’s voting.

Supporters of what has come to be known as the “parental rights” movement, a catch-all for conservative opposition to progressive education policies in such areas as racial and gender instruction, say the election was something of a watershed for their budding movement.

A co-founder of Moms for Liberty, Tiffany Justice, estimates that more than half of the 270 candidates endorsed by the group won their races — a “remarkable achievement,” as she puts it, given that most of them were first-time candidates up against entrenched incumbents who enjoyed the backing of powerful teachers unions.

Some of the movement’s biggest gains came on the coattails of Governor DeSantis in Florida. Building on advances made during an earlier round of voting in August, all six conservative candidates facing runoffs on Tuesday won their seats. The wins mean 24 of the 30 candidates backed by the governor and his supporters have captured seats on their local school boards during the 2022 cycle.

So far this year, several school boards in Florida have seen their political orientation flip entirely, to conservative from liberal-leaning majorities, including Miami-Dade County, the largest in the state and now the largest district in the country to be run by a right-leaning school board. The Miami-Dade County school system has more than 300,000 students, and is the fifth-largest in America.

Another bright spot on the map for conservatives this week was Charleston, South Carolina. After a change in state law requiring school board candidates to run in single-member districts instead of at-large, 32 candidates lined up for nine slots on the county school board — the second largest in the state. Only three of them were incumbents. Two of those incumbents survived, and five of the eight candidates who ultimately prevailed were endorsed by Moms for Liberty. Ms. Justice said her group had similar gains in Colleton County, South Carolina, where it flipped three seats, and Berkeley County, where it flipped six of the eight seats on the ballot. 

School board races across the country have traditionally been described as nonpartisan affairs, even though teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers have frequently waded into the races with recommendations and endorsements that carried considerable weight and were often unmatched by their Republican or conservative opponents. Campaign finance reports show that teachers unions support Democratic and progressive candidates almost exclusively.

The Covid pandemic changed the nature of those races markedly. Parents furious over mask mandates and forced school closures began speaking out more forcefully at school board meetings — to the point that some parents were arrested for disorderly conduct — and a political movement arose.

Parents who previously might have given little thought to what’s going on in their schools had their complacency shattered by the pandemic. Remote learning gave them a glimpse at what’s being drilled into their children’s heads by teachers emerging from some higher education bubbles in which identity politics are paramount, sex is ambiguous, and America is an inherently racist nation. Many revolted at what came to be called “critical race theory” and “radical gender theory.”   

Into that void stepped people like Ms. Justice and Ryan Girdusky, who in 2021 founded the 1776 Project political action committee to help conservative school board candidates with media training, marketing, and cash contributions. This year, the project stood behind more than 100 candidates in 10 states, and before Tuesday was seeing a 70 percent success rate in those races, according to Mr. Gidursky.

“People think that it was all because of the masking and shutdowns, but most of this was happening when Covid was still new,” Mr. Gidursky told the Sun. “It was primarily because of [critical race theory]. For the first time in American history, parents were in the classrooms with their children every single day and were really exposed to what their kids were learning.”

An analysis of school board races by Ballotpedia found that, through October 2022, candidates in 1,331 districts in 49 states had taken public positions on one of three issues in their respective races — critical race theory or race in education, coronavirus responses by schools, or sex and gender in schools. Minnesota, Ohio, New York, California, and Texas all saw races blow up over the issues in 2022.

Ms. Justice said she and others like her are just getting started, and learning as they go. Lesson no. 1 from Tuesday is that money counts almost as much as enthusiasm on the ground. “People don’t understand that they need to spend on these races,” she said. “They don’t understand the amount of money that teachers unions are throwing at them. We need to counter that.”

The New York Sun

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