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How Race Became the Central Issue in Many School Board Elections

Lower down on many ballots are local contests where race — and how it's taught in the classroom — is a hot-button issue.

School board elections across the country have increasingly become battlegrounds over the issue of how America's racial history is taught in classrooms. (Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

The impending midterm elections could have a dramatic impact on several hot-button issues, from reproductive rights to immigration. But further down the ballot, another battle is brewing. In school board elections, contentious matters of race and identity have become defining issues in many local campaigns.

Conservative groups have been funneling money into school board races and backing candidates who support “parental rights” in instituting book bans, restricting curriculum, and limiting classroom discussions about systemic racism and gender identity. The growing influence of these groups, such as Moms for Liberty, has attracted a wave of school board candidates who now are pushing back.

The ideological war over public education has made school board races particularly contentious. In San Diego, both conservative and union-backed candidates are raking up six-figures in donations as all five school board seats are up for grabs. In Boise, Idaho, an 18-year-old climate activist won his race against an incumbent last month by taking a stance against book bans, which have targeted literature related to race, gender, and sexuality. 

“We’ve all in the past been so comfortable with just showing up at the ballot box and not even thinking about school board races,” said Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs, deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents 90,000 school board members across the nation. “I think what we’re seeing is people started waking up … and recognizing that school boards have an enormous amount of authority and power, quite frankly, in the policies.”

Nationally, school boards are less diverse than the public school students they serve. A 2018 survey of NSBA members found that 78% of respondents were white and 10% percent were Black. Meanwhile, less than half of public school students are white, and 15% are Black.

The disparity could be fueled in part by who is casting ballots. A 2020 study found that the majority of voters in school board races are affluent and white, even when the school district serves more students of color. The inclusion of just one school board member of color has been shown to increase a district’s investment in Black and brown students, according to a report from Education Week. 

While local school board races happen throughout the year, it’s common to see many clustered around a midterm or presidential election, McCotter-Jacobs said. And while school board races have been contentious in the past, she said this election season seems particularly bad. 

In Wake County, North Carolina, Tyler Swanson, 28, is running against three opponents for a seat on the school board for the largest district in the state. The former high school special education teacher left the profession last year “because of the lack of respect that I not only felt from our elected officials in the [North Carolina] General Assembly, but also from some of these folks that really don’t have a clue of how our schools work.” 

Swanson is running against several candidates for a school board seat on a platform that cites the North Carolina state standards for teaching history. He believes that schools should trust that teachers are capable of teaching the nation’s history, without restrictions from state lawmakers on topics of race, gender, and sexuality. 

As in many states, North Carolina politicians have debated how issues of race are discussed in classrooms. Last year, the state’s Republican-led legislature passed a bill banning the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms across the state, but Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper swiftly vetoed it. Still, several school districts have instituted local bans on critical race theory, an advanced study of systemic racism that has been misappropriated to criticize classroom discussions of race.

“Over the past two years or so, we have seen these attacks on educators and classroom professionals being accused of things that do not take place in the classroom,” Swanson said. “As a former teacher, I felt that it was my duty and responsibility to lend my voice in support of my colleagues across the district.” 

Swanson said his support of educators has been met by pushback, including those who say that he is promoting critical race theory. 

“And so I raised the question, where is the critical race theory? I want you to go onto the Department of Public Instruction [website] and provide me with an example of the critical race theory that you believe is in schools,” he said. “And oftentimes, those folks can’t find it.” 

Swanson, who now works for a local nonprofit, knows he’s facing a particular challenge against the incumbent, Michele Morrow, who reportedly participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to local news reports

“Oftentimes, we see that folks are making policy decisions regarding the profession without teacher input, or without teachers having a seat at the table,” Swanson said. “I decided to throw my hat in because I felt that this district needed a true champion and a true advocate that will center the needs of all of our students, teachers, and families at the board table, making decisions for what’s best for all of our students.” 

Some school districts have already started making efforts to ease conversations about race and identity in classrooms.  Last year, the California education department created a Black Student Achievement task force to “overcome environmental injustices, overcome health disparities, overcome racism and all these barriers that have impacted our students,” according to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. 

Christopher Nellum, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit that advocates for students of color, noted that school boards not only can limit what’s being taught and read in classrooms, they also control how schools spend money and other resources. 

“Our hope is that those monies are spent in equitable ways that are being driven to the most needy students,” he said, adding that Black and brown students stand to lose the most at the ballot box. 

“They are going to feel some of these impacts [of school board races], I would argue, in more real ways than any other students,” he said. “And because young people of color can’t vote, I think we need to vote in ways that support them and protect them.”