School board recalls have hit an all-time high, nearly doubling in number over the last four months, and evidence is mounting that the same issues driving the recalls – school policies related to the coronavirus pandemic and critical race theory – are playing a significant role in candidates’ campaign strategies.
Between 2006 and 2020, Ballotpedia recorded an average of just 23 recall efforts each year against an average of 52 school board members. But this year, Ballotpedia has tracked 84 school board recall efforts against 215 board members.
In the first half of the year, nearly half of all officials who faced recall campaigns were school board members – more than any other type of officeholder.
In addition, as of Oct. 21, Ballotpedia identified 76 school districts in 22 states where candidates took specific stances on critical race theory, teaching about race in classrooms and corresponding curricula, including 19 districts in Ohio, 12 Colorado and five in Washington state.
“When it comes to people who are running for office and these elections on a broader scale, we have seen responses to race in education and critical race theory taking a pretty big role in the messaging for these candidates,” says Doug Kronaizl, who follows the nuances of school board races and other local elections for Ballotpedia. “We see this as being a big thing that comes up in elections in general.”
Indeed, in just one month, education overtook the economy as the most important issue for voters in Virginia’s governor’s race, according to new polling from The Washington Post and George Mason: In mid-September, 27% said the economy was the most important issue compared to 15% who named education. But by the end of October, 24% said education was the most important compared to 23% who chose the economy.
Notably, over the course of that same time period, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum that mobilized the FBI to work with state and local law enforcement to develop strategies to address increasing incidents of harassment of and threats of violence against board members, educators and school leaders related to coronavirus policies, critical race theory and the rights of transgender students – a directive that came days after the National School Boards Association wrote to President Joe Biden to ask for the federal government’s help.
Conservatives were quick to capitalize on the request and subsequent memo from the Department of Justice, describing it as the Biden administration’s attempt to open “a snitch line on parents” and to silence their concerns – a move that poured accelerant on a voting bloc already highly inflamed over K-12 issues.
The backlash was swift. Over the course of the next three weeks, dozens of state school board chapters distanced themselves from the national association, which issued an apology for not consulting its board or members before sending the letter to the president, and at least three terminated their association membership. Republicans in Congress called in Garland to rescind the memo. During oversight hearings last week in the House and Senate judiciary committees, school boards were the No. 1 talking point of GOP members.
“The Biden Justice Department is going to go after parents who go after some racist hate-America curriculum,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, told Garland, who defended the memo and emphasized that the scope of the effort is limited to violence, threats of violence and other criminal conduct – not the First Amendment rights of parents to voice their opinions.
Jordan’s home state represents one-quarter of the 76 school districts identified by Ballotopia where school board candidates are taking stances on critical race theory – the graduate school-level academic argument (research shows it is not taught in K-12 schools) that asks people to consider how racism is embedded in all aspects of American life, from health care to housing, economics to education, clean water to the criminal justice system and more.
“School board elections are something, unfortunately, people just haven’t paid attention to in the past,” Kronaizl says. “Just by virtue of people paying more attention to these races we’re beginning to see the political contours come out in these elections in a way we haven’t seen in the past.”
While the once sleepy relics of local politics are now front and center in national races – including Virginia’s gubernatorial election, which political science experts characterize as a bellwether for the effectiveness and staying power of the Biden presidency – polling shows that the GOP’s focus on school boards may not be as successful a campaign strategy as they hope.
The Washington Post/George Mason poll shows that 47% of voters said they trust former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to do a better job handling education issues, compared to 46% who said they trust GOP challenger Glen Youngkin – though Youngkin has made ground over the last month, inching up 4 percentage points since mid-September. And when it comes to who voters trust more to handle how public schools teach the history of racism in America, 45% said they trusted McAuliffe compared to 43% who said they trust Youngkin.
The two have been tangling over school board issues in the neck-and-neck race.
Last week, President Joe Biden campaigned for McAuliffe in Arlington, where the former governor’s aides handed out books by the late author Toni Morrison after Youngkin released a political ad this week featuring a woman who tried to have Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” banned in public schools. Later in the week, former Vice President Mike Pence visited Virginia’s Loudoun County, which has become ground zero for school board wars over critical race theory, mask policies, transgender students’ rights and other issues.
The same Washington Post/George Mason poll shows a much wider margin on the actual K-12 policies. Though the poll didn’t ask about masking and vaccine mandates for students, 61% of voters said they support school district requirements that teachers and staff be vaccinated compared to 36% who said they oppose such a requirement.
When it comes to school board-level recalls, history shows a slim margin for success: According to Ballotpedia, from 2006 to 2020, less than 30% of recall efforts reached the ballot, and just 18% of targeted school board members were removed from office through the process.
The off-year Nov. 2 election is set to provide the first glimpse of how powerful a narrative school boards have become for Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, especially as they try to woo back droves of suburban women who left the party or didn’t vote in the 2020 presidential election.
“Whether or not this is an outlier or it’s going to be a norm, that’s what we are going to see in the near future,” Kronaizl says.