(WASHINGTON) — With the midterm elections officially taking center stage in national politics, GOP candidates up and down the ballot are taking advantage of nationwide divides over education issues — homing in on controversies over how much power school boards should have to bolster their campaigns.
Parental involvement, curriculum choices, COVID policies and vaccine mandates dominated conversations relating to Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race, after Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe said he didn’t think parents should have a say in what their children are taught at school, which, in part, ultimately delivered a win for Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin.
The controversy over whether and how to teach about race also helped bring school boards into the national conversation, further seeping the bodies into partisan politics. School boards are now so contentious that some state legislatures are looking to make their normally nonpartisan elections, partisan.
In 2021, Tennessee passed a bill to attach party affiliation to school board candidates, and Arizona, Missouri, Utah and Indiana are among the states flirting with the idea.
School board elections, as with other down-ballot races, often don’t pull hordes of attention from voters. But already in 2022, 20 school board recall efforts have been launched across the country, according to data tracked by the nonpartisan organization Ballotpedia. In 2021, 91 recall efforts were pursued, on average more than twice as many as had been seen in the past.
Like other battlegrounds, school boards have taken center stage in Arizona. GOP candidates for governor there and those hoping to unseat Sen. Mark Kelly in Washington have even started dropping in on school board meetings to shore up support.
School boards were propelled into the spotlight in the state after a document from a Scottsdale school board member listing personal information about parents who had criticized the district was shared by his son, according to the Arizona Republic. Politicians weighed in on the controversy that ensued and, ultimately, efforts to remove the member were successful.
Kari Lake, a former TV anchor, who is running for Arizona governor with backing from former President Donald Trump, and Jim Lamon, a businessman running to unseat Kelly in the Senate, held a joint rally outside the Scottsdale high school in late November ahead of a school board meeting to discuss the parental “dossier.”
Lamon offered to pay legal expenses for parents who chose to pursue lawsuits against the district related to coronavirus policies or other issues.
“These people in that school board meeting about to kick off here, they work for you,” Lamon said outside the Scottsdale meeting, according to the Arizona Republic.
“They work for the parents and the kids, not for themselves. And we don’t work for them. … We’re a peaceful group, we’re great parents here, and we’ll stand tall. And I got your back,” he added.
Lake cut an ad with mothers from the district announcing she would establish the “Arizona Parent Coalition” as governor, which would “serve as an oversight to unruly school boards and the union bosses.”
“When all of us parents rally together, we win. And when we win, we will root out critical race theory,” she said in a campaign video.
Lake is fundraising on the school board controversy as well, with a page on the Republican donation hosting site WinRed dedicated specifically to to it. She’s singled herself out from the GOP field across the state by calling for cameras in all classrooms, which her competitors and sitting GOP Gov. Doug Ducey have spoken out against.
Former GOP Rep. Matt Salmon, who is running for governor, has called on the Arizona School Board Association to distance itself from the national branch. He told ABC News that while he doesn’t think school board issues will necessarily draw single-issue voters, he does think they will engage previously unengaged ones.
“It looks like we’ve awakened the sleeping giant, and it’s not just this, it’s all kinds of government intrusion,” Salmon said. “I think this is part and parcel of a lot of things that people are seeing: that their way of life is not getting better. It’s getting worse.”
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