The narrative coming out of last Tuesday’s various statewide elections has been that abortion remains a critical issue to American voters. While that’s unequivocally true, it’s also only part of the story. Dig a little deeper, into county and city election results, and you’ll find a much larger trend: Americans unequivocally rejected the right-wing freaks who have been making life miserable for everybody.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in this year’s boards of education races, which broke decisively for decent people who do not want to turn public schools into culture war zones. In red states and blue states alike, moderate and liberal candidates defeated conservatives endorsed by the bigoted, book-banning bullies at Moms for Liberty and other right-wing astroturf groups, often in tense races that divided communities.
Moms for Liberty tried to scrub its list of endorsed candidates offline after the election, and with good reason: We retrieved an archived copy, and according to Progress Report’s analysis, of the 134 school board candidates that Moms for Liberty endorsed this fall, only 40 of them won their elections.
That’s a win rate of less than 30%, which qualifies as an absolute failure no matter who is grading.
“The book bans, the discrimination, the attacks on kids, and teachers, and the taking away of our choices, it all added up,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the CEO of MomsRising, a national parents organization, told Progress Report. “They added up in really, really visible ways: students not feeling comfortable going to school, teachers leaving the profession, and people not feeling comfortable in their communities.”
The venture capitalist husband of one of the conservative Central Bucks candidates poured $239,000 into Central Bucks Forward and half a million dollars into races across the state. The money in Central Bucks was used on any number of reprehensible things, including mailing graphic images from books to parents of students in the district.
It didn’t translate into many victories — Moms for Liberty candidates went 1-for-15 in nearby Chester County — but it did show the depth of the finances of the right-wing school movement. As this patently false flyer handed to voters in West Chester shows, it also exposed how shameless they became.
Moms for Liberty is the most prominent of the puritanical parent groups, and provides training and resources for candidates all over, but it’s hardly the only organization working to inject Christofascism into public education.
A short, cynical movement
This particular assault on education goes back to the the fall of 2020, when a cranky mom in the Philly suburbs flipped out over her child’s’ teacher incorporating that summer’s historic Black Lives Matter protests into social studies lessons.
Tucker Carlson, then still on Fox News, broadcast a story about her new organization, No Left Turn in Education; by the next spring, right-wing governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott were seizing on manufactured hysteria around things like Critical Race Theory and the few trans girls who play high school sports.
That May, Steve Bannon urged his far-right audience to start running for school boards, calling them “the path to save the nation.” Moms for Liberty sprung up in Florida that year, becoming a key part of DeSantis’s bigot brigade and providing a well-financed infrastructure to the right-wing maniacs who took Bannon up on his call to arms.
Youngkin, late in the 2021 campaign, seized on a gaffe by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to make the broad argument that parents should have say over what their children learn. At the same time that Youngkin won the election, Moms for Liberty and other right-wing groups were staging school board takeovers in other states, beginning two years of chaos.
Two Years of Hell
Parents who had largely ignored school board races to that point became deeply engaged as the new far-right members’ attacks on books, queer kids, and reality itself began to unfold and wreak havoc on day-to-day education.
In Pennsylvania’s Central York district, Tea Party types that had quietly taken over the school board pushed back at teachers who wanted to use books to help students understand systemic racism after the Black Lives Matter protests. They went under the radar during the Covid-era, Zoom-only board meetings, but when the bans were formalized in the fall of 2021, students got involved in protests, bringing national attention that helped partially undo the policies.
Though the voters in the district are conservative, they crossed over to vote for Democrats in 2021 and again last week, finally flipping the school board. (Note: We’ll have much more on this fight in an upcoming issue of Progress Report.)
In the Pennridge district, that meant hiring a right-wing consultant who used to work for Hillsdale College and requiring teachers to check their lessons against the private Christian school’s 1776 curriculum, a full-on alternative history series that caters to overly sensitive white people.
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“[‘Parents Rights’] is not what it appears to many at first on the surface,” Rowe-Finkbeiner said. “And so over time, the actual implications of the agenda became more clear due to a lot of people raising their voices.”
Democrats swept Pennridge’s five school board elections and plan to fire the consultant as soon as they take office in December.
In other places, such as Iowa, the right-wing candidates were sussed out and stopped before they could get elected.
Both suburban and rural Iowa rejected extremists. Ankeny only voted in one of five Republican candidates after Gov. Kim Reynolds got involved last cycle, while Johnston denied all four Moms for Liberty candidates. Carroll County voted 63% for Trump in 2020, but rejected all three conservative school board candidates.
Just Begun, the Education Wars Have
As I’ve reported both here and More Perfect Union, there is a much reactionary school movement that has been working for the past 40+ years to overtake and crush public education in the United States.
It took decades and billions of dollars from cultish ghouls like Betsy DeVos to build up the infrastructure, but that movement now has a tremendous amount of momentum thanks to Republicans’ rightward drift. The school voucher scam, which began last year in Arizona, has spread to Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida, among other states. If Gov. Greg Abbott finally gets his way and can break down rural Republicans in the legislature’s fourth special session, it will crack Texas, as well.
The new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, spent years working for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal foundation that is pushing specious arguments on “religious freedom” in education that could well appeal to the Supreme Court.
These losses, then, may not change shift conservative initiatives in many parts of the country — just look at Republicans in Utah, who are now exploring a proposal that would make it easier to ban books from schools statewide. Iowa Republicans are moving forward with their voucher program, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has staked his sad career on dividing kids at school.
Still, the pathetic underperforming of Moms for Liberty candidates in so many parts of the country not normally amenable to Democratic leadership is a sign that blatant bigotry and far-right moralism in education will not work as an electoral issue, nor will dog whistle phrases like “parents’ rights.”
P.S. We broke this news in my newsletter, Progress Report. The newsletter focuses in depth on progressive politics and policy, including lots of coverage of state and local governments you won’t get elsewhere.
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