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Progressives Must Not Concede School Board Elections to the Right

Austin school board victories show how progressive organizing can beat anti-LGBTQ candidates.

During the 2022 midterm elections, I joined a group of central Texas parents, teachers, administrators and social activists who were determined to do whatever it took to elect progressive school board candidates over conservative zealots.

And we won.

All five Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) candidates endorsed by Access Education, a progressive, community-based political action committee (PAC), triumphed over a slate of right-wing candidates backed largely by powerful conservative groups and individuals from outside the school district.

The conclusion? Strong, passionate communities can steer the direction of student learning — and possibly the country’s future — from the ground up.

Historically, school board trustees are unpaid and have been traditionally considered non-partisan advocacy positions. But in these politically polarizing times, school board elections have turned into divisive, often ugly partisan races.

Before Election Day, I encouraged my 16-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to meet the Access Education RRISD school board candidates, distribute campaign literature to houses in the neighborhood, and volunteer at the polls to educate voters.

They have as much at stake in these elections as we parents do. The school board officials make big decisions on what they will learn, which will strongly influence the adults they will become.

The five “One Family” conservative candidates, known in progressive circles as the “hate slate,” hoped to join two other conservative trustees who were not up for reelection this year.

Had all five of them won, it would have given the board free rein to erase “political correctness” in schools, “pornography” in school libraries and LGBTQ-friendly policies.

Front and center on the conservative slate was former Austin City Councilmember Don Zimmerman, whose campaign slogan read: “Teach ABCs + 123s, Not CRTs & LGBTs.” The day after his election loss, Zimmerman posted on Facebook: “The voters clearly rejected our reform, and will now enjoy the consequences of the gospel of anti-Christ immorality.”

Meanwhile, the Access Education PAC endorsed and promoted five diverse, pro-public education candidates for the RRISD school board who were focused on equitable practices, data-driven decisions, student outcomes and safe access to education for the district’s diverse population of nearly 47,000 students across 56 campuses.

“School board is a race that most don’t usually pay attention to, but grounding our organizing in our own neighborhoods and personal networks worked. People showed up,” said Access Education President Krista Laine. “We built connections that will strengthen our community for years to come.”

In the November midterms, Williamson County, which houses 45 of the 56 RRISD facilities, had the highest voter turnout percentage out of the top 24 largest counties in Texas by registered voter population.

RRISD is a highly rated and diverse school district in north Austin. In the 2020-2021 school year, white students made up roughly 36 percent of the student population, Latinx students about 30 percent and Asian students nearly 20 percent.

These demographics made it a target for the Republican Party of Texas and the 1776 Project, which helps elect school board members across the country who are committed to censoring any acknowledgement of racism in the classroom. Both groups either endorsed or donated to the “One Family” slate.

As more parents, teachers and community members started hearing about the drama and tension at recent RRISD board meetings, organizing efforts by Access Education to “save our schools” accelerated through an influx of promotional materials, yard signs, social media posts, poll greeter requests and personal conversations.

On the day before early voting started, my husband and I hosted a “meet and greet” at our home for the five candidates endorsed by the group. The candidates were able to voice their support for equity across all facilities in the district, and for Lone Star Governance, a continuous-improvement model that focuses intensely on improving student outcomes. Community members organized additional events across the district in the days leading up to the election.

For the event we hosted, Access Education created a digital promotional flier, helped coordinate logistics and shared details widely with progressive groups across social media.

On the evening of Election Day, two newcomers and three incumbents endorsed by Access Education won.

To be sure, the rhetoric and tactics of “One Family” slate were so distasteful and extreme that they made national news, and likely succeeded in turning off even some of the most hardcore Republican voters. For example, Zimmerman’s sole opponent, Access Education-backed candidate Tiffanie Harrison, tweeted that biohazardous materials including tampons and sex toys were sent to her and one of her longtime supporters weeks before the election.

Still, the amount of momentum and resources behind the right-wing national agenda is disconcerting. In Texas, the GOP increased its majority on the State Board of Education in November after redistricting made all 15 seats open for election, bringing 10 Republicans and five Democrats onto the board starting in January. And according to the 1776 Project Facebook page, more than 100 school boards nationwide flipped conservative this election cycle. The organization has a goal to raise $5 million for more than 250 school board races in 29 states next year.

Southlake, Texas-based Patriot Mobile, a Christian conservative mobile provider that donates a portion of every dollar to support conservative organizations, backed 11 conservative school board candidates in the Fort Worth area this year. All candidates won, and it resulted in four school boards — Southlake Carroll, Keller, Grapevine Colleyville and Mansfield – being taken over by conservative majorities. Access Education members predict that next year, the company will target Garland, Frisco, and other nearby school districts with seats up for election.

Unless more people get involved in grassroots community efforts, progressives risk losing elections simply due to lack of awareness and apathy.

Research shows how community stakeholders bolster more equitable participation within a multiracial democracy, and how community outreach can play a crucial role in introducing young people to the democratic process.

Unfortunately, divisive school board races and policies are extending well beyond our Austin, Texas, enclave.

In North Texas, the Frisco Independent School District recently passed a policy requiring students to use bathrooms that align with their gender assigned at birth, and the Keller Independent School District banned all books that depict or reference gender fluidity. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is calling for civil rights investigations into both anti-transgender policies.

Meanwhile, in Berkeley County, South Carolina, newly elected Moms for Liberty-backed school board members fired the superintendent and district lawyer in their first meeting after the election and set up a committee to decide whether certain books, such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, should be banned from schools. They also banned critical race theory (CRT), a stance that has been supported by South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman even as she acknowledged in a tweet that the Department of Education has “no current or proposed standards that include CRT concepts.”

In this contentious political climate, it’s incumbent on all progressives to make time to organize their communities and help candidates and groups whose values align with theirs.

Getting involved with grassroots efforts is the only way to ensure that elected officials reflect the majority, and to make sure future generations live in a society of acceptance, empathy, open-mindedness and tolerance.