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A coordinated nationwide agenda dominated local school board elections last year

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

School boards are, by definition, local governments, but national politics played a role in many school board elections last fall. In a moment, we'll hear from Minnesota, where that trend looks to continue and also from a conservative Florida district, where a new board of education is already making waves.

First, Sequoia Carrillo from NPR's education team joins us to help explain all of this. Hey, Sequoia.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So, Sequoia, what are the big national issues that affected school board elections?

CARRILLO: So one big hot-button issue in school board races that affected who got on the boards and are now taking their seats was critical race theory, or CRT. It's an academic idea that racism isn't just about how people treat each other one on one, but that racism has been embedded into institutions and policies. But in national politics, and so also in a lot of these local school board races, CRT is used as a catch-all term for a vast array of issues that touch on gender or race, both in school board policies and in the classroom.

SUMMERS: So why did we see local school board candidates bringing all of these national issues into their local elections?

CARRILLO: Part of the influence came from above. Conservatives saw a successful trial run on these talking points back in 2021, when Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin won a tough race for governor after focusing on parents' rights and calling critical race theory a problem in schools. Then, this past fall, we saw, for example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hitting the same points out on the school board campaign trail, and most of his picks won, including in Sarasota. But what happened next suggests national talking points can only go so far. Kerry Sheridan, from member station WUSF, tells us that story.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: DeSantis' support helped flip Sarasota's school board to a 4-1 conservative majority. We're on a somewhat early election cycle here, so by late November, the new school board was already sworn in. Their very first item of business - a proposal to fire the district superintendent. None of them mentioned that plan while campaigning, so it came as a surprise, even to voters who'd voted to support the conservative candidates. And people packed the school board meeting a week later to tell the new board they disagreed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LISA FISHER: I'm a conservative Christian woman with values similar to many of yours, and I'm still dumbfounded by what is transpiring.

NORA MITCHELL: So let's be honest. This is your first stage in targeting every student who is not white enough, rich enough, straight enough or conservative enough, or who...

(CHEERING)

MITCHELL: (Laughter).

SANDY ARMSTRONG: I don't know how you can get rid of somebody, y'all, who's been called highly effective.

SHERIDAN: Lisa Fisher (ph), Nora Mitchell and Sandy Armstrong (ph) were among the vast majority of people speaking who did not agree with the board's proposal. Just weeks earlier, the previous school board, made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, gave Superintendent Brennan Asplen strong reviews, except one board member, Bridget Ziegler. She's an original co-founder of the conservative movement Moms for Liberty. Her review said the superintendent needed improvement. After the election, she became the chair. But Ziegler insists she didn't know where the push to oust him came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIDGET ZIEGLER: But there was a constant drumbeat in the community about it, and I don't know where it came from, honestly, but here we are.

SHERIDAN: The proposal to terminate him was without cause, meaning there was no evidence of wrongdoing or poor performance. Some of the four conservative members blamed him for low reading and math scores. But Asplen reminded them that he took the job in the midst of the pandemic, in August 2020. He said ever since then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENNAN ASPLEN: I spend more time on politics and nonsense than anything else. I can't even spend time on a lot of the instructional because we're dealing with this kind of nonsense. I don't even know why we're here.

SHERIDAN: He told the board he'd always tried to keep politics out of his work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORIDNG)

ASPLEN: Does anybody know what I am? No. I am a conservative Republican. I line up with these four folks right here politically.

SHERIDAN: Tom Edwards is now the sole moderate on the board. He said extremist politics were at play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM EDWARDS: What we're doing here tonight, the chaos that this board brought needlessly, is to create chaos in public education so that we can't - they can advance charter schools for profit. Trust me.

SHERIDAN: Edwards wanted to keep the superintendent, but he was outvoted 4-1. Two weeks later, at a meeting where the board officially accepted his resignation, Asplen asked the chair, Bridget Ziegler, what was really going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASPLEN: As the proud co-founder of Moms for Liberty, can you please share with the community what the playbook is and where we may find a copy so we can all understand clearly and transparently?

SHERIDAN: Sarasota had followed another Florida school district and one in South Carolina, with similar new, conservative majorities in pushing out their superintendent first thing.

SUMMERS: Thanks to you, Kerry Sheridan of WUSF, for reporting that story.

NPR's Sequoia Carrillo is back with us. Question for you - the idea of a national playbook for school boards that that superintendent referenced, is that really a thing?

CARRILLO: It's definitely something we're keeping an eye on, and we're not the only ones. This national attention has upped the stakes in many districts. Let's go next to Minnesota Public Radio's Elizabeth Shockman, who saw that happen across the state.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN, BYLINE: School board elections blew up in Minnesota last fall. In one small-town district, 23 people ran for five seats. From campaign spending to warring Facebook groups and candidate signs, the whole tone was unusually dramatic. Like Moms for Liberty in Florida, a conservative organization drove much of the new intensity here. The Minnesota Parents Alliance launched last summer. At a rally on the state capitol steps on a warm August day, the group announced more than 100 school board candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, yes.

(CHEERING)

SHOCKMAN: Many of these candidates took to the mic, including Jessica Johnson, John Anderson and Marilee Jager.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JESSICA JOHNSON: All families should trust that our schools will not impose the beliefs of one half of our divided society on the other.

JOHN ANDERSON: You see that indoctrination and creeping into the school system.

MARILEE JAGER: I will prioritize academic excellence over political divisiveness.

SHOCKMAN: Although the alliance went public in August, their parent organization, the Center of the American Experiment, has been involved in education politics for years. It's part of a national web of groups coordinated and funded by wealthy libertarian donors such as the Koch family. Its new Parents Alliance identified Minnesotans to run for school boards. Then the group spent months training and supporting them. Here's Parents Alliance leader Cristine Trooien.

CRISTINE TROOIEN: So much of what is needed is just really that training and the support behind running a quality campaign.

SHOCKMAN: But the alliance wasn't the only organization putting money and muscle into school board races in a new and noticeable way; teachers unions jumped in, too. Typically, in Minnesota, only about 10 unions endorse school board candidates, but last year, almost 40 did.

DENISE SPECHT: It was probably the most difficult and divisive election season for school boards that at least I can remember.

SHOCKMAN: State union president Denise Specht said this uptick was a reaction to national political strategy showing up in local races, such as stoking concerns about policies on gender equity and how schools teach about race.

SPECHT: The amount of misinformation coming down from the big MAGDA (ph) groups worked as intended in many places, but there were many communities that rallied to protect their students' freedom to learn an honest history of America in a welcoming environment.

SHOCKMAN: In races where teachers unions and the Parents Alliance both endorsed candidates, the union candidates won about twice as often. Still, voters put dozens of alliance-backed candidates on school boards. Alliance President Cristine Trooien is chalking up victory.

TROOIEN: We're thrilled with the impact that MPA had in their first year, and we're looking forward to even better results next year.

SHOCKMAN: She hopes to continue candidate support and training for the next election.

SUMMERS: That was Elizabeth Shockman from Minnesota Public Radio and Sequoia Carrillo of NPR's education team. Thank you for bringing all this reporting together today.

CARRILLO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.
Kerry Sheridan
Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.
Elizabeth Shockman