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The Republican plan to take over school boards may be backfiring

New election results suggest voters are mixed at best on the GOP’s educational culture wars.

Protesters stand in a crowd. One holds a sign reading “Only bigots ban books.”
A rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21, 2023, in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Tuesday night’s school board elections in Pennsylvania and Oregon again showed how classrooms continue to be a front in the Republican Party’s broader culture war, a battle it has pursued in states across the country with mixed results.

In an Oregon school district in the predominantly rural Clackamas County, where students have protested a recent onslaught of book bans, several “parental rights” candidates lost their bids for the school board. However, GOP-backed school board candidates in southern Pennsylvania who backed book bans and policies targeting trans students survived primary challenges and will advance to the November elections.

The races are part of Republicans’ national push to politicize once-sleepy school board races, using them as a vehicle to curb discussion of race and gender issues in the classroom and give parents more power over curriculums. Across the country, school board members backed by the GOP have banned seminal works of literature, from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but not without backlash.

Nationally, parents have become increasingly worried about the GOP’s book-banning push and have cooled somewhat on the curriculum concerns that dominate Republicans’ education platform. An April Fox News poll found that 77 percent of parents are extremely or very concerned about local school board book bans, an 11-point increase since May 2022. Though 73 percent of those polled remained anxious about what is taught in public schools, that’s 7 points lower than last year. Other polls conducted in recent months show similar results. Actual election results also cast doubt on Republicans’ school-focused strategy: In Illinois and Wisconsin, a key swing state, school board candidates who ran on culture war issues largely failed in April.

That tracks with Tuesday night’s losses for three parental rights candidates, including two incumbents, in Oregon’s Canby School District. A total of 36 books were recently removed from the school district’s libraries following parental complaints about their descriptions of “promiscuity,” “assault,” and “mature sexual” content.

Incumbent Canby school board member Stefani Carlson promised more restrictions on content offered through school libraries as a pillar of her candidacy, as well as offering more transparency to parents in terms of classroom curriculum. “I will continue working to remove inappropriate sexually explicit and obscene material,” she wrote in a pamphlet distributed to the district. But voters instead backed the approach of her challenger, who promised to be a “voice of reason dedicated to advancing the goals of the District without creating chaos.”

The two other parental rights candidates, one of whom was explicitly backed by the Parents Rights in Education political action committee, advocated for increasing parents’ role in setting school curriculums. They also both lost.

But it wasn’t all bad news for GOP-aligned school board candidates. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, GOP-endorsed candidates dominated their school board primaries just as the districts consider policies including trans athlete bans and additional restrictions on library books.

In the Warwick, Pennsylvania, school district, many of the GOP candidates were associated with the local Facebook group Warwick Parents for Change and the Lancaster County chapter of Moms for Liberty, groups that have been a vocal presence in local meetings in advocating for anti-trans policies and restrictions on library books. If GOP candidates ultimately win in Pennsylvania’s Manheim Township district, they could consider a ban on trans student-athletes participating in sports teams that correspond to their gender identity that was previously under consideration. That ban already exists in the nearby Hempfield district, which has also voted in favor of banning books with “sexually explicit” content and where GOP candidates will also advance.

How school board races became a target of the GOP

In 2021, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin showed how education can be a winning issue for Republicans, even among voters who have previously swung Democratic. He upset incumbent Democrat Terry McAuliffe in what has long been a blue state by capitalizing on parents’ frustrations with school closures during the pandemic and with how schools teach about race and racism. Youngkin campaigned on eliminating classroom discussion of critical race theory — an academic framework that examines the role of racism in US culture and institutions.

Educational culture wars have become part of the Republican national playbook, and bans on critical race theory have proliferated across red states and have become a flashpoint in school board races. The GOP has since expanded its education wars to also include bans on the discussion of LGBTQ issues in the classroom, making it easier to ban books that discuss race and gender or criticize US history, preventing trans student-athletes from participating in school sports, injecting Christianity into public schools, and allowing parents to take their tax dollars away from public schools and put them toward private or charter schools through school choice programs.

It’s not clear, however, that Republicans’ focus on education is continuing to pay dividends. In addition to suffering the losses in Pennsylvania and in Illinois and Wisconsin last month, 35 parental rights candidates were defeated in New York school races last year. That meant that many of them decided not to run again this year, with many seats going uncontested in Tuesday’s school board elections in New York.