On paper, Sarah Stiegler and Katherine Rice have a lot in common. They are both nurses who cared for patients in Michigan hospitals during the pandemic. They are both parents who have begun to pay attention to school council meetings after schools close in 2020. And they both worry drop in test scores which highlight the progress lost by students in recent years.
But as school board candidates from Romeo, Michigan, their visions are very different.
Rice, 41, thinks parents should have more control over their children’s education. She disagrees with the idea that systemic racism is ingrained in life in the United States and worries that children are being taught a “revisionist history”. She calls critical race theory and social-emotional learning “the literal hijacking of education.”
Stegler, 40 years old, wanna students to learn “their own exact story”. She disagrees with the backlash of social-emotional learning and with efforts to pull books that feature LGBTQ characters and themes from school library shelves. And she worries that students have taken precedence over partisan debates at too many school board meetings across the country, including at Romeo, a predominantly white school district of about 5,000 students, in 40 miles north of Detroit in Macomb County; the county voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Rice and Stiegler are among six candidates vying for two seats on the Romeo Community Schools School Board in the Nov. 8 election. And their positions represent both sides of the culture war debates that have rocked school board meetings for the past two years and inspired new candidates to run for office.
The 2022 midterm elections will determine who controls the U.S. House and Senate, as well as state capitals across the country. But there are also school board elections in at least 24 states next week, according to Ballotpedia. In many of these races, voters must choose between candidates with fundamentally different ideas about what schools should teach and what public education should look like for today’s students.
In places across the United States with few competitive races at the state or federal level, it’s school board candidates who make local headlines. A candidate in Zionsville, Ind.—north of Indianapolis—got national attention for a Facebook post in which he said “Not all Nazis were ‘evil’.” In North Carolina, a candidate for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools accused his opponent of making his 9-year-old son cry.
Conservative advocates and lawmakers have sought to restrict how race and gender identity are discussed in classrooms, calling for ban on certain books and arguing that lessons dealing with systemic racism and identity will divide children and make white students uncomfortable. At the same time, progressive advocates called on schools to fight discrimination and invest in social-emotional learning, comprehensive sex education and diversity initiatives to make schools more equitable for all students.
Education issues are personal and polarizing for parents because policies directly affect their children. And while school board races are generally nonpartisan (meaning candidates run on their own rather than as part of a party slate), politics is inescapable. Council members exert considerable influence over what students learn and can play an important role in local political organizing. “If I could have a conservative majority on every school board in the country, we’d be in such good shape,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said. said at a rally in August.
National politics are played out in school boards
Advocacy groups and political action committees are playing an increasingly important role in these local races. “I don’t want the next school year to be filled with parents, teachers and school boards having to fend off book bans and unnecessary attacks on kids who are just trying to fit in,” says Katie Paris, who founded Red Wine and Blue, a liberal advocacy group focused on mobilizing suburban women, which has made school board runs a priority this year. “I want us to focus on the things that will improve the educational outcomes of all of our children.”
She says the group researched more than 1,000 school board runs in North Carolina and Michigan this year, creating a voting guide which labels candidates who the group says “will or will not support accurate and honest education.” Paris says the group has identified about 170 Michigan school board candidates who may support book bans or restrictions on sex education, or who have made racist or anti-Semitic comments on social media.
run for somethinga group that supports progressive candidates in short-ballot races, has endorsed 63 candidates for school board seats or other education-related seats this year, seeking candidates who will oppose book bans and resist the backlash of critical race theory— a college-level academic framework that explores how institutions perpetuate the racism that has become a catch-all term among critics who think public schools are too liberal.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Project 1776 PAC, which backs conservative school board candidates and aims to combat critical race theory, spent nearly $2.8 million on those April 2021 races. to October 2022, according to FEC declarations.
And in Michigan, Matthew Wilk launched the Get Kids Back to School PAC in 2021. It originally focused on endorsing school board nominees who supported full school reopenings, but expanded its mission to include candidates who would oppose “revival” in schools and “repel the tide of erosion of the traditional curriculum.
Wilk was on the Northville, Michigan school board in 2020, but fellow board members voted to remove him as president after he shared social media posts that downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, he opposed broad pandemic restrictions and continued school closures. “As schools began to reopen on their own, it revealed that school closures weren’t the disease, they were just a symptom,” he says. “And the disease was more ‘we didn’t want to listen to the parents.'”
He says the PAC brought in less than $20,000 in donations this year and gave a few hundred dollars to candidates each, but mainly focused on running training sessions for candidates and offering logistical support. The PAC has endorsed 57 nominees across the state, many of whom have united to give parents more control over what and how their children learn.
Rice, whose advocacy began with her opposition to mask mandates in her district, is one of them. She disagrees with policies that allow transgender students to use the restroom or play on sports teams aligned with their gender identity – an issue that has been taken back by conservative activists and state legislators in different parts of the country. She argues that many schools prioritize social justice over core subjects like math or reading.
“We shouldn’t worry about pronouns. We shouldn’t worry about DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives]. We shouldn’t force SEL [social-emotional learning],” she says. She argues that social-emotional learning goes beyond teaching students communication skills and coping mechanisms, and teaches some students that they are oppressed and others that they are an oppressor. Proponents of the framework argue that it is a valuable way to teach students how to manage stress, recognize emotions, and work cooperatively. Certain principles of social-emotional learning promote self-awareness and racial equity, encouraging students to reflect on identities and examine biases.
“Teaching a child that he is an oppressor is harmful,” says Rice. “Teaching a child that America was built on systemic racism is harmful.”
Run on Education
Education has also become an issue in the race for governor of Michigan. Tudor Dixon, a Republican challenging Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, campaigned to give parents more control over their children’s education. Trump visited Macomb County last month for a rally in support of Dixon, whom he called “a national leader in the battle to protect our children by removing the ideology of race and gender from the classroom.”
Dixon proposed a policy that would prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, modeled Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Law. And she also wants to ban transgender girls from competing on the women’s sports team.
This kind of rhetoric worries Stiegler, who thinks adults often talk about the students most affected by such policies without considering the impact on them. “We don’t really pay attention to what they have to say,” she says. “These kids feel like they’re not worth it.”
When she was a student at Romeo in the 1980s, she recalls being taught about Christopher Columbus in a way that glossed over her legacy of violence and death, and its role in the slave trade. “’He brought all these things. Everything was wonderful and beautiful,” she says. “We all know in retrospect that’s not accurate.” And she thinks schools today should be doing a better job of giving students a more comprehensive and accurate history education than she had.
If elected, she wants to focus on the resolution teacher shortage and student learning loss – issues that have taken on greater urgency for public schools following the disruptions of the pandemic.
Some advocates worry that these pressing challenges have been overshadowed by the culture war battles that have captured national attention.
“Instead of tackling these very real issues…we have small groups of politically motivated people trying to take us back to the 1950s,” says Paris, the organizer of red and blue wine. “I worry about this not only because it distracts from the real challenges we face, but also because it creates unnecessary division in our communities.”
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