In dozens of school board races statewide, conservative candidates ran on a "parents first" platform that seeks to ban the teaching of America's history of racism, referred to as "critical race theory," and rein in government control over education. They had limited success on the Nov. 8 ballot, with scattered victories in districts such as San Diego, Sacramento and Placer counties. This was another anticipated red wave that never materialized, but you can bet they and their ideas will be back in future elections.
These candidates were recruited and funded by conservative groups, politicians and the Republican Party, and tapped into the frustration of parents fed up with underwhelming academic performance, further magnified by the pandemic. Though they claimed to be running to give parents greater voice in local school politics to promote better academic results, many espoused divisive agendas.
For example, Lisa Disbrow ran unsuccessfully for the Contra Costa Board of Education, arguing that schools are teaching kids that they “can be trapped in the wrong body” and “have the wrong brain.” Megan Allen also was unsuccessful in her bid for a seat on the Natomas Unified School District after describing gender-neutral bathrooms as a place where girls can get raped.
Jennifer Wiersma, Joseph Komrosky and Danny Gonzalez won seats on the Temecula Valley Unified School District board on Nov. 8, backed by the Inland Empire Family PAC. The PAC's stated goal is to help conservative candidates take over school boards to counter what they see as problems, such as critical race theory, LGBTQ+ acceptance and the promotion of transgenderism. Five of the six candidates it endorsed in Southern California school board races appear to have won, including Lake Elsinore Unified School District candidate Jill Leonard, a vaccine and masking opponent.
The Florida-based Moms for Liberty, which says it fights for parental rights, also endorsed about 50 candidates statewide, several of whom won. Among the winners are Casey Jeffreys, who said during the campaign for the Placer Union High School District Board of Trustees that one of the main challenges facing schools is “the encroachment of the radical socialist agenda by the indoctrination of our children”; and Jacqueline Lostritto of the Newcastle Elementary School District, who said in a Facebook comment that critical race theory is rooted in Marxism and seeks to erase the “parent, child, family bond.”
The “parents first,” or parental rights, agenda is based on the belief that parents should have more say in educational policies, but what they appear to really want are educational policies that align with their conservative, often religious values. Topping the list of their grievances are the teaching of ethnic studies and sex education, and the masking orders and school closures during the pandemic. These ideologies are at odds with the diverse and mostly liberal population of California.
Considering there are nearly 5,000 school board seats in California, the scattered victories of "parents first" candidates in this mostly progressive state is not cause for undue concern. Still, their message resonated with a segment of the population unhappy with California’s dismal academic showing at a time when schools are dealing with pandemic learning setbacks. It should be a wake-up call to the state's educators that they aren't doing enough to address recent learning loss or communicating well with parents.
Not surprisingly, the “parents first” candidates who won did so primarily in conservative communities. About 40 out of 120 “pro-parent” candidates endorsed by Lance Christensen won their races in places such as Tulare County and in Lake Elsinore, Temecula and San Bernardino in the Inland Empire. Christensen, vice president of education policy and government relations at the conservative think tank California Policy Center, ran his own "parents first" campaign in an unsuccessful challenge of Tony Thurmond for state superintendent of public instruction on Nov. 8.
In some cases, the "parents first" candidates ran for open seats. But they also challenged incumbents, such as Karin Freeman, who received the 2021 Board Member of the Year award from the California School Boards Assn. as a trustee of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. She lost her seat to newcomer Todd Frazier, whose campaign slogan was, “faith, family, freedom” and was backed by the Orange County Lincoln Club and other conservative groups. Freeman has been on the school board for 32 years, but has been on the hot seat since she voted against a ban on critical race theory earlier this year.
In many ways, the mass influx of these conservative candidates groomed by political groups reflects a battle for the soul of public education in California. Undoubtedly, students’ academic performance is alarming. How best to change the trajectory of these struggling students is something educational leaders are still discussing. Parents’ voices are key in these discussions, but ensuring that all Californians are adequately represented is trickier if conservative parents are overrepresented in those discussions. If more liberal voters are concerned by this trend, they ought to take heed of the modest gains by "parents first" candidates because the California Republican Party is actively recruiting for its "Parent Revolt" incubator to prepare candidates for school board seats in future elections.
And there's a lot at stake. Not just the topics that are taught — or not — in the classroom, but the billions that California spends on education. The state's Local Control Funding Formula gives school district boards tremendous power in allocating the extra funds dedicated to the neediest students, including English learners and foster kids. Good oversight of these funds by school board members is critical to ensuring that these students receive targeted instruction as intended by the Legislature.
Parents becoming more involved in their children's education is a healthy trend — but not if they only represent a narrow view of education.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.