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Schools have become the focal point for culture war fights that animated former President Donald Trump's base and have been advanced by conservative activists and influencers since he left office.
Conservative grassroots activists have zeroed in on local education policy with a tea party-esque fervor for months — spanning debates about reopening, how to teach U.S. history and required masking. Now, conservative personalities are urging followers to run for school board seats that have rarely generated much interest, while dozens of activist groups focused on schools have sprouted to advance the fights.
The influence of the effort can be seen at nearly all levels of school administration. State legislators have passed bills to restrict what can be taught. Republican governors are locked in standoffs with school administrators over district masking policies. School board meetings have devolved into shouting matches, and some have even turned violent.
Longtime operators in the education world say they've never seen anything like it.
"Normally, our kids have been off-limits," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the country's largest unions. "We had tension over Common Core. There was tension over other issues. But in modern history, since the huge desegregation battles, kids have been off-limits. Now, they are the battlefield."
Video: Florida now withholding school board salaries over mask mandates
Even the summer has been contentious: The Proud Boys showed up at school board meetings in New Hampshire, fights broke out outside a Florida school district headquarters over a mask mandate, and men showed up with zip ties to confront a principal in Arizona after a student was told to quarantine.
Late last month, a Republican candidate for Northampton County, Pennsylvania, executive said he would get school boards to bend to his will by showing up "with 20 strong men" and giving them "an option — they can leave or they can be removed."
Jeff Timmer, former chair of the Michigan GOP, who has soured on the party and backed President Joe Biden, said it's at the school level where he has grown increasingly concerned about radicalization.
"If these people get into positions of school boards, they will start to set curriculum. And that will have a long-term effect," Timmer said, adding that the push for activists to run for school board seats is "as or more alarming than anything I've seen so far."
Groups have popped up around the country to bolster the efforts, including No Left Turn in Education, Parents Rights in Education and Moms for Liberty. NBC News reported this year that at least 165 such local and national groups had sprung up to influence the fight over schools, many of them reinforced by a network of conservative think tanks, law firms and activist parents.
The organizations began flexing their muscles in the conservative backlash over critical race theory, which was often used as a catch-all phrase encompassing diversity training and other anti-racism efforts. Although there was scant evidence that the theory itself — an academic area of study that examines the modern-day impact of systemic racism in law and society — was being taught in K-12 schools, more than 20 bills to curtail the teaching of race in school were introduced in statehouses, and a handful of governors signed such legislation into law.
Public school leaders and advocates said the movement seeks to delegitimize public schools while boosting charter and private schools. Tina Descovish, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty and a former Brevard County, Florida, school board member, said that isn't the case for her group, which lists more than 110 chapters on its website.
"Many conservatives are trying to blow up public education. We know it," she said. "I bet there's no secret about that. That is not the point of our organization at all. We love public education. We want to fix public education. We want to stay in public education. And we want parents engaged in public education."
The efforts coincide with a wide partisan gap in how K-12 public schools are viewed. A Pew Research Center survey released last month found that 42 percent of Republicans believe public schools positively affect the country, while 57 percent say the impact is negative. For Democrats, the numbers were 77 percent and 22 percent.
The fight over school reopening began last year as months of virtual learning began to take their toll on exhausted parents and their children.Trump was among the loudest voices for reopening schools last year, tweetingin July 2020 that "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" Early in Biden's term, leading Republican officials had hoped that parents upset over the reopening process would be key to helping them regain the House and the Senate by winning over the suburban districts that went for Biden.
But while polling at the time found momentum building behind reopening, surveys haven't shown the conservative backlash over critical race theory and mask mandates in schools to be broad political winners. Polling has found more Americans in favor of requiring students to wear masks than those who are opposed, as recent AP/NORC and Axios-Ipsos surveys have shown.
Now, congressional Republicans have shifted their focus to issues like inflation, crime and border security.
"The fight over schools is part of the larger Covid conversation right now," a senior GOP congressional aide said. "It's at the forefront for a lot of parents, but it's still not among the top three issues for the overall electorate."
As childhood Covid cases soar across the country, Republicans who have led the charge to reopen schools and fight mask mandates risk being blamed for outbreaks among students.
Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which backs moderate Republicans, said parents "don't care what it takes" to ensure that their kids are in school — whether or not that means mandatory masking. Children under 12 aren't yet eligible to be vaccinated.
"They just want their kids back into school," she said. "But they do feel that it is the school districts, the teachers, the people who know the parents, know the kids, who should be making these decisions versus somebody sitting in the state capital who has no idea of what is going on in that particular community."
In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered schools not to mandate masking, schools have accounted for more than 50,000 confirmed Covid cases in students within weeks as more than a dozen districts have temporarily closed, Houston Public Media reported. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is pressing ahead with fining districts that defy his anti-mandate order even after a state judge struck down the decree. More than a dozen districts have defied the order.
The Biden administration has waded into the battle; the Education Department is investigating whether five states that banned mask mandates are violating the civil rights of students vulnerable to infection.
Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, has been on the front lines of the brawl in Florida. As the head of one of the first Florida districts to mandate masking for the start of the school year, she has come under fire from the DeSantis administration, which has taken aim at district funding.
"If the end goal is we want to have students in school as much as possible, then the behaviors and the actions and the policies that my district have taken on have a higher chance of us being able to provide that end goal," she said.
Ultimately, Weingarten, said the focus on schools is part of the right's broader search for wedge issues ahead of the midterm elections next year.
"It's about constant destabilization, creating anger, exploiting the anxiety that people have right now," she said. "it is also kind of rooted in the destabilization of the institutions in America that have, you know, long been used to unify the country. Like great neighborhood public schools."