Bethany Rodgers / Bucks County Courier Times
May 2, 2023
A wave of right-wing parental rights activists won school board seats across Pennsylvania two years ago, some pushing forward with controversial policies centered on gender identity, race and political expression.
But in many places, these conservative members have still occupied a minority on their boards and were outvoted by their more moderate or left-leaning peers. So now, as a new round of school board elections approaches, activists are making another run for these seats in hopes of claiming majorities and agenda-setting power in districts across Pennsylvania.
The movement has injected unusual energy into what are typically quiet, off-year elections. Conservative activists are banding together in groups such as Moms for Liberty, while their opponents are coordinating — sometimes in bipartisan teams of Democrats and moderate Republicans — to beat back what they see as the rise of extremism.
Both of these factions agree there’s too much at stake to look away from these once-sleepy contests during the upcoming May 16 primary and the general election later this year.
Leaders in Moms for Liberty, a group that has advocated for book bans and against mask requirements in schools, are pursuing school board seats in counties across Pennsylvania. A Bucks County venture capitalist who dumped half-a-million dollars into the 2021 school board races is preparing to pour unknown sums into this year’s contests. And even in local board contests where partisanship typically doesn’t play a major role, slates of candidates have formed to highlight sharp ideological and political differences.
“Pennsylvania has really become an increasingly large focal point for extremism, and many school board members are running simply to inflict a political agenda on kids and our communities,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of PA. “It’s something that can be really dangerous for our communities, if people don’t pay attention.”
She noted that Pennsylvania has the third-highest number of school library book bans in the nation and more than two dozen Moms for Liberty chapters.
Clarissa Paige, who heads the Northumberland County chapter of Moms for Liberty, said conservative groups like hers are the ones trying to rid school districts of politics and make sure classroom instruction stays trained on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
If districts don’t change, Paige predicts a “mass exodus” of students from public schools, as dissatisfied parents pull out their children to pursue private schooling or homeschooling.
Some opponents contend that the conservative candidates’ express goal is to sow distrust in public education and ultimately dismantle it in favor of a privatized system. Preserving quality public schools, they say, depends on whether communities rally to defend these local institutions.
Frustrations about school shutdowns, masks and vaccines mobilized parents and other community members during COVID-19, bringing national politics into local school board meetings.
“COVID was a big, big wake-up call. It turns out, your local officials have a lot of control over your life,” said Paul Martino, a Doylestown businessman who got involved in the 2021 school board races in part because of his exasperation over pandemic shutdowns. “And I think a lot of people didn't feel that way. … Now, they actually know how important it is.”
Since then, some of these community coalitions have expanded their missions,seeking to purge schools of critical race theory, demanding the removal of library books they deem inappropriate and accusing teachers of indoctrinating children on gender and sexuality.
Moms for Liberty, a group based in Florida, is among the largest school board activist movements that emerged during the pandemic, and its Pennsylvania members are once again seeking to elect board directors who can advance their priorities. Moms for Liberty leaders are themselves running for positions on school boards in Erie, Beaver, Washington, Pike, Northumberland and Cumberland counties.
In some cases, Moms for Liberty members are also taking an active role in campaigning for people they support and pressing candidates to stake out positions on a range of culture war issues.
The Erie chapter of Moms for Liberty is asking candidates if they believe parents should be allowed to opt their children out of sex education and masking in school. Their candidate survey, posted for candidates who want the group’s endorsement, also asks questions about critical race theory, whether gender is fixed or fluid and whether schools should notify parents when children want to change their pronouns.
And Moms for Liberty isn’t alone, as other groups are forming to advance similar causes. The right-wing organization FreePA has been active in Lancaster County education issues, while a political action committee called Take Back Our Schools is operating in Cumberland County.
Lois Kaneshiki, founder of Take Back Our Schools and a former Moms for Liberty leader, has been circulating a survey that asks candidates if they believe America is systemically racist and whether “fiction books with detailed, graphic depictions of sex acts should be in our school libraries.” The questionnaire also asks whether gender is “fluid” and if children can choose their pronouns.
In an interview, Kaneshiki said she wants teachers to focus on academic basics and not to stray into topics better handled by parents. She also believes that children are receiving overly negative messages about America’s history and system of government and contends that schools should spend more time on “the horrors of communism.”
“[History] is being taught in a way to emphasize all the bad parts of history in the Western world, but not the Eastern world,” she said.
Paige, the Moms for Liberty head in Northumberland County, said she sees the curriculum in her school district as containing political messages and doesn’t feel that school officials are open to hearing her concerns. Her priorities this election cycle, she said, are to promote parental rights and transparency in district curriculum, such as by requiring school districts to post these materials online.
Families shouldn’t have to cede control of their children at the school drop-off, she said. In her view, districts should give parents more say over curriculum choices, develop a maturity rating system for school library books and make sure transgender students are using bathrooms corresponding with their assigned sex at birth.
“Parental rights should be carried out through the entire day,” said Paige, who is so frustrated by her school district that she’s leaning toward homeschooling her two youngest children starting later this year.
Many conservative activists seek to recruit new members by emphasizing that parents should have a greater say in their child’s education, said Sharon Ward, a senior policy adviser for the Education Law Center. But those arguments often ignore the significant powers that Pennsylvania parents already have, she said.
Under the law, Pennsylvania parents are entitled to examine their children’s instructional materials and to opt out of specific lessons that conflict with a family’s religious beliefs.
Conservative activists often disregard these existing protections in order to inflame parents’ anger and recruit them, Ward said. And the demands these groups are making — to control which books appear in a library or how certain concepts are taught — actually run counter to their stated agenda, Ward said.
“In fact, what they're doing is limiting parents’ rights, by imposing a certain set of viewpoints on other people's children,” she said. “So they're actually taking rights away from parents.”
An organized response
Along with the increasing politicization of these school board races has come an influx of campaign cash.
Martino, who founded the political action committee Back to School PA and dumped more than $500,000 of his personal fortune into Pennsylvania school board races two years ago, said he expects to get involved again this year.
He said he’s not yet sure how much money he’ll put into Pennsylvania school board races this cycle or which districts his political action committee will target. He’ll begin making those decisions after the primary election, he said, with a particular focus on the Central Bucks School District and others in southeastern Pennsylvania.
But the rise of conservative activism at the school board level has prompted Democrats and moderate Republicans to respond with their own organized efforts, sometimes crossing party lines to collaborate.
In Cumberland County’s Carlisle Area School District, a group of conservative candidates called CASD Team for Change has formed, and another slate called Citizens for Carlisle Schools has gathered to oppose them.
“It's unusual for folks to run as a team for the school board,” said Rick Galena, a district resident who’s volunteering for Citizens for Carlisle Schools. “But, we felt it was kind of necessary as a response to what we saw on the other side — with the extreme right organizing and running as a ticket.”
In northwestern Pennsylvania, a group of community members has banded together to form the Community Coalition for a Better Penncrest and supports a bipartisan slate of candidates they believe will bring “common sense” back to the school board.
The coalition-backed candidates represent a range of personal and political backgrounds but have a shared interest in steering clear of the divisive topics that have recently dominated headlines about the Penncrest School Board.
The Crawford County district’s solicitor resigned earlier this year, citing concerns that board members were pursuing controversial policies on library books and restricting transgender student athletes. Two board members in a public work session referred to the veteran attorney’s guidance as “worthless” and “a joke,” according to the solicitor’s resignation letter.
Matt Adams, who chairs the coalition, said he’s been dismayed by the lack of decorum the current board has displayed during public meetings.
Still, the group has found hope in its ability to unite community members under a common banner. Adams said the coalition has helped with a school supply drive, campaigned for its slate of candidates and is raising money for them.
“Stories of bipartisanship and collaboration have been few recently,” stated an open letter released by the coalition. “But this new partnership is bringing light to a very dark political landscape.”
Similarly, Kristy Moore, a Lancaster County resident who is running on a slate of Democrats for the Elizabethtown Area School Board, said her goal for this election cycle is to make sure “pro-public education” candidates win, even if they’re not from her party.
The group of candidates endorsed by the local GOP would put the board majority in the hands of people she views as too extreme. One of those candidates sparked controversy after showing up at a January board meeting and asking during public comment why teachers are “suddenly looking at our students as sexual beings instead of children,” LancasterOnline reported.
Moore said even if the Democrats don’t claim spots on the school board, she’ll rest easy as long
as moderate Republicans take the posts.
“Normally, it’s like us-versus-them, but I’m totally not seeing it that way,” she said.
Concerns about youth mental health
These raging political debates often touch on the mental health of Pennsylvania’s youth, a concern that advocates across the political spectrum share but have very different ideas for addressing.
Over the last 15 years, there have been marked increases in the percentage of high schoolers who report feeling sad or hopeless, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic only made things worse.
In a recent survey, nearly three-quarters of the responding Pennsylvania schools cited student mental health as their biggest concern, according to a report released earlier this year by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Spicka said school boards and administrators across the state are duty-bound to do something about this crisis. Instead, she said, some are passing policies that target LGBTQ students, only making conditions worse for teens who already feel stigmatized and are especially vulnerable to depression.
Conservative advocates recognize that declining youth mental health is a real problem but are sometimes wary about giving public schools a role in intervening.
In the Elizabethtown Area School District, Moore said, one right-wing board member recently voted against adding a trauma counselor to the elementary school, opposing the district’s push to get involved in student mental health issues.
To Paige, addressing a child’s mental health should be left up to the parents. A school’s job is to communicate swiftly with families when a student is dealing with a mental health problem so parents can seek out counseling or other resources for their child.
And social-emotional learning, which teaches children about self-awareness and interpersonal skills, has no place in the classroom, contends Paige. She worries that the teaching approach includes aspects of critical race theory and could lead kids to believe that they can choose their gender.
“The school shouldn't be dealing with the mental health of our kids,” she said. “You need to go back to the basics of teaching them education and not indoctrination.”
Research has indicated that social-emotional learning can help improve academic performance and set kids up for greater professional and academic achievement in the future.
However, Moore said conservative advocates are listening to misinformation that suggests social-emotional learning is being used to brainwash kids.
“They take what they hear from these partisan organizations that social-emotional learning is the school trying to tell my child how they feel. It’s the school trying to co-parent with me,” Moore said.
“That is just not the case.”
Moore said she saw the approach work in her own children recently after their 35-year-old uncle died. Guidance counselors told Moore that her kids understood how to monitor their emotions, could identify when they were feeling angry or sad and knew methods for “getting in the green” again.
“My children had tools that I did not have as an adult to deal with and process the grief that came along with losing a loved one,” she said.
Teacher shortages and school funding
Local battles over books and symbols in classrooms are often clouding the most significant concerns about Pennsylvania education, some advocates say.
State and local lawmakers are grappling with widespread teacher shortages across Pennsylvania, as districts struggle to attract and retain educators. On top of that, policymakers in the foreseeable future could face the Herculean task of reworking the state’s school funding method after a Commonwealth Court judge this year ruled the existing system is unconstitutional.
There’s also broad consensus that the commonwealth should overhaul its system for funding charter schools, she noted.
Education advocates and policymakers have objected that the state formula for reimbursing charter schools results in widely disparate per-student tuition payments depending on the school district. Recently, more than 450 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts signed a resolution urging state lawmakers to reform this system so these tuition payments are more standardized.
District officials who signed onto the resolution also contend that, because of a loophole in state law, charter schools are overcompensated for students with special education needs.
And local district officials across party lines generally agree about the need for more education funding, giving them an important and mutual goal to work toward instead of squabbling over partisan issues, Ward of the Education Law Center said.
In the Boyertown School District, advocate Jon Emeigh said he’d like board members to demand more budget transparency from the administration. Last year, the district had to dip into its surplus funds to plug a budget hole without curtailing its existing programs — but Emeigh worries that officials aren’t doing enough to fix this shortfall in the long term.
Emeigh said the candidates he’s supporting are advocating for additional transparency and greater investments in the classroom.
Just treading water on school funding is “tantamount to saying that educational opportunities are declining,” he said. “The world is always changing.”
Bethany Rodgers is an enterprise reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.