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Liberals Win Hotly Contested School Board Races in Backlash to Conservative Control

Liberal candidates wrested control of school boards from conservative majorities while a Democrat who called for teacher pay raises and universal pre-K in his victory speech won a second term as governor of solidly Republican Kentucky.

And in legislative elections in Virginia that tested the influence of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who popularized a GOP push for parents’ rights in his campaign two years ago, Democrats claimed control of both chambers.

As the country’s schools and the boards that govern them find themselves at the center of acrimonious political battles, Tuesday’s elections demonstrated a backlash to school boards that had flipped to conservative control in recent years. With both parties now paying more attention to school board races, the Nov. 7 elections kicked off a new era in a political battle over K-12 schools.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection victory and Democratic legislative wins in Virginia revolved at least in part around education policies. But it was liberal candidates’ wins in hotly contested Pennsylvania and northern Virginia school board elections that showed how conservative pushes to remove books about LGBTQ+ people from libraries; restrict students’ ability to use pronouns that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth; and reject diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have sparked a backlash.

Liberals see major wins in school boards

School boards have become political battlegrounds as conservative groups including Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project funnel more funding and political might into the often-ignored local races. Many large communities saw their school boards flip to conservative majorities in 2021 and 2022, often backed by Moms for Liberty endorsements.

That changed Tuesday night.

In Bucks County, Penn., five Democratic candidates won all open Central Bucks school district seats, four of which were held by conservative incumbents. Since conservatives took over the nine-member board in 2021, it had banned pride flags and books about LGBTQ+ people and history and prohibited “sexualized content” in schools, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

One thing that set the Central Bucks race apart was the high level of spending for a school board campaign. Liberal and conservative candidates raised more than $600,000 in the race combined, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Nearly half of that money came from Paul Martino, a venture capitalist and husband of one of the conservative candidates who lost Tuesday, Aarati Martino.

The winning candidates, who ran together as the Neighbors United for School Board slate, used their campaigns to criticize the board for its policies, which led the ACLU to file a complaint against the district on behalf of seven students who alleged the district had “a widespread culture of discrimination against LGBTQ students, particularly transgender and nonbinary students.”

The Bucks County flip “stands for a reset and a regrounding, putting the focus back on where it should be, which is what do the students need to feel supported in school, what do they need to feel supported enough to learn, and what do the people who work in and for the school district need to provide that type of education to the students?” Susan Gibson, one of the five liberal candidates who won in Bucks County on Tuesday night, said in an interview. “That has not been the focus at all in our school district—and a lot of school districts across the country.”

Pennsylvania school board races are officially partisan affairs. They’re not in Virginia, but that hasn’t stopped those races from also breaking down along partisan lines.

In Loudoun County, Va., liberal candidates were poised to see similar successes as of Wednesday morning. Candidates for the nine-member school board were all endorsed by local political parties, making the partisan divisions clear.

As of Wednesday, Democrat-endorsed candidates were leading in six of the nine open seats, meaning the board will retain a liberal majority, despite fierce battles with parents’ rights groups over racial equity policies, complaints about liberal indoctrination, and a lawsuit from a teacher who was suspended after refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns, according to the Washington Post. For many, the district has become a face of culture war issues, and the liberal candidates’ success indicates those battles didn’t sway enough voters to conservative priorities.

In another hotly contested Virginia school district, the board in Spotsylvania County appeared to have lost its conservative majority, according to Fredericksburg Today.

That board gained national attention after it flipped to conservative control in November 2021, the Associated Press reported recently. It abruptly dismissed its superintendent of nine years and hired a replacement with no experience in public education. The board also voted at one point to remove books with “sexually explicit” material from schools, with two members calling for them to be burned before the board rescinded the vote.

In another display of public attitudes toward efforts to restrict library books, voters in Pella, Iowa, a community of around 10,000 people, on Tuesday rejected a measure that would have given the city council say over what books the city’s public library can and can’t offer. The measure gained national attention after the library’s board resisted attempts to ban “Gender Queer,” the LGBTQ+ memoir by Maia Kobabe that the American Library Association said was last year’s most commonly challenged book. The measure would have converted the library’s board to an advisory committee with no formal authority, according to the Associated Press.

To be sure, Democratic-leaning candidates’ success wasn’t universal, as conservative slates claimed victory in a handful of school districts in Pennsylvania’s York County.

Teacher pay holds focus in a statewide election

In Kentucky, pay raises for educators and universal pre-kindergarten were among the handful of policy priorities Beshear highlighted in his reelection victory speech Tuesday night.

“Over these next four years, it’s time for a couple of things,” Beshear said. “First, it’s time to get our educators the big pay raise they deserve. It’s time for universal pre-K for every Kentucky child.”

Beshear has made investments in public education a mainstay of his policy agenda in a state where the Democratic governor faces Republican legislative supermajorities.

In August, the governor proposed a $1.1 billion education budget that would give all Kentucky school employees an 11 percent raise, increase funding for school transportation, and fund universal preschool for 4-year-olds. The state’s legislature will begin its budget process in 2024.

A pay raise in Kentucky would mean a boost for teachers who earn some of the nation’s lowest pay. In 2021-22, Kentucky paid starting teachers an average of $38,010, the putting it 44th among the states, according to the National Education Association. Kentucky’s average pay for teachers that year was $54,574, or 40th in the nation, according to the NEA’s data.

If Kentucky makes universal pre-K a reality, it would join a small but gradually growing group of states that have some form of widespread, public pre-K in place.

Beshear’s running mate, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, is a former high school teacher, administrator, and basketball coach. During a debate last month, she called for ongoing funding boosts for the state’s public schools.

“I tried to tell them, when you attack public education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, you will lose,” Coleman said in her victory speech Tuesday.

Virginia’s legislative races revolved around a number of issues, including abortion rights. But they offered a test case for the political strength of Youngkin, who made parents’ frustration with schools following COVID-19 closures and mask mandates a centerpiece of his successful 2021 bid to become the first Republican elected Virginia’s governor in more than a decade.

But Democrats held onto their control of the state Senate and won control of the House of Delegates. The Democratic wins complicate Youngkin’s attempts to to pursue a conservative agenda in a divided state, and could offer cautions about how far a parents’ rights platform will go in translating into votes.

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