‘The most high stakes’ school board elections are already coloring 2024

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Pennsylvania conservatives are about to test the voltage of education politics. 

School board elections are set to occur across the country on Tuesday. But few of these once-quiet contests have become as vicious, sophisticated, expensive and injected with dueling endorsements from political committees and national organizations quite like campaigns in the Keystone State.

A venture capitalist put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend conservative control of his hometown Philadelphia-area board and support other school campaigns. A Republican political committee is supporting candidates in Cumberland County, a red-leaning area west of Harrisburg where Democrats made gains during recent gubernatorial and presidential elections.

Local chapters of Moms for Liberty, a national group that’s grown into the biggest name in Republican school politics, and the conservative 1776 Project PAC have endorsed candidates in counties throughout the state. Progressive organizations, teacher unions and groups linked to federal Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are fighting back through races in State College and big-city suburbs.

All that action has turned low-level school board campaigns in a swing state President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger likely need to win next year into a laboratory for the vitality of education-drenched politics.

“For children in Pennsylvania, this is the most high-stakes election of their entire lives,” said Susan Spicka, the executive director of the Education Voters of Pennsylvania nonpartisan group. “Because once you get five people on a school board who are going to operate as a bloc, they can do pretty much anything they want.”

Conservatives galvanized by Covid-shuttered schools have made book restrictions and LGBTQ student expression into a live wire in this election. A recent Brookings Institution analysis concluded Pennsylvania was one of Moms for Liberty’s biggest strongholds outside of Florida and New York, following the group’s raucous summertime rally with GOP presidential candidates in Philadelphia.

There are problems beyond culture wars, too: This year, a state judge underscored a long-running crisis by declaring Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional.

Now the resources needed to compete in these school board races look a lot like bigger-profile campaigns.

“You need mailers, you need signs, you need training for poll workers, you need Facebook ads, you need websites built — it’s all of that stuff,” said Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who formed a political committee to bankroll school board candidates dedicated to school reopening in 2021.

“2021 was the year it all got changed, and this is the world we’re now in,” said Martino, who this year has used his committees to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in board races throughout the state, but mostly a conservative slate running in a Bucks County district where his wife is also a candidate. “My guess is that we’re going to see a turnout of 45 percent, in an off-year election. Like, nobody sees that.”

Some operatives say Pennsylvania’s school board elections are also testing a new kind of “upballot” momentum, where motivated voters first look to local boards before directing their attention to critical municipal, judiciary and legislative seats higher on the ballot.

“We’ll learn a lot from Pennsylvania,” said Hannah Riddle, the director of candidate services for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing local candidates throughout the state, plus Ohio and Virginia, on the Nov. 7 ballot. “We’ll learn a lot not just on what to expect in school board races next year, but what to expect up and down the ticket as well.”

This dynamic is playing out in Virginia’s Loudoun County, where pandemic-era fights over critical race theory and transgender students upended the once-mundane politics of school governance near Washington D.C. Voters are now in line to reshape that school board with help from competing Democratic and Republican party endorsements.

In Ohio, the 1776 Project PAC has endorsed 16 candidates running for office in suburban communities near Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus while supporting conservatives in Kansas and Virginia. Moms for Liberty chapters are also endorsing in Iowa, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and elsewhere on Nov. 7.

Roughly 30,000 board seats are estimated to be up for election in 2023, including races earlier this year that saw mixed results for conservative candidates in Wisconsin, Illinois and other states.

Yet board elections from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs to smaller central Pennsylvania communities will further test the potency of conservative school politics ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Look to Bucks County, one of the swingiest counties in one of America’s swingiest states, for ample examples.

Conservative board members won a 6-3 majority in the Central Bucks School District outside Philadelphia in 2021. Passionate fights over library book restrictions, curriculum and student gender identity have not seemed to stop at the state’s third-largest school system since.

Following searing public debates, the Central Bucks board in July 2022 adopted a library book policy that limited the presence of “sexualized content” and allowed any district resident to formally challenge library materials “on the basis of appropriateness.”

Board members also began revising prohibitions on school-based political organizing that fall in a way that now bars district employees from showing flags, banners, posters, signs, stickers or similar materials that advocate “any partisan, political, or social policy issue” on school property or during district activities. That includes a classroom ban on Pride flags.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania pressed Biden administration authorities last October to investigate the school district’s “hostile environment” and “overtly discriminatory actions” against LGBTQ students. The Education Department’s civil rights division soon launched an investigation, and the ACLU this year filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Central Bucks teacher who was allegedly disciplined for providing information to the department.

Now Pride flags and book disputes are key flashpoints in the Central Bucks race.

The Stop Bucks Extremism committee led by Republican operative Bob Salera has sent thousands of fliers to voters that reprinted explicit images from titles pulled from school shelves and described a “Neighbors United” slate of five liberal school board candidates as “fighting to keep these books in our middle school and high school libraries.” 

Martino told POLITICO he gave Salera’s organization “a seed check” at its launch, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars he contributed to his own committees this year. That includes Bucks Families For Leadership, which supports five conservative “Central Bucks Forward” candidates.

Bucks Families For Leadership has in turn directed tens of thousands of dollars in spending to consulting and canvassing work from Republican operatives, campaign filings reviewed by POLITICO show, including Axiom Strategies and the Breakwall Group founded by former National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Chris Pack.

Pennsylvania’s largest state teachers union has meanwhile given nearly $30,000 to the Neighbors United slate, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer tally that concluded the Central Bucks race has garnered more than $600,000 in political spending through Oct. 23 — with Democrats scraping together the largest share.

“This campaign is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Karen Smith, an incumbent Central Bucks board member and former Republican now running with the Neighbors United slate.

“I have 50 volunteers who are doing everything from door knocking, to making phone calls, to making signs,” she said in an interview. “The amount of money that’s being spent on this race, the amount of volunteerism is like nothing we’ve ever seen here before. But then the negativity, the vitriol, the intensity, and the lying is like nothing I’ve ever seen or could have imagined.”

Stephen Mass, Smith’s Republican opponent, likened the election’s scrutiny and competition to a “double-edged sword.”

“The bad part is we get riled up a little bit too much,” Mass told POLITICO. “I don’t know why it’s gotten that vicious. The good part is people are paying attention. They should be. It’s unfortunate that it’s come with a lot of real negativity and divisiveness.”

Similar issues have torn at other districts in Bucks County, where more than a dozen districts have Nov. 7 elections scheduled. But at least one local Republican operative worries some board candidates are running their races in an overly partisan way.

“Some people who don’t know what they’re doing and taking advice from longtime political operatives — not only are they not necessarily getting the best advice, but they’re spending a hell of a lot of money potentially for it,” said Lois Kaneshiki, a Republican consultant who founded the Take Back Our Schools PAC, once served as Moms For Liberty’s state coordinator in Pennsylvania, and is backing conservative Cumberland County candidates.

“I don’t believe they should be run like a state house or a state senate campaign,” Kaneshiki said of school races. “If you run them too partisan, you’re going to lose. You’ve got to run them differently, and the left understands this. They are very good at it, and I would say we are not.”

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