HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — On Tuesday, voters across the U.S. largely rebuked conservative candidates in local school board elections who want to ban books and restrict classroom conversations on race and gender.
In recent years, down-ballot elections have become proxy votes for polarizing national issues. This time, liberal and moderate candidates took control in high-profile races in conservative Iowa, and the swing states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The American Federation of Teachers said that candidates endorsed by conservative groups such as Moms For Liberty and the 1776 Project, lost about 80% of their races nationally on Tuesday.
“They don’t want to engage in this banning of books or censoring of honest history or undermining who kids are,” Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president told The Associated Press on Wednesday, characterizing the candidates who won as “pro-public school.”
Conservative groups weren’t totally shut out though. In Pennsylvania’s York County, for instance, the 1776 Project’s political action committee said on social media that 36 of the 37 candidates they endorsed had won.
Michael Geer, president of PA Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit focused on social issues, called the results a “mixed bag.”
“What is clear, though, is that issues like reasonable standards for age-appropriate content for school children were on the minds of many voters; so too the lingering effects on learning caused by the COVID shutdowns, and issues like bathroom privacy and girls sports,” he said in a prepared statement.
School boards, usually nonpartisan, deal with the nitty-gritty of running a key community institution that decides curriculum standards and discipline policies for students, negotiates contracts with teachers unions and sets property tax rates for homeowners.
But they also deal with some of the most divisive issues.
Pennsylvania saw a number of Democratic victories in school boards, particularly in districts that have recently seen GOP-led school boards adopt policies targeting transgender students, as well as reading materials and curriculum on LGBTQ+ history.
Turn PA Blue, a partisan political organization, said Democrats gained control of at least seven school boards and gained ground in a half-dozen others in Pennsylvania, a swing state.
In the Central Bucks School District north of Philadelphia, Democrats flipped three seats, ousting the incumbent school board president, and retained two others, giving the party majority control. Democrats also wrested control of Bucks County school boards for Council Rock and Pennridge, where supporters never imagined they’d see so much success in the swing county after the recent gains of Moms for Liberty candidates.
At contentious school board meetings in Central Bucks in the past year, students who spoke out at meetings recalled experiences where they endured hearing slurs, hate speech and sometimes violence.
Many students felt more isolated after the board barred school staff from using students’ chosen names and pronouns without parental permission. The board also enforced policies of so-called “neutrality,” which prohibited classroom discussions that opponents say targeted LGBTQ+ students.
In a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, the six Republicans who controlled the board said they enacted the policies “to put the community’s wishes into action.”
“Some of us made these issues part of our campaigns to be members of the school board and were elected; we are simply upholding the campaign promises that the majority of voters wanted,” they wrote.
But strong opinions about these policies are precisely what drove people to the polls, said Bonnie Chang, the chairperson for Turn Bucks Blue.
“I think all of that made people understand that this has to change,” she said.
School board politics have also become contentious in Virginia since 2021, when Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin successfully campaigned on supporting “ parents’ rights ” in education.
He has criticized local school boards that prohibit schools from telling parents that their child identifies as transgender, and he is trying to roll back accommodations for transgender students.
In Spotsylvania County, in the far outer suburbs of the Washington, D.C. area, all four GOP-endorsed candidates lost to more liberal candidates.
A conservative board in that county was one of the first to enact Youngkin’s reforms, and the superintendent hired by that district pulled 13 books from library shelves, including “Beloved” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. Two board members went as far as to suggest that the books should be burned. One of those two, Kirk Twigg, lost his reelection race by almost 25 points.
In Loudoun County, where the school board has been beset by controversies for two years, particularly over its policies on transgender students, Democratic-endorsed candidates won or were leading in six of the nine school board races, although two Democratic incumbents lost or were trailing.
Meanwhile in Iowa, three candidates supported by Moms for Liberty were defeated in a district outside Cedar Rapids that has been in the national spotlight for its support of transgender students.
The race was targeted after the school board for Linn-Mar Community School District adopted a policy last year allowing students to request a gender transition plan that teachers, administrators and other students would know about without necessarily the permission of the students’ parents.
Before dropping out of the 2024 presidential race, former Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Cedar Rapids to rally opponents of the policy.
Parents sued over the policy, much of which became unenforceable after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed bills restricting which bathrooms transgender students can use and banning gender-affirming medical care. A subsequent federal court found that the use of the word “respect” in the policy was too vague.
“I think that that is a rejection of these policies and beliefs that public schools are bad,” said Brittania Morey, who won reelection to the Linn-Mar board with the support of those who oppose Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates. “It is a rejection of the belief that there is some sort of hidden agenda of indoctrination. None of that is happening.”
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Falls Church, Virginia; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this article.