GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Schools have become targets for the country’s culture wars, with part of those battles playing out in the local board of education races that will be decided in the Nov. 8 election.
National forces are drawing attention to wedge issues at the local level and candidates are choosing sides. In some districts, candidates crowd the ballot.
Target 8 investigators counted 170 people running for 84 seats in Kent County alone. Four years ago, only 97 people ran for 77 positions.
They are running for jobs that are mostly about setting budgets and routine policies. But this time, the campaigns are marked by arguments over school priorities, sexuality and how to teach about race issues.
In the Forest Hills Public School District, the four-member conservative slate, for example, wants the schools to stay away from “promoting social justice and sexuality” and leave that to parents. That has brought out other candidates who are running to counter the conservative attacks by arguing “we need to discuss diversity.”
“I think schools frequently become the catalyst or the focal point for a lot of national anxiety,” said Dr. Molly Patterson, the chair of the Aquinas College Political Science Department. “When we are divided as a society about fairly abstract things, sometimes we need a place to figure out where we’re going to have that argument and a lot of our anxieties frequently focus around our children.”
For years, the main national interest in local school elections came from the local affiliates of big teachers unions. But this election is different because there are national conservative organizations backing local school board candidates. A group formed last year in Florida and now operating nationwide called Moms for Liberty has a new chapter in Kent County. It has endorsed 42 conservative candidates in 15 school board races. According to a report last week in USA Today, a national conservative organization called the 1776 Project PAC (Political Action Committee) has endorsed candidates in two Berrien County school board races.
Target 8 investigators found another group called the American Principles Project that has reportedly helped fund school candidates in Florida has registered to operate in Michigan.
“This is an unusual election,” Grand Valley State University political scientist Roger Moiles said. “We don’t normally see this much attention put on candidates for school board.”
“I think this is driven by a lot of national forces,” he added.
Moiles said it’s about more than getting conservatives elected to school boards. He said there is “a national strategy to get people out to vote at the bottom of the ticket to help that candidate at the top.”
He said it’s a strategy that has worked before on a smaller scale and could keep the schools in the culture war crosshairs for years.
“I think this ultimately is to set the bigger picture, to lead up into an election, a presidential election two years from now,” Moiles said.