How Republicans and Democrats In the battle for control of Congress this fall, a growing number of conservative political action groups are turning their efforts closer to home: local school boards.

Their goal is to gain control of more school systems and oppose what they see as a liberal trend in public education classrooms, libraries, sports fields and even building plans.

School board elections, once seen as sleepy affairs with little interest outside their communities, began heating up last year as parents expressed frustration with pandemic politics. As these issues fade, right-wing groups are spending millions on candidates who promise to reduce race and sexuality education, remove offensive books from libraries and abandon plans for gender-neutral bathrooms or transgender sports teams.

Democrats are countering their own campaigns portraying Republicans as extremists who want to ban books and rewrite history.

At the heart of the conservative effort is Project 1776 PAC, which was created last year to oppose New York Times‘ 1619 Project, which offers free lesson plans centered on slavery and its lasting effects in US history. Last fall and this spring, the 1776 group succeeded in building conservative majorities into office in dozens of school districts across the US, pushing candidates who fired superintendents and passed sweeping “bills of rights” for parents.

On the wave of recent victories in Texas and Pennsylvania — and having spent $2 million between April 2021 and August of this year, according to campaign finance filings, the group is campaigning for dozens of candidates this fall. He supports candidates in Frederick and Carroll counties in Maryland, Bentonville, Arkansas, and 20 candidates in southern Michigan.

Its candidates won not only in deeply red districts, but also in districts near liberal bastions, including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. And after this November, the group hopes to expand further.

“Where we normally shouldn’t win, we won,” said Ryan Girdusky, the group’s founder. “I think we can do it again.”

In Florida, recent school board races have drawn attention — and money — from conservative groups, including those that have never run in a school board race.

The American Principles Project, a Washington-based think tank, has committed a total of $25,000 to four Polk County Council candidates. The group made its first foray into school boards at the request of local activists, its leader said, and is weighing whether to continue elsewhere. The group’s average fundraising has grown from less than $50,000 a year before the pandemic to about $2 million now.

“We’re leaning heavily toward the return of federal authority,” said Terry Schilling, president of the think tank. “But unless you also take control of the local school boards, you’re not going to have the local allies there to actually reverse the policies these guys have put in place.”

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed a slate of school board candidates in a move never seen before in the state, backing conservatives who share his opposition to sexuality education and what he sees as critical race theory. Most of the candidates supported by DeSantis won their August races, in some cases replacing conservative members who held more moderate views than the fireman governor.

The movement claims to be a force opposing left-wing teachers’ unions. They see unions as a well-funded enemy that promotes radical lessons about race and sexuality in the classroom — a favorite pledge is to call unions “groomers.” Unions, which also support the candidates, called it a fabrication designed to fuel distrust of public schools.

In Frederick County, Maryland, Group 1776 supports three school board candidates against four supported by education unions. The Tories are running as ‘Education not Nurture’ with digital ads saying children are being ‘held captive’ in schools. The ad shows an image of a stack of books with the words “justice,” “care,” “nurture,” and “critical race theory.”

Karen Yoha, a board member who is running for re-election, said outsiders have stoked fears about critical race theory and other lessons not being taught in Frederick County.

Discourse in her region has largely remained civil, but Joha takes exception to accusations that teachers are “grooming” children.

“It disgusts me,” said Yoha, a retired teacher whose children have gone through the district. “My heart hurts. And then I get angry and defend myself.”

In Texas, Patriot Mobile — a wireless company that promotes conservative causes — has become a political force in school board races. Earlier this year, her political arm spent more than $400,000 of the $800,000 it raised to support candidates in several races in the north Texas district where the campaign is based. All his favorites won, giving the Conservatives control of four constituencies.

The group did not respond to requests for comment, but said in a statement released after the spring victories that Texas was “just the beginning.”

Some GOP strategists have warned against focusing on education, saying it could backfire on more moderate voters. The results are mixed so far – Project 1776 claims a 70% victory rate, but conservative candidates in some areas have failed in recent elections.

However, it seems that the number of groups that have come together under the umbrella of parental rights is only growing. It includes national organizations such as Moms for Freedom, as well as smaller grassroots groups.

“There is very strong resistance to concerted and deliberate efforts to make radical ideas about race and gender part of the school day. Parents don’t like it,” said Jonathan Butcher, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The foundation and its political wing have held training sessions encouraging parents to run for school boards, teaching them the basics of budgeting as well as the perceived dangers of what the group sees as critical race theory.

For decades, education has been treated as “its own little game” that has been fenced off from national politics, said Jeffrey Hennig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s College of Education who has written about outside funding for school board elections. Now, he said, local races are becoming a battleground for the broader debate.

He said education was unlikely to be a decisive issue in the November election — overshadowed by abortion and the economy — but it could still be used to “amplify local discontent” and push more voters to the polls.

Republicans are using this tactic this fall to dislodge Democrats from all levels of government.

In Michigan, the American Principles Project is paying for a television ad against the Democratic governor in which a narrator reads sexually suggestive passages from the graphic novel Gender Queer. It claims “this is the kind of literature Gretchen Whitmer wants your children to see,” while giant red letters read “stop grooming our children.”

Similar TV ads are being aired in Arizona with attacks on Sen. Mark Kelly and in Maine against Gov. Janet Mills, both Democrats.

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