Interest in running for the school board is on the rise nationwide. According to Ballotpedia, only 25% of school board races are unopposed this year, compared to 35% last year and 40% in 2018.

  • By Danielle Kurtzleben/NPR

Octavio Jones/Getty Images

TAMPA, FL – JULY 27: Families protest any potential mask mandates ahead of the Hillsborough County School Board meeting held at the District Office on July 27, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that those vaccinated wear masks indoors, including students returning to school.

Many people who come to school boards are parents or teachers; Maryam Zafar, 19, is neither.

“I have a lot of experience very close to a lot of the people we are meant to serve as a school board,” she said. “And just because of my age, people automatically know that I have a unique perspective, whether they’ve heard it or not.”

Zafar is a student at the University of Texas-Austin, and also a 2020 graduate of McNeil High School, in Austin, Texas, in the suburb of Round Rock.

“I’m really privileged to have been here; it gave me a lot of opportunities, but it wasn’t always a healthy or safe space for me and my friends, especially when it came to sexual harassment and assault,” she said in the post. courtyard of Round Rock High School on a recent spring afternoon. , as the students left school for the day. “I was in ROTC, which was the Air Force program at my high school. And so a lot of my job that I kind of took on my responsibility was trying to deal with any kind of harassment cases that came up.

That experience, she says, made her want to be a school board member for that district. To prepare for his run, Zafar did workouts with the progressive group Run for Something.

The group has for years recruited people to run in many different offices, but co-founder Amanda Litman says they are making new efforts in school boards.

“One of the things we’ve realized after 2020 is that we need to focus on these local positions like school boards,” Litman said. “There is such a need for a broad progressive focus on these local positions. There are more than 80,000 elected positions on school boards across the country. About 21,000 of them are up this year.

A spike in attention in school boards

Interest in running for the school board is on the rise nationwide. According to Ballotpedia, only 25% of school board races are unopposed this year, compared to 35% last year and 40% in 2018.

Because school board elections are overwhelmingly nonpartisan, it’s hard to quantify who or what is behind all that energy.

But then there’s been an undeniable surge of conservative enthusiasm around school politics over the past few years, especially around national issues like race, LGBTQ and COVID issues. Groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education are among groups working to tap into parental frustration.

Progressives like Litman at Run for Something hope to ensure they have their own source of organizing — not to mention funding — to counter right-wing enthusiasm.

“The far right is investing a ton in external PAC spending. We saw that the Leadership Institute, which is a Koch Brothers-funded non-profit organization that provides conservative training for officers and activists, presented programs in school boards throughout the year,” said Litman. “Moms for Liberty focuses on school board positions and candidate support. They therefore double and triple. Here we must also.

School board politics become more partisan

It’s not entirely new that politics at the national level is part of school board elections – in the 90s, conservative parents targeted the teaching of sex ed and evolution. Likewise, opposition to the No Child Left Behind policy galvanized some parents under President George W. Bush.

But the political landscape has changed dramatically.

“What’s different this time is the coordination, the funding, and then the social media that’s really able to get a very cohesive message out to so many school districts so quickly,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, professor of educational policy at Michigan State University, “whereas in previous eras, before the internet and social media, these things happened, but at much slower paces. And in some ways, that slower pace gave rise to alternative voices , voices that may have moderated the discussion.

And she says she worries that this kind of polarization at the local level could have worrying long-term effects for the public school system.

“Schools are really kind of the last hurdle in our support of a great public institution,” Jacobsen said. “And so I think that’s perhaps the biggest impact of that than anything, whether politics becomes X or Y. I think if we continue to believe that our local schools are good for all children and that I want to continue to send my children there and the taxes to support it. This is, for me, the biggest question.

Round Rock has seen tensions at the national level play out locally – a turbulent September meeting, where parents and board members clashed over masking, resulted in two arrests.

Zafar says she worries about the politicization of the meetings.

“I’ve definitely seen that here,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of disruption in our school board around mask mandates, and there’s been a lot of lawsuits about it, and it’s disrupted the focus on student outcomes and health and wellbeing. students. ”

At a board meeting this spring, Christy Slape said social media and YouTube have helped galvanize area parents like her. She came to the meeting to talk about books that she found, in her own words, too sexual. She had first heard about the books when another parent complained at school.

“It just kicked off a whole thing, basically like a snowball of parents wanting to know more about the books that were in the classroom and then what other books were available in the libraries,” she said. “And so across the country, there’s just been a snowball effect of parents wanting to check their libraries and see what books are available in their libraries.”

Intensely local combat

Slape spoke, but books weren’t on the agenda that night. Overall, this board meeting was not about cultural hot spots, but rather district concerns such as student recognition and staff salary increases. It’s a point that can be obscured by viral video clips of rowdy school board meetings: local school board politics very often aren’t about national cultural conversations, but rather about more mundane but vital local topics, like the issues of bonds.

Along these lines, Litman says she advises candidates to stick to concrete local solutions, as opposed to debating things like critical race theory.

“You really want to get to the bottom of the problem, which is people are worried about the quality of the school. What can you do to fix that?” she says. it’s pretty boring, but it’s also the things that are very specific and tangible that you can fix.

But then school board members may face problems they cannot solve. The school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, brought gun violence to the forefront for Zafar, who grew up in an era of school closures.

“It’s been a very big issue for me since I was a kid – I used to have nightmares about being shot,” she said.

But she’s also realistic about anything a school board member can do about the shootings.

“I don’t think we can do much about the weapons themselves,” she said. “I think all we’re doing is security policies, locking people up and making sure people have the education they need to know what to do in the event of a lockdown.”

Meanwhile, Litman says she hopes the members can have an influence beyond their schools.

“I really think that in many cases the place for school board members is what can they do to push state legislators? How can school board members use their political platform and bullying pulpit to help advocate for broader statewide change? ” she says.

While national politics has filtered down to school boards, in other words, she hopes some members’ political views will filter up.