You’ve probably seen videos of angry parents and activists accosting school board members and turning school board meetings into culture-war battlegrounds. The current wave of attacks on school boards over mask requirements, LGBTQ-inclusive school policies, and curriculum that teaches about the hard truths of our country’s history is not an organic uprising of dissatisfied parents but the product of a coordinated right-wing strategy. It’s a propaganda campaign with a political purpose, meant to foment fear and anger to help right-wing groups and candidates win political power at the local, state, and national levels in 2022 and 2024.
Right Wing Watch’s reporting on the array of right-wing groups mobilizing school board protests and takeover attempts this year led to an invitation to talk about the topic on “On Point,” a National Public Radio show produced by WBUR in Boston and hosted by Meghna Chakrabarti. Also appearing on the Oct. 14 show was a representative of Heritage Action, the political arm of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, one of the groups producing materials about the supposed threat of “critical race theory” and fishing for anecdotes that right-wing media can use to create controversy, stir up fear and anger, and mobilize right-wing activists and voters.
The following is a look at the current right-wing playbook to turn schools into a political battleground.
Much of the anger directed at school boards has been about the supposed threat of “critical race theory”—and by that, critics mean just about any recognition of the racism in our history and society.
Critical race theory is an academic framework for studying the existence and impact of systemic racism. It argues that racism is not just about personal belief or personal interactions but also about the way that bias and discrimination are embedded in our institutions.
But in the hands of the right, the term has lost most of its meaning, and fears of “critical race theory” have been manufactured by right-wing think-tank scholar Christopher Rufo with the help of Fox News and Donald Trump. Rufo has even admitted that he has sought to make “critical race theory” a boogeyman, a toxic brand that right-wing activists can slap on everything they don’t like.
One glaring example came from the Family Research Council’s recent conference for religious-right activists, where former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a notorious promoter of voter suppression efforts, claimed federal voting rights legislation is an example of critical race theory at work. Some religious-right activists have called critical race theory a “spiritual stronghold” and “tool of the devil.”
It’s hard to imagine taking an honest look at racial disparities in this country and the policies that contributed to them—whether that’s land being taken unjustly from Black farmers or Black homeowners being forced into more expensive and riskier mortgages—and insist that there is no systemic racism in the United States.
It is dishonest to claim that educators who are trying to address those inequities or who respond to racist incidents in their communities are part of a nefarious Marxist plot to replace the U.S. government with communist tyranny. That’s the kind of language being used by right-wing activists and media to inflame emotions and generate anger toward teachers and school boards.
This extreme dishonesty was on full display this past month as Republican politicians and right-wing media portrayed the National School Boards Association’s recent request for help from the Justice Department to deal with the surge in harassment and threats against school board members as a Marxist effort to quash dissent.
On the very day that “On Point” covered the attack on school boards, the Heritage Foundation’s “news” service, The Daily Signal, claimed in an email that the National School Boards Association had asked President Biden “to treat concerned parents as domestic terrorists.” The letter did not do that, of course. It asked for assistance dealing with “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation.” An Oct. 4 memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland called for coordinated efforts to address the rise in “criminal conduct” directed toward educators. The memo noted that the Constitution protects “spirited debate” but not harassment or threats of violence. Nobody—including the Justice Department—wants to investigate parents for showing up at school board meetings to express their opposition to school policies. The Republicans who insist so are lying.
The right-wing attack on school boards stokes division and is harmful to students, educators, and communities.
It is harmful for all students—students of color and white students alike—to see political leaders denying the impact of racism in our country and trying to portray efforts to address racism as something evil. These efforts to deny systemic racism are often partnered with attacks on more inclusive LGBTQ curricula as sinister and dangerous; there’s no doubt such messages that effectively urge exclusion harm both LGBTQ and straight students.
Educators are being smeared, vilified, and harassed over false allegations and paranoia. One Black principle in Texas was accused of promoting critical race theory for having stated publicly that he believes systemic racism exists. Last month, the school board voted to terminate his contract. A Black school superintendent in Maryland was hounded out of her position after publicly stating that Black Lives Matter.
These campaigns have real word impact. There are videos from communities across the country of conservative parents and political operatives screaming at school board members about requirements that students wear masks or the supposed threat posed by conversations about racism, equity, and inclusion. Some school board officials have faced far worse, including stalking and threats of violence.
It is harmful for students—for all Americans, really—to get the message that we as a country cannot handle taking an honest look at the racism embedded in our history, culture, and institutions.
The campaign against “critical race theory” in school isn’t just remaining in school board meetings either. Some states are passing laws to restrict anti-racist teaching—even at the college level. In Idaho, where one such law was passed, one of the state Republican legislators said that teaching the classic anti-racist novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was evidence that critical race theory has been “creeping through our schools forever.” In Texas, a school official in Southlake told teachers that under the terms of a new Texas law, if they use a book about the Holocaust, they must also use one presenting an “opposing” viewpoint.
Speaking of Southlake, there’s a reason that school officials there might be skittish. In 2018, a video showing some high school students shouting the n-word went viral, leading the school district to propose a plan to make schools more inclusive and welcoming. But a group of mostly white parents called the plan “Marxist” and generated a huge backlash that ended with opponents of the diversity plan overwhelmingly winning seats on the school board and city council and even getting elected mayor in elections held in May.
I’m sure that right-wing political groups looked at Southlake and thought, “Now there’s a model for us to replicate.”
The dark-money-funded targeting of school boards is not simply a grassroots uprising but a political campaign by organizations across the right-wing political movement: the Republican Party, “Trumpworld” activists, Koch-brothers-funded political networks, religious-right groups—you name it. It includes a record number of recall campaigns targeting elected school board members. Right-wing school board takeovers and the power to shape what happens in schools and classrooms are goals in themselves; getting involved in a campaign or being elected to a school board can also be stepping-stones to greater political engagement and higher office.
In the same way that so-called Stop the Steal rallies mixed lies about the election with COVID-19 conspiracies, Christian nationalism, and other issues, angry crowds being mobilized against school boards are venting a blend of right-wing grievances over teaching about racism, LGBTQ-inclusive school policies, and what they call “tyrannical” vaccine and mask requirements.
For example, anti-LGBTQ North Carolina Christian nationalist Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has railed about “indoctrination” in schools and said the church has to “wrestle it away.” He told a church audience that he has given up on the state school board because all they do is talk about “equity,” and argued that the church is the key to ending critical race theory.
Right-wing groups have long used public schools as culture-war battlegrounds, trying to control the content of textbooks and censor teaching and classroom materials. These current controversies are being pushed by activists and organizations with a track record of sowing distrust in public schools as a way to further their long-term goal of privatizing public education.
The same forces that rage about supposed “censorship” of conservative voices are demanding laws to ban honest teaching about racism. The same forces who say they oppose “indoctrination” in schools are seeking to impose what they call “patriotic education” on students. The same organizations that complain about “cancel culture” have set up multiple systems urging people to send in anonymous reports about evidence of “critical race theory” in schools—by which they mean the use of terms like diversity, inclusion, and systemic racism.
Some of the players
Many members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive strategy-sharing network that brings together groups and leaders from different parts of the right-wing movement, are actively involved in efforts to spread disinformation, foment anger, and mobilize right-wing voters and candidates to take over local school boards, which often serve as a stepping-stone to higher office. Another right-wing network, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is also working to counter the supposed threat of critical race theory and inspiring state legislators to back legislation to ban teaching of critical race theory. Here’s what some of the other players are doing:
- The Leadership Institute, which has trained right-wing activists for decades, is running in-person and online candidate trainings to teach conservatives how to run for school boards to “stop the teaching of critical race theory before it destroys the fabric of our nation.” In May, a speaker for the Institute said that “the energy around this right now is white hot” and told his audience, “Conservatives are preparing a school board takeover, and you can get involved.”
- Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action are promoting an activist toolkit and eBook on opposing critical race theory. They urge people to report examples of critical race theory in their local schools. A representative of Heritage Action spoke at a recent rally outside a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, a school district targeted by national right-wing groups.
- FreedomWorks also sent a representative to a recent Loudoun County rally, where he talked about the group’s efforts to help people run for office and “take back the school boards one seat at a time.” A FreedomWorks email claimed that the group held 66 events in 10 states, training more than 2,000 activists and recruiting candidates to run for school board, where “they can take direct action to root out CRT and any other left-wing indoctrination.”
- Family Research Council has been raising money for school board takeovers to “protect the hearts and minds of the next generation from the left-wing agenda.” FRC President Tony Perkins has called it an “unexpected blessing” that online education during the COVID-19 pandemic exposed parents to supposedly “anti-faith, anti-family, anti-America indoctrination.” Perkins claims that more than 1,200 parents and concerned citizens took part in FRC Action’s virtual “School Board Boot Camp” in June.
- Turning Point USA is targeting school boards over “evil” mask requirements and “radical” training on bias and inequality. TPUSA founder and president Charlie Kirk is involved in an effort to recall four of five school board members in Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona.
- Citizens for Renewing America is training activists to swarm school board meetings and has its own toolkit, which is also being promoted by the pro-Trump “prayer warriors” at Intercessors for America. Citizens for Renewing America is a group founded by Russell Vought, a former Trump administration official who wrote a memo banning anti-racism trainings by federal agencies and contractors.
- Recover America is targeting three Houston-area school districts, among the nation’s largest. Speaking about a recent school board election, Recover America’s founder Rick Scarborough said “one megachurch motivated in that district could have swung the tide in favor of a more conservative candidate.” The longtime religious-right activist first got involved in political work over his opposition to the way his daughter’s school was teaching about AIDS and sex education.