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Conservatives’ school board victories could give Texas GOP momentum for November elections

Texas schools.JPG
Miranda Lipton
/
The Texas Tribune
Students line up for lunch at Austin’s Linder Elementary School in January. Texas Republicans are increasingly getting involved in local elections, including several school board races held Saturday in which a number of conservative candidates won.

State Republicans say conservative wins in local school board elections on Saturday mean parents are taking a stand against “left-wing” ideologies.

Voters across Texas on Saturday elected a bevy of conservative Texas school board candidates, emboldening state Republicans who are increasingly getting involved in nonpartisan local elections.

GOP leaders portray the victories as parents rejecting what they call left-wing ideologies — and getting behind the notions that critical race theory is being taught in schools and that children are given access to overly sexualized books. And school board campaign vows to rid schools of critical race theory come after the Texas Legislature last year passed a law limiting how race, the history of slavery and current events are taught in schools. It was dubbed the “critical race theory” bill, even though the legislation never mentioned the term.

“Republicans dominated school board races across Texas because parents are fed up with left-wing garbage,” said Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi, who declined to be interviewed for this story but provided a statement. “The Republican Party of Texas will continue to support education over indoctrination and plans to expand our efforts in local and nonpartisan races.”

But more GOP involvement in local politics may not be the only effect of Saturday’s elections. Experts believe campaigning on culture wars is a winning strategy for the GOP. And, they say, it will embolden Republicans to continue passing laws based on political wedge issues during next year’s legislative session.

“The state party wants to continue to ride this wave,” said Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Teachers and public education experts have repeatedly pointed out that critical race theory — a university-level concept that examines how racism shapes laws and policies — is not taught in K-12 public schools. And many of the books targeted for removal from school libraries in recent months tell the stories of LGBTQ characters and people of color.

But Texas Republicans are following a national playbook of feeding off conservative parents' fears that “critical race theory” is being taught in public schools and children are being exposed to obscene sexual content.

Conservative school board candidates saw victories across the state, but most notably, they won big in Tarrant County, which has been moving away from its perch as one of America’s reddest urban counties. The county had 10 candidates win their races with the backing of the conservative Patriot Mobile Action PAC, which poured half a million dollars into the races.

In the Lake Travis Independent School District, northwest of Austin, all three conservative candidates backed by the Lake Travis Families PAC secured seats on the school board. And in Katy, a Houston suburb, a candidate promising to “remove graphic, vulgar books” and “resist efforts to sexualize our children at an early age” handily defeated his opponents.

The Texas GOP paraded the school board win as a victory for the party. The state party says it is fighting hard to elect conservative candidates from governor all the way to the school board.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term in November, has said that the “power of parents will continue to expand.” He is campaigning on his support for a so-called “parental bill of rights,” even though parents already have such rights outlined in the state’s education code.

Days after the recent school board races, Abbott voiced his support for a long-sought goal that has eluded conservatives in Texas: giving parents the option to send their kids to private school “with state funding following the student.”

Critics of so-called school vouchers say they hurt public schools because they divert state funding away from public school districts.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick echoed Abbott’s support for such vouchers.

“Texas has over 5 million students in our public school system. That’s more students than some states have people,” Patrick said in a press release this week. “We can support school choice and, at the same time, create the best public education system in America. These issues are not in conflict with each other.”

Patrick also wants the Texas Legislature next year to pass a law that mirrors Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which is a conservative push to limit classroom discussions about LGBTQ people. Both Abbott and Patrick made parental rights a priority as they both seek reelection in November.

Patrick did not immediately respond to an interview request. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, a leading figure in recent conservative policy, did not respond to an interview request. State Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, who co-authored the state’s first critical race theory law, did not immediately respond to an interview request.

State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who serves on the House Public Education Committee, said lawmakers next year need to focus on the real issues the public education system is facing, such as learning loss due to COVID-19, the teacher shortage and mental health challenges, he said.

“The issues that schools have been facing over the past two years have nothing to do with what the [Republican] party is focused on,” Bernal said. “I give them credit for manufacturing these issues to distract from the real ones and the big ones that are facing us.”

Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the Republican party is showing that it is more interested in ideological policy rather than materially helping the public school systems.

Robison suspects that the conservative candidates who won these school board races will lobby in Austin for ideological issues such as parental rights and school vouchers.

“The Legislature needs to reset its focus from this ideology and reset it on really funding public education,” he said.