AUSTIN – At busy intersections in this Texas town, a simple campaign slogan stands out among the candidate signs: “Teach ABCs + 123s, Not CRTs & LGBTs.”
School board elections in Round Rock, a rapidly growing and diverse Austin suburb, have become a blood sport. Parents are organizing political action committees, canvassing door-to-door, and engaging in online debate. National interest groups, political parties, and labour unions are all weighing in on what were previously nonpartisan elections.
The slogan belongs to Don Zimmerman, one of five conservative school board candidates running under the banner “One Family.” The organization rails against “political correctness” in schools, “leftist” teachers’ unions, “pornography” in school libraries, and LGBTQ-friendly policies.
Critical race theory (CRT), which contends that racism and prejudice are embedded in US laws and institutions, is one of their primary targets. Although public schools across the country have stated that the college-level theory is not being taught, it has become a catch-all term for critics of policies that promote equity and inclusion.
Tiffanie Harrison, a progressive and the first Black woman elected to the Round Rock school board, is running against Zimmerman. The challengers are dubbed the “hate slate” by Harrison and her supporters, who accuse them of inciting division. In response, Zimmerman frequently labels his critics on social media as “bigots” and “trolls,” claiming that his slate is attempting to raise the district’s academic standards.
The battle in Round Rock – which has echoed around the country – is an outgrowth of a surge of activism during the COVID-19 pandemic, when parents angry over mask and vaccine mandates disrupted school board meetings from Florida to Alaska.
Now that discontent is being harnessed by conservatives nationally. Republicans such as Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have put “parental rights” at the centre of their November re-election bids. Grassroots groups such as Moms For Liberty have lobbied legislatures, and outside PACs such as the 1776 Project have raised money nationwide to back hand-picked school board candidates.
The efforts show how Republicans, who have gained control of the majority of state legislatures and governor’s offices in the country – and appear on the verge of seizing at least one chamber of Congress in the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 8 – are now looking to consolidate power on the community level.
Ryan Girdusky, who founded the 1776 Project, estimated about 70% of his school board candidates have won in elections held so far this year. Victories in Democratic-leaning enclaves such as Miami, he said, speak to how their concerns cross party lines.
“People reorganize and reorient their entire lives around their children,” Girdusky said. “They don’t like their children being messed with.”
The Round Rock school district is ripe for political tension. Tech companies such as Apple and Dell have brought an influx of skilled workers, many of them Asians and other diverse groups. New residents have moved from nearby liberal Austin.
Williamson County, home to much of the school district and traditionally Republican-leaning, narrowly voted for President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in 2020.
The district sprawls across 110 square miles, with 56 campuses that house 48,000 pupils. White students make up about a third of the student population, down from 44% in 2012. Hispanic students make up nearly another third, while the percentage of Asian students has grown to 20% from 12%.
Like school districts across the country, Round Rock was upended by the pandemic. While its lockdown phase was shorter than most, a decision by the board to reinstate a mask mandate last fall as the Omicron variant spread proved divisive.
“We had to make tough choices,” Harrison said. “That’s when we really began to see the divide in our community.”
Zimmerman, speaking for the conservative slate, said the current board’s COVID policies led to extensive learning loss.
But it is Zimmerman’s rhetoric around race and gender that has Chuy Zarate, a local parent who is running for the school board, convinced the conservative slate is more concerned about the district’s changing demographics than the children.
Under the auspices of combatting critical race theory, Zimmerman has pledged to abolish the district’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which works to improve student outcomes for nonwhite students. While the district insists it does not teach CRT, conservatives view programs that promote diversity as examples of its spread.
Zarate fears the slate would also do away with texts aimed at Black and Hispanic students, and social and emotional teaching tools, which encourage children to develop empathy and healthy relationships.
“These guys don’t want success for all kids,” he said. “They want success for their kids.”
On Facebook, Zimmerman has mocked Zarate for painting his fingernails and said he is running to the extreme left to promote “rainbow” and “degenerate” LGBTQ values. Zimmerman has called Harrison “the queen” of Black Lives Matter and a “cultural Marxist.” In one post, he included their pictures under the title “Child Porn Lovers Guide to Board Elections.”
Zarate said he and his wife have considered leaving the state with their children, some of whom identify as LGBTQ if the conservatives take control.
“I’ve never seen it as terrifying as it is right now,” he said.
Follow The Money
In school board races where name recognition may be the most significant factor, a few thousand dollars can make a difference.
Earlier this year, the 1776 Project received an RM4264200.00 contribution from another conservative group, Restoration, a PAC backed by billionaire Richard Uihlein of Illinois, whose website says its mission is to “defeat leftists and the woke agenda.”
Girdusky said he’ll spend “thousands” in Round Rock to support the conservative One Family slate. To receive a 1776 Project endorsement, a candidate had to be opposed to masking mandates, school closures and the teaching of critical race theory.
Locally, the One Family slate is backed by a PAC of the same name that has helped stage events and purchase newspaper ads and road signs. The PAC reported raising about RM189520.00 as of Oct. 11 and still had RM75808.00 left to spend in the final weeks before the election, according to campaign finance records.
Jeremy Story, a local pastor and a founder of the PAC, said the slate aims to assume full control of the seven-member board and craft policy that reflects their views.
“We want to see change happen if we get elected. One person getting elected doesn’t make a change,” Story said.
Story said there were materials in the school libraries that cross the line into “outright pornography.” On Facebook, the slate has identified several books with the word “queer” in their titles as objectionable.
But, Story added, “our opponents want to turn this into book bannings or not trusting librarians. This is not the case. We need safeguards.”
The Texas Republican Party endorsed the conservative slate last month, saying in a resolution that it was concerned about “political indoctrination in the classroom.”
A group of alarmed liberal-leaning parents in Round Rock have formed their own PAC, Access Education, which had raised almost RM142140.00 as of Oct. 11.
The local teachers’ union has also endorsed a slate of more liberal candidates, as has the county Democratic Party.
Meenal McNary, a member of Access Education, hosts meetings at her house every Sunday, bringing in about a dozen local women to discuss the school board race.
“We have to talk to our neighbours,” McNary said. “This is about including everyone in our community, about lifting up every member of our community.”
Harrison, the current board member, said she had been barraged during the campaign with threats online and over the phone. Earlier this year, she said, she and two supporters received packages containing bloody tampons that she viewed as an attempt to intimidate her.
She said losing to Zimmerman would be devastating.
“School board elections are supposed to be nonpartisan,” Harrison said. “Children are not red or blue.” – Reuters
Reporting by James Oliphant Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Mohamad Taufiq and Claudia Parsons