WESTLAKE, Ohio — Michael Johns doesn’t want to see Democrats “destroy our school system from the inside out,” which is why he ran for a seat this year on his local school board.
“The majority of all the tax money goes to the schools … that’s why the Democrats want to control it,” Johns, 62, said at a recent GOP meeting in this northeast Ohio suburb.
Johns, a father of two teens and owner of a manufacturing business, didn’t win his race in Parma, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. But the issues that prompted him to run — what he sees as not enough parental control and too much Democratic control on public school boards — aren’t resolved, and he predicts they will be a deciding factor in how he votes in future statewide GOP primaries that mostly have nothing to do with his school board.
“We’ve allowed our control to get too far away from us,” Johns told HuffPost after the meeting. “Everything is decided without us having any say whatsoever.”
Earlier this month, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race by appealing to parents and their anger toward public schools, which exploded during the pandemic. That race, and others showing a GOP resurgence in swing-prone suburbs, are seen as foreshadowing a brutal midterm election for Democrats. With the election less than a year away, Republicans are hoping to build on the conditions and messaging that worked for them this year — President Joe Biden’s weak poll numbers, inflation, supply chain snags and the reckoning over public education.
In GOP races up and down the ballot, broadly opposing the perceived teaching of critical race theory and mask mandates has become standard fare for Republicans. CRT has origins in academia, but Republicans have turned “critical race theory” into a catchall term for essentially any teachings having to do with racism and history in public schools. Districts across the country have pushed back, arguing there’s no actual CRT in elementary, middle or high school curricula.
Still, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, led a successful campaign to ban purported CRT in schools, calling it “state-sanctioned racism.” Nevada Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt, who is trying to oust a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, has pledged to implement a system to let parents report supposed instances of CRT directly to his office, according to Townhall, a right-wing news site.
At the same time, Democrats are trying to figure out how to counter Republicans on race issues, particularly since in Youngkin’s contest, the emphasis on CRT and other race-coded messaging didn’t dampen his support among voters of color.
“This should terrify Democrats. With our democracy on the line, we have to forge an effective counterattack on race while rethinking the false choice between mobilizing base voters or persuading swing voters,” Democratic activist Tory Gavito and former Sen. Harry Reid staffer Adam Jentleson wrote in a post-election New York Times op-ed.
In Ohio, Republican Senate candidate Jane Timken made campaign contributions to more than 40 school board candidates running on conservative platforms. About half of them won. Just after this month’s election, Timken began a “parents first” listening tour aimed at prospective supporters with an eye toward education.
At a bar and grill in Westlake recently, Timken demonstrated how one candidate is trying to translate the grassroots energy around parental rights into a statewide primary win.
Timken, a mother of two adult children, said she sensed the parental uprising brewing in the spring, before it erupted nationally. At the time, many school buildings were still closed and backlash to CRT was relatively new.
“Long before it became a national topic, I was listening to parents and I was talking to them. They came to me and said, ‘Do you know what’s happening in our schools?’ Because the pandemic opened people’s eyes. There was an awakening in parents,” Timken told the group as they snacked on spicy chicken wings in the restaurant’s tight back room.
“Let me tell you, they poked the mama and papa bears,” she said. “Parents want to have a say in their children’s education.”
After the event, Timken brought up the clumsy debate answer that Republicans believe ultimately sank Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, in the governor’s race.
“Terry McAuliffe said the quiet part out loud — that parents shouldn’t have any say in what their kids are being taught in schools,” Timken told HuffPost, referring to a comment McAuliffe made about why he opposed parents removing books from school libraries. “I think the Democrats have weaponized this. You see so many caring people who just want to have a say in their children’s education.”
For some parents, it was the mask mandates and virtual learning that pushed them over the edge. For others, it was the teaching of anti-racist curricula and sex education, and allowing students to use bathrooms that best match their gender identity, not necessarily the gender they were assigned at birth.
These issues aren’t outwardly the same, but underpinning them is the tug-of-war over parental rights that has become the newest battlefront for the two parties. Republicans want more parental oversight in public education; Democrats want to empower teachers and experts. Democrats embrace diversity and inclusion efforts; Republicans view them skeptically and say they create more division.
“Parental rights is a big issue,” said Rick Cyngier, who has been a school board member in Brooklyn, Ohio, for the past 10 years. He was one of the candidates who ran this year with the backing of a conservative Christian group, Ohio Value Voters, whose anti-CRT, pro-parents’ rights slate, like others nationwide, had mixed success.
“I put on my signs, ‘No CRT. No woke culture. No cancel culture. Baseline education.’ People need to know where we’re coming from,” Cyngier, a mortgage loan officer, said.
Among the things Timken said parents have complained about to her recently: students forced to answer pronoun questionnaires and learn “comprehensive” sex education without parental consent. Timken described a district in central Ohio where a woman named “Miss Rosemary,” who wasn’t a certified teacher, was brought into classrooms to teach sex education to elementary school students, which shocked and angered parents, she said.
Most of the people at Timken’s midday event last Thursday, who skewed older and white, had concerns that straddled local and national issues. They were worried about job prospects for graduates, student loan debt and high school graduates being steered toward expensive liberal arts degrees instead of more practical vocational training.
They complained that younger people would rather stay home and collect government money than enter the workforce ― even though the extra federal unemployment payment that helped people who lost their jobs during the pandemic expired in September, and unemployment is trending lower.
“We’re going to wake up in a nightmare eventually,” said Lucy Stickan, a local GOP officer in her 50s who worries that younger generations haven’t been able to build wealth like their parents and grandparents. “These kids better get back in trades and they better get back to work … Sometimes people have to suffer before they learn the truth, and unfortunately that’s what happened with our country.”
Johns, the former school board candidate, told Timken that locally, he fears Democrats overseeing large municipal budgets and outperforming Republicans in early absentee voting.
Nationally, he objects to Biden’s enhanced child tax credit — which reduced child poverty by 40% in July, according to one study — going to poor families that don’t earn any income or don’t make enough to file a federal tax return.
“What good is the tax credit when you haven’t paid any taxes?” Johns said. “If you’ve paid no taxes, you should reserve that for the day you actually earn some money and reduce your tax bill.”
Stickan encouraged school board candidates, even the ones like Johns who didn’t win, to keep at it, seeing their movement as a new avenue for the party to attract voters and attention.
“I’ve been involved for a long time and I don’t remember ever seeing this interest in schools,” she said. “So I kind of think we should take these lemons and make lemonade.”