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Hyper-local school board races are becoming more politicized, experts say

Parents sit in folding chairs at a Kingsley Area School Board meeting in Kingsley, Mich. (File/WPBN)
Parents sit in folding chairs at a Kingsley Area School Board meeting in Kingsley, Mich. (File/WPBN)
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Some of the most down-ballot, localized positions up for election on Nov. 8 have been getting more attention than ever this campaign season.

School board races snagged headlines as some candidates vow to bring partisan policies to boards that typically get less attention.

Campaigns to ban books in schools, open up health guidelines for students, and add more parental rights to students' curriculum have dominated headlines over the last few years.

“We hear a lot from our partners that their communities don’t really know what school boards do or why they matter," Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor for Campaign for Our Shared Future, said. "But now that the extremists are pushing these culture wars, a lot more voters are paying attention.”

Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy at the University of Michigan, said he started seeing a heightened political interest in school boards over the last few years, and that interest only ballooned with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“School boards I think even before COVID had started being more engaged in cultural issues, and I think in large part reflecting the polarization in society,” Jacob said.

For the Nov. 8 midterm election, one of the first major election since the pandemic, Jacob said some candidates have come to see their roles as not just about school policy, but about politics.

“I think the risk, frankly, is that they’ll lead to kind of more conflict within the board and within the community,” he said.

Michigan has already seen bills introduced in the statehouse that have targeted educators, including an unsuccessful attempt to implement a law that would generally bar teachers from talking about race and gender in the classroom.

Some candidates in the hyper-local school board races even get endorsements from national groups like Campaign for Our Shared Future, a self-proclaimed non-partisan effort aimed at supporting K-12 education.

“We’ve seen these extremists, especially in places like Michigan, push their values and culture wars into school boards and school houses, undermining how schools operate and corrupting the essential collaboration between parents and educators,” Buck said.

Campaign for Our Shared Future has focused some of its efforts in Michigan.

Of the group's 38 endorsed school board candidates nationally, ten are in the Mitten State.

“By endorsing, we make a clear statement about what a school board candidate should and can be – and that is an advocate for and a representative of parents, students, educators, and families,” Buck said.

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