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For two years, school boards across Wisconsin have been the stage for culture war battles over school closures, mask mandates, education about race and LGBTQ issues.
The rapid polarization and nationalization of local education debates has been alarming to some observers as the fights get infused into larger statewide debates and political races. Republican candidates for governor have tried to influence local school board fights, seeing them as a way to mobilize their conservative base in off-year elections.
Last year, gubernatorial frontrunner and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch attempted to put her thumb on the scales of a school board recall election in the Mequon-Thiensville School District. In Oconomowoc, three members of the school board resigned, citing its “toxic” environment. Around the same time, a group of parents chased the school board around the hallways of Burlington High School after the unruly crowd forced the suspension of a meeting.
Local school board races have been injected with partisan money and party campaign infrastructure. The races, which have historically focused on more local concerns, are now debates on hot-button national political issues.
Now, just days before the state’s spring election, in which school board seats across the state are on the ballot, the strategy faces another test.
“They’ve doubled down on turning this into a partisan race at the local level,” says John Norcross, an Oconomowoc resident whose children attend school in nearby Arrowhead. “You’re no longer thinking ‘this is Harry, this is Jane on the school board,’ you’re now looking at them as a representative of a party and trying to implement a partisan agenda. They’re looking at who’s got the majority of votes now. Even in Arrowhead, there are no liberals on that board, but they’ve labeled them as liberals because they don’t pass some sort of purity test. It’s a race to the bottom. It turns a school board or common council into a version of the state Assembly.”
Norcross says his concern with this trend is that it pushes important topics off of the board’s agenda. So instead of focusing on how to attract and hold onto quality teachers, the board is voting on which bathrooms transgender students can use and the curriculum of AP Literature classes.
Last October, the Arrowhead School Board passed a policy that forbids teaching “that individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin are inherently responsible for actions committed by other, unrelated members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.” The policy also expressly forbids the teaching of “critical race theory,” which is a graduate school-level framework that states American history and institutions are shaped by racism.
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Critical race theory has become a common target of Republicans across the country. Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature introduced a number of bills this session that would ban the concept from K-12 and university education.
For Norcross, these fights are a distraction from more important policy decisions.
“You’ve got discussions around masks, age-appropriate books, transgender bathrooms, and it drives out discussions about hiring teachers, attracting talent, expending capital investments on infrastructure,” he says. “We’re distracted from the real issues going on. Arrowhead enacted a ban on CRT. [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Kevin Nicholson came to speak to the board. This resulted in teachers having to curtail what’s being taught. They had to choose a different text for AP literature.”
Norcross says there’s a group of parents and community members who are tired of the non-stop fighting over the school board and attacks against the people who have signed up for the job. There’s always another recall campaign, another election cycle, another issue bringing enough ire that the police need to attend school board meetings.
“My sense is that there’s a group of people who have become so tired of this now,” he says. “Every single election cycle, it’s just constant. The mailers, flyers, there’s a level of fatigue among some people. Amongst another group, there’s a camp who really wants to take over the school board, they’re the true believers. Then there’s a group of people who are a mix who don’t want to see this turn into a partisan battle. We accept we’ve got conservatives and liberals on our school board, but it’s our school board. It’s like the old saying — ‘They may be an idiot but they’re our idiot.’”
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