Tim Rosenau, 50, is running for school board in Bentonville, Ark., where his daughter teaches. If elected, Rosenau wants to work to increase the percentage of students who can read at grade level and ensure teacher salaries reflect the area’s higher cost of living. He also has concerns about critical race theory.
“We don’t have a full-fledged issue here by any means, and you have a lot of people who would be debating right now whether or not we see CRT in our curriculum,” Rosenau said. “But I think I have enough evidence to suggest that some level of it is finding its way. These things never come at you as a tidal wave – they kind of creep in.”
Two weeks ago, Rosenau received an endorsement from the Political Action Committee of Project 1776, a national group focused on school board campaigns.
As education becomes more polarized, more conservatives are focusing on school board elections. Some organizations support school board candidates, while others train parents on how to run for school board positions.
The Project PAC of 1776 supported 49 candidates in the August Florida school board election. According to Aiden Buzzetti, the PAC’s head of coalition and candidate recruitment, 26 supported candidates won outright wins, while eight more will go through runoffs in November. Fifteen supported candidates lost their elections. After the Florida school board election, the PAC received 300 requests for support from outside Florida.
Buzzetti interviews each candidate. “The focus of the PAC is to ban critical race theory from schools,” he said. “It’s non-negotiable for us.” To that end, Buzzetti asks candidates what their goals are if they’re elected. Many, he said, cite removing books with explicit content from school libraries or tightening library policies.
The group does not donate directly to campaigns, but sends out mailers or text messages in support of candidates it supports. Buzzetti said the group does not coordinate its plans with the candidates.
Patriot Mobile Action, a Texas-based PAC, endorsed 11 candidates in four school districts this spring and spent nearly $400,000 on the campaign. All 11 candidates won.
“These kids in these public schools are the future leaders of this country,” said Leigh Wambsganss, vice president of public affairs for wireless carrier Patriot Mobile and chief executive of Patriot Mobile Action. The group focuses on political campaigns in Tarrant County, an area of 2 million people that is part of the Dallas-Ft. Metroplex worth.
Wambsganss is concerned about schools that focus on equity rather than equality and curriculum content, adding that school boards are often stepping stones to political careers as well: “This is where people who are interested in public office really cut their teeth in politics. “
Patriot Mobile Action researches candidates by looking at their voting records, social media, and post records. Wambsganss added that the group does not communicate with candidates or notify them when they send out mailers of support.
Kimberly Fletcher founded Moms for America after running unsuccessfully for a position on the Virginia school board in 2003 while homeschooling six of her seven children (her eldest was in a public school).
In the wake of COVID-19 distance learning, Moms for America staff is pooling their resources for the school board through a new initiative now called Empower Moms. Fletcher wants parents to have the information they need to make the best decision for their family, whether it’s transferring to a private school or homeschool, communicating with their district school board, or applying for a seat on the board.
“The most powerful elected body isn’t Congress, it’s the school boards,” she said, adding that all citizens have a responsibility to local schools because of their role in shaping communities. “This is the future of our country.”
Other groups also try to get parents interested in school boards. The Leadership Institute launched online and in-person training for school board campaigns in August 2021. Bridget Ziegler, the institute’s national director for school board programs, said over 4,500 people took part in the online training last year.
However, some experts warn that greater school board involvement does not always mean progress. Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said attempts to reform the school system through school board action could lead to more disunity. “I don’t like the idea that we have an education system that’s ultimately determined by political struggles, where whoever happens to have the most political power in a district can decide … what school policy is going to be,” he said. “I think if we want harmony, we don’t want to have a system where you have to get political power to get what you want for your kids.”
McCluskey believes parents should champion school choice and place their children in private or charter schools rather than expend so much energy trying to change school board policies. “But if you’re stuck with school boards, it’s probably better if more people are involved,” he said. He expressed concern about national groups becoming involved in local communities, but added that conservative organizations may simply be offsetting the impact of liberal groups or teachers’ unions.
In Bentonville, Tim Rosenau said he’s seen an overwhelmingly positive response to 1776 Project PAC’s support of his campaign. He added that some voters, already unsupported, questioned why he wanted national endorsement for a local race.
Rosenau will find out on November 8th whether supporting the 1776 project helped or hurt him. He said he hasn’t decided his plans for election night yet: “We’re probably going to do something here with family, friends, supporters and look at the results on election night to see how [the votes] Come in.”