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Culture wars over race and sexuality are dominating Texas school board elections

The rapid politicization of school board races across Texas has led to an infusion of money and personal attacks in elections that are ostensibly nonpartisan.
Photo illustration of Olivia Barnard, Bonnie Anderson, a stack of books, money, a Texas flag and Orjanel Lewis.
Dozens of Texas school board candidates, including Olivia Barnard, left, and Bonnie Anderson, are backed by conservative officials and groups. Orjanel Lewis, right, is among the candidates promising instead to prioritize diversity and inclusion.NBC News; Getty Images

HOUSTON — In Katy, Texas, a parent who campaigned to ban graphic novels about Black middle school-age boys from public school libraries is now running for a seat on the suburban Houston school board, promising to “stop the indoctrination.”

Four hours away in Arlington, a school board member who spoke out against a lawmaker’s investigation of library books discovered last month that several of his re-election signs had been vandalized with the words “pedophile sympathizer.”

And in Mansfield, a suburb southwest of Dallas, a newly formed political action committee sent mailers alleging that “woke” policies were to blame for a mass shooting in the district and endorsing four school board candidates who would “protect our children” and “keep critical race theory out of our classrooms.”

One year after conservative parents began packing school board meetings nationwide to protest lessons on racism and library books dealing with sex, sexual orientation and gender, those issues are dominating May 7 school board elections across Texas, especially in the booming and fast-diversifying suburbs outside Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. 

An NBC News review of school board elections in 20 suburban Texas school districts revealed more than 40 candidates running campaigns focused, at least in part, on culture war issues that have monopolized national politics. In several races, parents who showed up at board meetings last year to argue against Covid safety measures or to read sexually explicit passages from LGBTQ-themed library books are now themselves seeking seats on school boards, often with the backing of newly formed political action committees and endorsements from state Republican officials.

Last year, Texas GOP leaders announced that they’d formed a new Local Government Committee to support candidates in nonpartisan school board elections statewide. In response, Democrat-aligned groups are now launching get-out-the-vote campaigns for the first time in several suburban school board contests. Some megachurches have even gotten involved, with one North Texas pastor warning this weekend that public schools are giving children access to pornography and providing congregants with a list of area school board candidates who he said are Christians.

Political observers, meanwhile, are watching these races as a test of whether battles over racism and LGBTQ issues will continue to drive turnout heading into the November midterms.

“You know the old saying, ‘All politics is local.’ That increasingly is not so true,” said Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “More and more, you see these national partisan issues showing up in races down ballot, and that’s especially true of school boards.”

Ashley McCombs, a parent of six and president of the Williamson County Republican Women club, was inspired to run for a seat on the Hutto Independent School District board of trustees, in a suburb outside Austin, in part because of the district’s handling of Covid and the creation of a diversity and equity task force, which McCombs has criticized. Her husband, Jason McCombs, is also running for one of three open seats on the board in a joint campaign promising to bring “Christian, conservative values” and transparency to the board.

“My conservative views right now are not represented on the current school board,” Ashley McCombs said in an interview. “The current school board has more liberal type, leftist views, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it takes having a good representation of all to really make a school what it can be.”

The rapid politicization of school board politics across Texas has led to an infusion of money in local races that are ostensibly nonpartisan, according to a review of financial disclosures.

A pair of candidates running on a conservative platform for seats on the Grapevine-Colleyville board of trustees raised more than $47,000 combined for their campaigns as of Friday. Their two opponents had raised about $17,000. In total, that’s seven times more than what candidates raised the last time these two seats were up for election, three years ago. 

In one extreme example, a conservative school board candidate running in the affluent Eanes Independent School District in Austin has raised more than $160,000 for his campaign — on par with what some candidates spend to win seats in the Texas Legislature.

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The intense partisan focus on these races has also led to harsh personal attacks and animosity not typically seen in small-town elections, according to review of social media posts and interviews with a dozen candidates.

Bonnie Anderson, a Katy school board candidate who made national headlines last year for her attempts to ban the graphic novels “New Kid” and “Class Act” by Jerry Craft, has repeatedly accused another candidate, Eliz Markowitz, of being a “predator.” Markowitz, the only openly gay candidate seeking a board seat in Katy, has spoken against attempts to ban books featuring LGBTQ characters and storylines

“God knows your sinister agenda in trying to get a seat on a school board when you have no children,” Anderson wrote to Markowitz in a recent Facebook comment. 

Markowitz, a professor of health education at the University of Houston, called Anderson’s allegations “outrageous” and said she just wants to ensure students have access to a wide variety of age-appropriate books, so they don’t leave high school “completely unaware of different issues, like abuse and alcoholism, gang violence, gun violence, and, yes, sex.”

“It’s exhausting to know that people are purposely slandering your name in a community where you’ve simply tried to do what’s right for everyone for so long,” said Markowitz, who unsuccessfully ran for the state board of education in 2018. “Hopefully I’ll be judged by the quality of my character.”

Anderson didn’t respond to a phone message requesting comment.

In Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, a conservative activist group posted a video last month accusing Orjanel Lewis, a Black woman running for school board, of wanting to teach that some kids are oppressors because she told a local newspaper that she believes the school district hasn’t done enough to “treat all students with equal respect, dignity, and educational opportunities.”

“So to me, the whole ‘equal,’ that is just a cue word for, you’re going to try to put in critical race theory,” one of the group members said in the video, referring to the academic study of systemic racism that conservatives have redefined to describe lessons on racism and gender that they find objectionable.

Community members have also circulated digital flyers, designed to look like candidate questionnaires, falsely claiming that Lewis, an attorney, supports creating a racial quota system to get more Black and brown students into Advanced Placement courses and giving students “easy access to porns.”

Lewis, a first-time candidate, said this isn’t what she imagined when she signed up to run for a school board seat. 

“My concern is, when you use this kind of language, when you equate your political opponents to pedophiles, you are not only distracting from real and important issues, you are putting us in danger,” she said. “You are inciting a mob to want to attack us, and I just think that it’s wholly unnecessary.”

The Southlake playbook

Elements of the conservative strategy for winning school board seats across Texas can be traced to a year ago, on May 1, 2021, when two candidates running in opposition to a school diversity plan in Southlake in North Texas won seats on the Carroll Independent School District board of trustees.

The candidates, Hannah Smith and Cam Bryan, each won in a landslide, with help from Southlake Families PAC, a local group that raised more than $200,000 to support conservatives opposed to the district’s diversity efforts.

The Southlake election results drew national attention, including on Fox News and other conservative outlets, and marked one of the first and most high-profile victories for candidates running on a platform opposing critical race theory. A year later, the political strategy — dubbed “the Southlake playbook” by activists and political observers — has spread to school board races across the state.

New political action committees have formed in communities all over Texas, many with names seemingly paying homage to Southlake Families: There’s Lake Travis Families PAC outside Austin, Spring Branch Families PAC in the suburbs of Houston and HP Families PAC in Highland Park, a wealthy Dallas suburb.

“It’s startling, the amount of money and political organizing that’s moving into local elections right now,” said Deen, the political science professor, noting that at least 10 local PACs have been established in the Dallas-Fort Worth region alone in the past year.

Many of these groups have raised tens of thousands of dollars to back conservative school board candidates and causes. Some describe themselves as nonpartisan, with an emphasis on supporting parents’ rights to have a say in their children’s education, while at the same time advocating for causes that are popular among Republican voters.

A website for KISD Family Alliance PAC, one of the groups supporting a slate of anti-critical race theory candidates in the Fort Worth suburb of Keller, described the organization’s core values this way: “We believe that the District’s curriculum framework should be void of political partisanship and in keeping with conservative values.”

Another new political action committee is Patriot Mobile Action, the advocacy arm of a Texas-based cellphone company that markets its services to conservatives. The group was formed in February and has spent more than $400,000 supporting conservative candidates in four North Texas school board elections this spring, according to a financial disclosure. Patriot Mobile Action, which has ties to Southlake Families PAC, paid workers to go door to door and sent political mailers to thousands of homes across the Dallas region, including the one blaming a school shooting at Timberview High School last fall on “woke” disciplinary policies.

Patriot Mobile Action leaders did not respond to messages requesting an interview.

In response, some progressive Texas groups have launched campaigns to assist school board candidates who’ve actively supported school diversity programs and Covid safety policies, or who at least haven’t taken a position against those efforts. Texas Blue Action Democrats, an Austin-based group with a statewide network of campaign volunteers, announced in March that it was organizing get-out-the vote campaigns in a half-dozen communities with competitive school board elections.

Lana Hansen, the group’s executive director, acknowledged that conservative groups have put far more money and attention into these races so far.

“I feel like we’re definitely playing catch-up,” Hansen said. “And I feel like, you know, we’ve got to quit sleeping here.”

Some political observers, including Deen, say they’re worried that the new partisan focus on school board elections could undermine public education.

The vast majority of school board elections nationwide are nonpartisan, meaning candidates are not required to state their party affiliation and there are no primaries. The idea is to prevent partisan conflicts from interfering with effective governance of local schools, but some Republicans nationwide are seeking to change that in the wake of fights over school shutdowns and other Covid policies.

The Tennessee Legislature passed a law last year to make school board races partisan, with the measure’s GOP sponsors arguing it would increase transparency and ensure that school boards reflect the political ideals of local communities.

Several school board members said they’re worried about the way these changes could impact schools.

“I have always believed that an educated citizenry is critical to the success of a democracy,” said Craig Allen, an incumbent running for re-election to the school board in Keller. “And if that educated citizenry is being controlled by certain political ideologies, regardless of whether that’s Republican or Democrat, then I would be concerned for what that means going forward.”

‘Future of public education is at stake’

In a suburban Austin school board race that’s emblematic of many contests across Texas, two conservative candidates, Tricia Quintero and Olivia Barnard, are running on a joint platform for a pair of at-large seats on the Dripping Springs Independent School District’s board of trustees, with a shared social media hashtag, #TheTwoForYou.

Barnard, a parent who works in real estate, started speaking up at school board meetings last year to voice opposition to the district’s mask policies. Her personal social media posts are filled with conservative videos and memes condemning critical race theory, as well as photos of herself posing with former President Donald Trump and other national Republican leaders during multiple visits to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Florida. 

She and Quintero have been endorsed by Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican whose congressional district includes Dripping Springs. Quintero celebrated the endorsement from Roy, whom she referred to as “America’s most conservative congressman,” in a post on her campaign page. Barnard’s campaign also touted his endorsement.

In an interview, Barnard said she was running a campaign focused on “our taxpayers, the budget, the expenditures and the curriculum.”

“My campaign is nonpartisan,” Barnard said, drawing a distinction between her run for school board and her personal political views. “I have accepted no money, no gifts in lieu of anything from any group or political party.”

Yet Barnard has also been outspoken about the hot-button cultural issues that have been motivating Republicans.

“I don’t want to see any child taught to believe that they are a villain or a victim,” she said when asked whether she was concerned with the way race and racism is addressed in Dripping Springs schools. “I want every child to be loved for, cared for and given every opportunity.”

Barnard also attended the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in February in Orlando, Florida, where she posted a photo on her campaign Instagram page with mothers from Loudoun County, Virginia. “I will not co-parent with the government,” the caption read in part. “I will not stand for the voice of parents to be muffled by politics, special interest and personal agendas.” 

Joanna Day, an incumbent who’s competing with Barnard, Quintero and another candidate for two at-large seats on the Dripping Springs school board, said she’s worried about the consequences of superimposing harsh national political divides onto local school board races.

Day said she’s worked to run a nonpartisan campaign by focusing on issues that she believes matter to most residents, like finding ways to better support teachers and managing the district’s rapid growth. She’s also turned down endorsements from Democratic groups and declined invitations to speak at partisan events hosted by both Republicans and Democrats.

Hansen, the director of Texas Blue Action Democrats, said the group’s volunteers have been knocking on doors in Dripping Springs to ask progressive residents to vote in the school board election, but she confirmed that Day declined her group’s endorsement offer. Day also asked Blue Action Democrats not to hand out her campaign literature, Hansen said.

Day said she believes her approach is resonating with voters.

“I really see that some of these issues, like CRT and the allegations that librarians and teachers are bringing inappropriate material into schools, are really having a huge impact on our teaching staff,” she said. “They really feel under attack on top of having an incredibly rough two years, really helping families hold it together by keeping schools open during the pandemic.” 

“I don’t want to be hyperbolic,” Day added, “but I do believe that the future of public education is at stake.”