Everything I Need to Know about Texas Politics I Learned in School Board Elections
I once heard the only people who run for school boards are those who want to ban a book from the school library or fire the football coach after a losing season. I tried to dismiss this cynical anecdote, as I know many current and recently elected school board trustees who have strong, sincere desires to support public education. Yet, after Texas’ school board elections this month, I have found a kernel of truth to the notion of agenda-driven school board candidates.
I participated in and watched many school board races closely, and what I witnessed was the very heart of local Texas politics. I learned a lot. What I learned was sometimes ugly, sometimes shocking; but in the end, it was rather inspiring. Here’s what I saw:
1. Radicals have their eyes on your schools.
Public education regularly comes under attack – often in an effort to increase privatization, allowing the private sector to further tap into the lucrative education market. Other times, the attacks are purely ideological. This was seen in various Texas school board elections in 2014 with many candidates statewide espousing fringe ideologies and working to push extreme agendas into public schools.
There was the bartender/open carry activist candidate in Mansfield ISD who sought to arm school teachers. Then there was the Magnolia ISD conspiracy theorist blogger who has spent years harping paranoid warnings about the United Nations taking over schools and that Texas public schools are indoctrinating students with Marxist agendas. There was also the Northwest ISD candidate who feared extreme Muslims were launching a “social jihad” through school textbooks.
And there were various candidates statewide who ran opposing Common Core State Standards in districts including Crowley, Katy, Northwest, Magnolia, and other areas. Crusading against Common Core had the potential to be a strong platform if Texas was one of the 44 states that had actually adopted Common Core State Standards. (For more about Common Core in Texas, please see this explanation.)
Along with opposing Common Core State Standards, these candidates often opposed other positive educational advancements and innovations they erroneously branded “Common Core” but that most people embrace, such as college and career readiness; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education; digital learning; project-based learning; and 21st century learning skills. Their reasons for opposing such innovations range from claims of student indoctrination in various –isms (Marxism, communism, Nazism, collectivism, … you get the point) to radical conspiracy theories about the United Nations and Sharia Law. While the rationales varied, few were grounded in reality or fact.
2. Radicals don’t like it when you call them radicals.
As I quickly learned when I spoke against radicalism at my local school board meeting earlier this year, radicals don’t like to be called radicals. When their fringe viewpoints are called out as baseless and extreme or when they are presented with facts or research from experts in the field, they typically decry “bully tactics” in attempts to “marginalize” their views or “vilify” them. It seems to be their universal response to reality.
Sadly, they have no idea how extreme their viewpoints are because they live in radical vacuums where fringe ideas are bounced within echo chambers of extremism. Their sources of mis-information are blogs masquerading as news and propaganda laid out by fellow extremists citing other radicals as sources. Inside their closed loops of information, propaganda becomes fact and realities become a nefarious plot by the “establishment.” And they have no idea how far their viewpoints have strayed beyond their community mores because they instead live in extremist-focused realities in which their fringe views propagate.
Interestingly, there is a Common Core standard that can address this very problem that allows this type of radical thought to flourish. In its literacy standard for eighth graders, Common Core State Standard W.8.1.B requires that students be able to “support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.” This is one Common Core standard Texas would be wise to embrace.
3. Local politics is as ugly as it gets.
There was name calling. There was back biting. There were shots fired against the education levels of some candidates and the political leanings of others. Tea party candidate forums asked school board candidates about their stands on gay marriage and abortion. One candidate was accused of being on food stamps. In short, school board races seem to represent the worst in local politics.
Perhaps one of the most outrageous examples of ugly local politics was the Magnolia ISD twitter fight heard around Texas. In a textbook example of what not to do in a school board campaign, radical blogger/CSCOPE conspiracy theorist and candidate Ginger Russell picked a social media fight with the entire student body and faculty of the local high school by mocking their school motto. As a general rule, never pick a fight with a community of snarky teens, dedicated teachers, and determined PTA moms. That is a fight you’ll never win – and Ginger Russell didn’t.
What she did succeed in doing was rallying the community who stood up to attacks against their school, principal, and district. The Magnolia community refused to allow their schools and students to be branded and assailed by radicals for political gain. They got out the vote with the largest turnout in their school board election history – 3,595 voters cast ballots in a race that typically only draws around 900. Magnolia ISD voters (including many newly eligible high school student voters) sent the message that they value and support their school district while soundly defeating radicalism. Ginger Russell and her extreme message only garnered 28% of the vote and sent her opponent Kristi Baker to a landslide victory.
4. In the end, Texans care more about their schools than politics.
In many of its 2014 school board races, Texas (yes, Texas!) firmly ignored its radical base and overwhelmingly rejected fringe candidates. And those candidates were defeated by wide margins – some garnering as little as 11% of the vote and very few earning more than 30%. Texas rejected these radical activists and instead cast votes for retired teachers, ministers, small business owners, physicians, and even PTA moms committed to supporting and strengthening public schools instead of tearing them down in the name of politics.
As for the radicals – they’ll be back. Sadly it doesn’t seem they learned a lot from their experiences, laying blame for their losses with everyone but themselves. The reasons cited for their overwhelming losses include (choose any/all of the excuses below):
- Battleground Texas’ stealth involvement in these non-partisan races,
- the “education establishment” was against them,
- teachers organized against them,
- the PTA opposed them,
- they were bullied/vilified/marginalized.
So many excuses, yet the radicals have failed to notice the obvious – that their losses were because of their message. A message of divisiveness and negativity, which was rejected by Texans.
What the radicals didn’t understand is that these elections weren’t about keeping Texas red or turning her blue. They weren’t about Common Core. They weren’t about liberal indoctrination or the United Nations or even Obama. They were about schools. They were about Texas communities protecting their schools from extremists trying to make a political statement. They were about Texans not willing to see their schools forced to move backward decades educationally because of the paranoia and political ideology of the extreme minority.
In these elections that most deeply impact our communities, it became clear that Texans care about their neighborhood schools and aren’t willing to risk them on the political whims of extremism. Voters sent a clear message to radicals trying to take over their school boards – don’t mess with Texas public schools.