In this year’s hotly-contested midterm elections, California Republicans have organized to tap into political divisions and anger over the pandemic to win seats in an office that previously was rarely on the radar of the wider public: the school board.

Across the US, the nonpartisan boards responsible for overseeing public schools have attracted increased attention amid uproar over pandemic-era school shutdowns and sharpening ideological divisions over issues like race, gender and sexuality.

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In deep blue California, where 2,500 school board positions overseeing the state’s 10,000 public schools are up for elections, Republican party organizers in the state have identified the boards as an opportunity to expand its footprint, setting up an organization to help parents run for office.

“We saw a huge opportunity,” Jessica Millan Patterson, the California Republican party chair, told the Redding Record Searchlight. “Parents had awakened to what was happening in our schools.”

Jessica Millan Patterson and California’s Republican party did not respond to a request for comment by publication deadline.

Earlier this year, the Republican party launched the Parent Revolt program aimed at recruiting and supporting conservative parents to run for office. The program has offered workshops and virtual events with tips and advice on how to run for office and the various roles and responsibilities of education officials. At least 100 people attended virtual and in-person events in April and July put on by the party, which offers training but not financial support, CalMatters reported.

On the its website, the program encourages parents to run against the “radical left”, leaning into the divisive language that has characterized the school debate at the national level. “Powerful interest groups control our public schools,” the program warns, urging parents to run if they want “school boards to prioritize what’s best for parents and students instead of the radical left”.

Meanwhile, Reform California, a conservative Pac, has also led efforts to train school board candidates as part of a campaign to improve education and protect children from “from toxic and divisive curriculum” such as critical race theory, the academic practice of examining racism in US laws and society that conservatives sometimes use as a catch-all for curriculum related to race.

The surge in interest in school boards in California is reflective of greater interest nationally, said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA, and a broader campaign for political power on the part of some conservative politicians, philanthropists and thinktanks.

“There was a sense on the part of some conservatives that cultural issues as they were playing out in public schools and public frustration over the pandemic created a fertile ground for advancing a political effort,” Rogers said.

School boards took on a higher profile across the US during the pandemic amid growing frustrations about school closures, becoming battlegrounds for culture wars as schools debated how to resume in-person classes. Rowdy parents disrupted meetings, refused to wear masks and even threatened school board members – some boards had to end meetings due to the disruptions.

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Following the racial justice protests of 2020, local school board meetings, along with state legislatures, were the site of protests and tense debate about “critical race theory” and LGBTQ+ issues. The uproar, fueled in part by a conservative activist who has demonized curriculum related to race and sexuality, led to increased pare
nt engagement in local school board meetings.

Last year, the National School Board Association, a nonpartisan federation of state school board organizations and education lobbying group, asked the Biden administration for federal assistance in response to threats and violence against education officials over Covid restrictions and propaganda about curriculum related to race and diversity amid a panic over critical race theory.

In California, Rogers said, “I think school boards were seen as a space in which the Republican party might be able to take some action and assert power. There’s a frustration on the part of parents that the Republican party thought it could tap into and parts of the state might be responsive to these culturally divisive arguments being advanced elsewhere.”

It’s not yet clear how the effort will pay off, he said – school board elections don’t have polling and often fly under the radar, which could help Republicans: “School boards represent a site where it may be more likely they can gain some power precisely because those races have received less attention.”

The participation of parents and community members in schools is important, Rogers added, but the politicization of the typically nonpartisan board could have worrying impacts, including less social trust and less desire to invest in public schools.

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California’s school board association warned last year that officials were seeing an “unprecedented increase in hostility” in every corner of the state and deliberate attempts to shut down meetings.

“We’ve never seen something occurring with this wide of a scope all across California,” Troy Flint, a CSBA spokesperson,said at the time. “The extreme partisanship that is increasingly a part of American life is rearing its head in school board discussions.”

Some of the school board candidates running this year in the state have received attention for questioning the result of the 2020 election, opposing the Covid vaccine and are critical of teaching students curriculum about LGBTQ+ people. In Sacramento, a member of the Proud Boys who has pledged to “fight cultural Marxism” is running for the school board – the Republican party did not endorse him.