When Sarah Markey ran for the school board in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, in 2018, the area’s right wing paid little attention. When she was elected to the board along with three other progressive women, that changed. Their first act was to declare that the school system would no longer cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They also put a moratorium on school suspensions to address the system’s disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students and instituted Indigenous People’s Day to replace Columbus Day.
The response was swift. “The right created a Facebook page to attack us,” Markey told Truthout. “They came at us all day, every day.”
Markey, who also works at the National Education Association, was called a “union thug” on the Parents United Against Indoctrination Facebook page (at different points, the group has called itself Rhode Island Parents Against Indoctrination and Parents Against Indoctrination), and was accused of pushing “critical race theory” (CRT) — the examination of the racist and genocidal foundation on which the U.S. was built — into South Kingstown schools, something that was never done. One anonymous poster called Markey an “America Hating Lowlife DemoRat Vermin Communist Scum.” Another prayed for her demise and the demise of her supporters: “May each and every one of you white liberal Karen racists catch COVID and drop dead before rotting in the fiery depths of Hell,” it read.
Markey was eventually overwhelmed by the flood of messages. It took a toll on her physical and emotional well-being. “I had a fight or flight response every single day,” she says. “My sons saw the messages and noticed that to these critics, I am not a human being who lives in their town. The opposition sees me as a monster.”
Markey resigned as a board member in June 2021, after having served for two and a quarter years. Emily Cummiskey, another progressive board member, also resigned in June 2021. “They drove out two people who wanted to do what was best for kids, and it didn’t matter to them how hard we’d worked. We were replaced by people I consider Democrat-lite, folks who say things like, ‘I’m a Democrat, but … I hate unions.’ They don’t rock the boat. They avoid conflict,” Markey told Truthout.
Nearby North Kingstown, Rhode Island has seen Jennifer Lima, an anti-racist school board member, subject to a series of attacks. Although a recall petition to unseat her in the fall of 2021 was unsuccessful, Parents United Against Indoctrination, joined by the Gaspee Project — named for the 1772 dynamiting of a British ship called the Gaspee by Rhode Island settlers — has continued to lambaste her as “un-American.”
“Anything that is good is twisted into something that is bad,” Lima says. “There is a deliberate, ongoing misrepresentation of our district-wide diversity, equity and inclusion work in an effort to undermine it.”
A National Campaign
Both Lima as well as Markey stress that the same is happening in their state and that similar efforts to replace or unseat progressive school board members were made in 2021. 76 districts in 22 states.
And it’s about to get worse.
Lima and Markey claim that election watchers from a number of government groups are looking at 2021 for a trial run; they expect to see a groundswell in conservative school board campaigns kick into high gear this summer, several month before the November 2022 election.
There are many factors that can lead to this conclusion.
By all accounts, the right wing is fired up about mask and vaccination mandates, as well as curricula that stress racial and gender inclusivity — which they refer to as “CRT.” They’re also worried about anticipated demographic changes that will eventually make white people a minority in the U.S., a change the far right calls the “Great Replacement.”
Denisha Jones is a member of organizing committee Uniting to Save Our SchoolsCo-editor of Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice?, told TruthoutThis context is something we must not lose sight of. “We have to remember what was happening in the summer of 2020,” she says. “In addition to a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd led to demonstrations in every major city in the U.S., with progressives pushing back against systems of police oppression. Trump responded with the 1776 Commission. He attacked diversity, equity, inclusion training in schools. This, in turn, led his supporters to react to attempts to address the foundational racism at the heart of U.S. history.”
A massive backlash movement resulted.
Steve Bannon, chief White House strategist under Trump — a man who advocated many overtly racist policies and practices — saw right-wing anger at anti-racist efforts as a potent opportunity and urged those who feared a racial reckoning to get involved at the local level. “The path to save the nation is very simple,” he told the 74 million people who voted for Trump. “It’s going to go through school boards.”
The idea quickly caught fire on the right, with several national groups — the Family Research Council and the Leadership Institute among the most prominent — offering training, funding and technical assistance to candidates wishing to campaign for local office.
Frederick Clarkson is a senior researcher analyst at Political Research Associates, a 40 year-old Somerville, Massachusetts-based think-tank that monitors the religious- and secular-right wing. He explained. Truthout While the current attempt at controlling public education must be taken seriously, it’s not unusual. He also said that the new agenda is essentially putting a new spin on an existing agenda. “These efforts have deep roots,” Clarkson says. “MAGA goals and ideology go back to the Barry Goldwater for president campaign of 1964. In the 1980s, the Christian Coalition attempted to elect people to school boards. What’s new here is the overt alliance between Christian right groups and groups that are part of the ‘patriot’ or militia movements. What’s new is the scale of the mobilization that is happening and the fact that the threat to public education is ramping up.”
Numerous large, well-funded national entities are orchestrating the recruitment and training right-wing candidates. The Leadership Institute, for example, has created a 20-hour online course to teach conservatives how to run for their local school board — even if they don’t have children enrolled in the public schools — in order “to stop the teaching of CRT before it destroys the fabric of our nation.”
The Family Research Council coordinated an entire four-hour event. School Board Boot CampJune 2021 What is the curriculum? Everything “you need to know about running for school board or supporting the people who answer the call to public service.” Speakers from the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council slammed CRT, Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center and teachers’ unions throughout the training.
To supplement this effort, Citizens for Renewing America, founded by Russell Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, created a 34-page “A-Z Guide to Combat Critical Race Theory and Reclaim Your Local School Board.” Citizens for Renewing America’s mission is “to renew an American consensus of a nation under God with unique interests worthy of defending.” The guide — which begins with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. — includes commentary meant to swell conservative outrage: “According to Critical Social Justice, straight white people (especially men) are the oppressors and have systematically rigged society for their own benefit…. [They believe]All that makes up American society are racist. This includes Christianity, free markets, traditional marriage, rule of law, traditional family structures, and a representative form of government.”
Other conservative outlets, like the Truth and Liberty Coalition that is run by pastors, are also available. Andrew Wommack,Compilation of a Christian Voter GuideThis publication was published in 2021 WallBuilders, a Christian dominionist organization that seeks Christian dominance over all aspects of human life and to eliminate church-state seperation.
(The Leadership Institute and WallBuilders, Citizens for Renewing America didn’t respond to Truthout’sRequest an interview.
To support the electoral work, there have been a number of other groups that have sprung up in addition to these national organizations. The majority of these grassroots efforts are organized by parents concerned about their children’s learning about U.S history and social policies. Moms for Liberty; Parents Defending Education No Left Turn in Education; and Intercessors for America among them. (They also failed respond to Truthout’s Request an interview.
However, not everyone believes that these groups are a result of spontaneous outrage. “The moral panic we are seeing over ‘CRT’ was created by a group of think tanks that are funded by Koch Industries,” Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch my Campus?, told Truthout. “The Koch network has always made undercutting public education part of their plan. During the Obama administration, they opposed social and emotional learning programs, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.”
Now, she claims, the focus of the discussion is CRT, or the mistaken belief that the right has about CRT. UnKoch examined the output of only 28 think tanks that the Koch network funds, and found that CRT became a household term thanks to their echo chamber. “Between June 2020 and June 2021, Banks says, “these organizations produced 79 articles, podcasts, reports and videos critical of ‘CRT.’ The Manhattan Institute alone published 43 articles on the topic.” Add in the scads of denunciations on Fox News, One America News Network, NewsmaxThe impact of these outlets is evident in smaller right-leaning media outlets.
How can we respond?
Political Research Associates staffers Steven Gardiner and Tarso Luís Ramos, in a January 2022 report entitled, “Capitol Offenses: January 6, 2021 and the Ongoing Insurrection,” conclude that, “the Left, broadly speaking, has to recognize that the fight against far-right authoritarians and ultra-nationalists cannot be won without a broad coalition.” They call for the formation of an inclusive, diverse, united front against the right wing that is threatening to topple democracy by destroying public education while simultaneously smashing unions, denying history, curtailing voting rights, overturning protections for LGBTQIA+ people, ending legal abortion and sidestepping efforts to protect the environment.
Both Gardiners and Ramos realize that this is a daunting task. But they argue that it is the only path forward. Anti-racism, they write, is but one element of the fight “for structural reforms in the current system” that will create “a more fundamental social transformation,” and they urge this as yet unformed assembly to “reject neoliberalism, militarism, and compromise with ethno-nationalists.”
Denisha Jones Uniting to Save Our SchoolsShe agrees but also says that this progressive coalition must be flexible to operate at all levels, including the local, national, and international. She believes this is crucial if we want schools to be transformed and the social and economic environment to make society more equitable.
“We need to keep our eyes on the ground,” Jones says, “and listen and observe to leverage up.”