Joel Folkemer is an unlikely politician. A pastor in southern Pennsylvania, Folkemer spends his free time coaching his son's baseball team and helping with his daughter's dance troupe.
That changed in 2020, when the all-white, Republican-led Central York School District banned 300 books and resources designed by a diversity committee to foster anti-racism after the murder of George Floyd murder. The ban, which the school board called a "freeze," was so wide that it covered texts about civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Community members encouraged the 37 year-old Folkemer, who as lead pastor of Union Evangelical Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, has long spoken out against racism, sexism and other efforts to "divide communities," to run for a seat on the nine-person board. Initially reluctant, Folkemer changed his mind after speaking at a student-organized rally protesting the ban.
"I eventually said yes because it wasn't about me but serving the community in which I live," he said. "It was about working for justice, equity and inclusion for our students and the staff."
Folkemer and his fellow progressives who ran with him in 2021 aren't alone. There's been intense interest in school board elections over the past year, fueled mainly by a fervor among conservatives to push cultural issues over school re-openings and masking, as well as diversity issues such as gender identity and how or if racism should be addressed in schools. The intensity of these debates has galvanized candidates on both the left and right to run for school board seats.
While there's nothing new about culture wars bleeding into local politics and schools, experts say this time is different due to the coordinated campaigns fueling these debates and the deeply partisan divide that has emerged on both sides. The fights also come at a time when the institution of public education itself struggles to navigate a post-COVID world in which large numbers of students suffer from learning loss and mental health issues and teachers and administrators suffer burn out that's leaving schools severely understaffed. These clashes also come ahead of what is expected to be a heated midterm election in November.
"The level of coordination and the financing from outside groups as well as the use of social media to spread a very consistent message is what makes this particular moment so different," said Rebecca Jacobsen, professor of educational policy at Michigan State University. "What is frightening is that we're now seeing national style politics in our largest and most trusted public institution, schools. I worry that trust will erode, especially as schools are faced with some really big challenges that have nothing to do with the national political and cultural issues in many of these races."
Two years of pandemic-related chaos has put school boards all over the country in the hot seat. In many places, the decision to return to in-person learning and whether to mandate masks fell to school board members, who are usually elected and unpaid officials.
Since the early days of the pandemic, frustrated parents and community members began showing up to school board meetings across the country, turning what are usually boring, bureaucratic meetings into shouting matches reflecting the wider cultural and political wars being waged. Protests began over school reopening plans and mask mandates. But they quickly morphed into debates around banning books and dismantling equity initiatives around gender identity and antiracism efforts.
The result has been a huge influx of interest in running for school board, which is way up nationally. This year the number of candidates running for office is up 17% compared with 2020, according to Ballotpedia.
Conservatives have been at the forefront, seizing the moment with national leaders inserting themselves and their views into the school reopening and mask debates and then fueling the pivot to hot-button culture issues. That's making issues like critical race theory, an academic construct that looks at the consequences of systemic racism and that isn't taught in K-12 classrooms, a catchall rallying cry for anything having to do with discussion of race or equity.
For Tammy Nakamura, who in May won a seat as a trustee on the Grapevine Colleyville Independent School District board in a suburb of Dallas, these national cultural issues played a major role in prompting her to run for school board.
Nakamura, who had served for six years on the Colleyville City Council, said she was concerned about educators, such as former Colleyville Heritage High School principal, James Whitfield, who she and other conservatives accused of being an activist for critical race theory and indoctrinating students. Whitfield, who was the school's first Black principal in a predominantly white school, has vehemently denied these claims.
"Ninety-nine percent of our teachers are absolutely wonderful," Nakamura said. "But it's the 1% that are starting to push [CRT] into our schools. And if we don't stop it now, within five to 10 years, they will have taken over our schools. We need to get back to the basics."
Whitfield, who holds a doctoral degree in education, was forced out of his job last year because of a letter he had written in the summer of 2020 in response to the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, in which he acknowledged that systemic racism is "alive and well" and called on community members to "commit to being an anti-racist."
Initially, the response to the letter had been positive, Whitfield told NPR's This American Life, but in July 2021 a backlash began when a former candidate for school board publicly accused Whitfield of promoting critical race theory and demanded the board fire him.
Students rallied to defend Whitfield, but as the controversy took hold, the board voted unanimously in November not to renew his contract. In a settlement with the district, Whitfield is now on administrative leave and will continue to be paid by the district through August 2023.
In May, Whitfield testified before the US House subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in a hearing looking at political attacks on free speech and classroom censorship. In his testimony, he said that the attacks on educators, who have faced online bullying, death threats and hate mail, have been a coordinated effort by political groups on the right "who are determined to destroy public education."
"I've witnessed firsthand what an environment can become when the most extreme, vile, hate-filled elements take grip of a community," Whitfield said.
Nakamura said she and other conservatives are not out to vilify educators, but rather are supporting parents' right to have a say in what's being taught in the classroom.
"School districts are known to hide things from parents, and they shouldn't," she said. "Parents need to have involvement. And when you push the parents out, they're not going to stand for that."
She said this message has resonated with voters in Tarrant County, Texas, where last month she and fellow conservative candidates won 10 school board seats across four school districts.
Republican governors in states such as Florida and Texas have also pushed these culture issues in schools. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who in March signed the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill into law that forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, last summer said during an appearance on Fox News Channel that he would get the "political apparatus involved so we can make sure there's not a single school board member who supports critical race theory."
Almost overnight, groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education have sprung up and began working to harness parents' and community members' frustration.
More established conservative groups have also ramped up their efforts. The Leadership Institute, founded in 1979, launched an online training series in September for conservative school board candidates.
"Parents saw what was on their students' laptops and what was happening in virtual classrooms during the pandemic, and they were not happy," said Stephen Rowe, director of digital training at the Leadership Institute. "The closer they looked, the more they wanted to get involved."
Progressives say Democrats in the past have not focused enough attention on local elections, like school boards, which they say has left many communities vulnerable to more extreme candidates on the right. But they're starting to fight back with their own activism, with groups such as Run for Something, which actively recruits and supports candidates on the left to counter some of these efforts.
"The far right has been investing tons of outside money in these races," said Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run for Something. "And the Democrats haven't really had a good infrastructure in place to support candidates in these local, mostly nonpartisan races."
But Litman said that's where her group and others are trying to push back. Her group, founded in 2017 in the wake of President Donald Trump's presidential victory, has been prioritizing local elections, including school boards.
"Longer term, the strategy is to build a bench of young leaders to run for offices," Litman said. She said school board seats are often seen as a stepping stone for higher political office, but she said first-time candidates often struggle.
"The system isn't built to make it easy to get involved," she said.
This isn't the first time that national politics and the culture wars have infiltrated school board politics. These clashes have been popping up for decades, starting almost 100 years ago with the "Scopes monkey trial" over the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in schools.
Through the decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, fights over civil rights and school integration have also played out in heated debates at school boards across the country. In the late 1980s and 1990s, issues over the teaching of sex education erupted in schools. In more recent years, we've seen the education wars driven by President George W. Bush's No Child Behind legislation and President Barack Obama's Race to the Top, which have pitted teacher unions against school reformers. Clashes over charter schools and Common Core standards have also attracted attention and money from outside groups.
But Michigan State University's Jacobsen said that for all the money and attention the "education wars" produced, the attention given to these new fights largely driven by the swift dissemination of information via social media has produced a shockingly similar message that has spread across the country very quickly.
"Before the internet and social media, these ideas were shared at a much slower pace," she said. "Today, the same messaging is seen all over the country all at once."
It's a phenomenon that Denise Blaya Powell, co-founder of the progressive group Women Who Run Nebraska, has also noticed. A key narrative in several Nebraska school board races centers on a March 2021 proposal from the Nebraska State Board of Education that would have established statewide K-12 health education standards. The proposal, which was paused indefinitely in September 2021 after opposition from conservative Republicans like Gov. Pete Ricketts, included teaching all students about gender identity and stereotypes. High school students would have also learned about homophobia, transphobia and sexual assault.
The outrage and messaging around the standards has made its way into local school board elections throughout the state with advertisements using similar language to suggest that progressive candidates support kindergarten and first-grade students discussing genitalia in the classroom.
"The opposition is well organized, and they have the messaging down pat," Blaya Powell said. "I've been on calls with organizations in other states, advocating for similar health standards and the opposition's messaging is identical to what we see in Nebraska," she said.
While many had hoped the 2021-22 school year would be a return to normalcy for students and teachers, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated many stressors on the K-12 education system that had plagued schools for decades. As students returned to classes in-person, schools were faced with extreme staffing shortages that left many teachers covering extra classes during their planning periods. Other staffing shortages led administrators and teachers to take on custodial roles and be on hand for cafeteria duty. National Guard troops were even called in by governors in some states like New Mexico and Massachusetts to pitch in to drive school buses.
"The issues that school communities really need to be focusing on right now isn't happening," said Jon Valant, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "The issues riling people up -- CRT, sex education, book bans -- are tangential to the real problems facing schools."
Plans to accelerate learning in the 2021-22 school year to help students catch up from a year and a half of lost learning was put on hold as the virus spread, resulting in high rates of student and teacher absences. Just when unity is needed to tackle the most pressing issues, communities are divided, he added.
"What's happening across the country in all these school board races is really a distraction from the real issues affecting schools," Valant said. "What I worry about is the longer-term effects it will have on school boards and who will run and win seats in these races."
At a minimum, Valant said voting is the most important thing community members can do if they're concerned about what is happening in their schools.
"If people just voted, that would address a good part of the vulnerability we see in these elections," he said. "These races are often decided by very few votes, so the more people engaged in thoughtful and good conscience discourse offers a real chance of changing outcomes and policies at the school board level."
Voting is critically important given that voter turnout is "discouragingly low," with rates of just 5% to 10% of the electorate, according to the National School Boards Association. Turnout tends to be especially low in areas with "off-cycle" school board elections that are held on different days from state and national elections or even different times of year. Information about candidates in these races are also often hard to come by.
The result is that school board elections are susceptible to the whims of a small number of voters, Valant warned.
Reforms and changes to how and when local elections are run, such as moving school board elections to coincide with other state and national elections, could help guard against small groups from taking over local school boards. But Valant said the best thing you can do as an individual is to be informed and get involved. That means voting in school board elections, attending meetings and even running as a candidate yourself.
"If you're concerned with what you're seeing in your community, think about running for office yourself and rallying support among people in the community whose ideas are aligned with yours," he said.
Even though Folkemer lost his race for school board, he said he doesn't regret putting himself or his family in the spotlight of local politics, even as his candidacy invited personal attacks against him on social media and in the press.
"It's sad that people on the side of the opposition spewed the vitriol and hate that they did towards me," he said. "I know it was difficult on our family to see and hear it all, but it was a wonderful teaching moment for our children to see why it's important to speak up for those who are being hurt and marginalized, even if it means we attract the same angry voices towards ourselves."