Critical Race Theory, Mask Mandates Fuel School Board Races Across U.S.

National interest in school board seats has grown with conservative groups opposing COVID-19 mask mandates, gender-neutral bathrooms, and teachings on race in schools.

In Guilford, Connecticut, school board activist candidates want to introduce critical race theory and double down on how schools are handling racism.

Over the summer, conservative activists in the community won the GOP's endorsement for school board for the upcoming Nov. 2 election. Conservative efforts to stop liberal curriculum and equity initiatives will be tested, but school administrators fear a new board could cause problems for professional educators.

Schools have been addressing issues of diversity and culturally responsive teaching for years without stirring much controversy, but flames of frustration in some communities have been fanned by groups with bigger agendas, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University.

Henig emphasized how debates in the school system might play into the suburban area's voting in midterm elections.

"It was a surprise to me to be lumped in that national conversation," said Guilford Superintendent Paul Freeman.

Last year, the predominantly white community began a petition for the superintendent's removal after some opponents reprehended Freeman for assigning administrators to read books like "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism."

"There have been direct accusations in Guilford that teachers are bullying and indoctrinating children in leftist political agenda. That could not be more wrong," Freeman said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Guilford schools
People walk near one of many signs around town centered around the upcoming Nov. 2 election and equity initiatives in schools in Guilford, Conn., on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

In Guilford, a New Haven suburb of 22,000 on Connecticut's shoreline, Freeman said the district's work on race and equity intensified after last year's debate over the mascot, which is now the Grizzlies, and the 2019 blackface episode at a game against a team from Hartford. Students and young alumni, he said, called on the school system to do more on topics of race and equity so graduates would not feel sheltered.

The work has included a self-audit of curriculum to ensure materials do not reflect implicit bias and include authors with diverse experiences and backgrounds. In eighth grade, for one example, students learn about enslaved people who lived in Guilford so they do not see the Colonial period in an idealized way, Freeman said.

One of the five candidates on the slate opposed to critical race theory, Danielle Scarpellino, a local business owner, said in an appearance on " Fox & Friends First " in July that it was district leaders who were introducing politics into schools, saying students were "being used as political pawns." None of the candidates responded to interview requests from the Associated Press.

Another candidate, Tim Chamberlain, said on a campaign website that his child's teachers have "tried to persuade him to abandon his conservative viewpoint" during discussion of topics ranging from global warming to affirmative action.

Independent and Democratic candidates have joined forces to campaign against the slate of anti-critical race theory candidates. Among them is Kristy Faulkner, a molecular biologist and zoning board of appeals member who said she signed up to run after seeing equity and inclusion turned into bad words by her rivals.

She said she also worries that if the newcomers win, they would not find any middle ground with the existing school board members.

"I'm just envisioning basically a total meltdown of productivity on the board," she said.

It's unclear how many of the thousands of U.S. school board races include agenda-driven newcomers, but there are examples around the country.

In Ohio, the number of school board candidates has ballooned by 50% from four years ago, according to the Ohio School Boards Association. Almost half of the 2,600 candidates are political newcomers, including many whose anger has been stoked by critical race theory.

Seven candidates are running for just three seats on the school board in Chagrin Falls, a suburb of Cleveland where some parents have objected to racial inclusion policies. In nearby Rocky River, a conservative slate taking aim at critical race theory is running on the slogan: "Education not activism."

In communities where mask mandates are attracting the most attention in school board races, as in Dover, New Hampshire, some candidates have also questioned approaches to diversity and inclusion. Several newcomers in Dover have said discussions of diversity should be broadened beyond race, and one candidate has spoken out against critical race theory.