Power to the parents: A homegrown conservative movement is gunning for school board seats across the state

From school board races to textbook reviews, parental empowerment movement grows.

Principal Nathan Hay performs temperature checks August 10, 2021 on students as they arrive on the first day of classes for the 2021-22 school year at Baldwin Park Elementary School.

Principal Nathan Hay performs temperature checks August 10, 2021 on students as they arrive on the first day of classes for the 2021-22 school year at Baldwin Park Elementary School. Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Parents and school districts have been historically viewed as a dynamic duo in the mutual mission to educate children. But the age of COVID, with its mask mandates and school shutdowns, fractured that relationship, especially for many conservative-leaning parents in Florida and across the country. 

That break-up has changed how Republicans are confronting school board elections from the Panhandle to the Keys, entrenching them in races they used to ignore. Many of the candidates are focused on school districts that violated Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mask mandate prohibition during the pandemic.

Originating from grassroots groups and encouraged by DeSantis’ political operation, state Republican leaders and conservative PACs and donors, the wave of school board candidates has some conservative strategists thinking several purple districts could have red school boards in 2023. Democrats, however, view the policies behind the push as a distraction and based on faddish culture-war talking points that will not sway the majority of voters in those competitive races.

Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board and one of the co-founders of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parental rights advocacy group, says the wave of conservative candidates comes from their voices not being heard during those meetings. Her county, which leans conservative in voter registration, was one of the districts that was heavily protested, receiving national attention. 

“When they came to address their concerns, they were met with disdain,” Ziegler says. “They believe that the role of government is to listen and represent them, not to put forward the egregious policies that we saw as a result of COVID.” But the issues now have gone beyond COVID to a broader concern for more parental rights, including reviewing textbooks and the teaching – or prohibition – of race, sex and gender issues in the classroom. 

Daniel Smith, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida, says the parental right movement “has been around for a long time,” recalling for example a proposed Colorado state constitutional amendment in 1996 pushed by conservative Christian groups that aimed to give parents the right "to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children." It failed at the ballot box. 

In 2012, Florida GOP lawmakers tried to move a “parent trigger” bill, known formally as the Parent Empowerment in Education Act, which would have allowed parents to vote on turnaround plans for failing public schools through a petition drive. It died on the floor of the Senate on a tie 20-20 vote. “Supporters, including former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, said it would encourage parents to get involved in school affairs,” the Associated Press reported at the time. 

“The difference is now there's finally this opening, this backlash against the quote- unquote woke community, and the governor has been very adept at exploiting this,” Smith says. He suspects it won’t just be “school board elections, but county commissions and city elections in urban areas that have taken for granted control of those legislative or executive bodies. … It's a well funded effort and the concerns are much broader than they have been in the past, but very well packaged with respect to parental rights.”

Parents and members of the public speak at a special meeting of the Lake County, Florida School Board in Tavares Sept. 2, 2021 to discuss whether face masks should be mandatory in local schools. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Building the wave

Many of the players in these most recent races were thrust into the political scene during the loud and contentious school board meetings in several Florida counties during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Florida, twelve school districts imposed or maintained strict mask mandates after a DeSantis executive order banned them in July 2021. A month earlier, the Florida Board of Education banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory, or CRT, in Florida classrooms. CRT’s “core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies,” according to EdWeek

Conservative parents throughout the summer and into the fall took to the school boards of those twelve districts, attacking the mask requirements and railing against CRT. The push was supported by groups like Moms for Liberty, founded in 2021 and now claiming 70,000 members across 39 states. On its website, the organization says it works to defend parental rights at all levels of government and “hold decision makers accountable or we work to replace them with liberty-minded individuals.” They are working on the latter in Florida in 2022. 

Related coverage: 'Watchdog' for public school districts: Florida's Tina Descovich has big plans for Moms for Liberty

At least 15 conservative candidates are running to unseat or replace school board members who supported mask mandates in nine of the school districts who violated the executive order. The majority of the candidates are either directly endorsed by Moms for Liberty or were involved with the demonstrations at school board meetings in 2021. Those races include:

  • Two candidates running in Sarasota County looking to make the school board more conservative in a red district that had a mask mandate.
  • Two in Brevard looking to flip seats where the people that held them voted for mask mandates and implemented speaker policies limiting time during public comment.
  • Three in Miami-Dade with institutional Republican support, including a DeSantis Miami-Dade College appointee, a candidate who has received Republican PAC support, and another who has been supported by the Miami Moms for Liberty chapter. 
  • One Duval race that is neck and neck in fundraising between a conservative candidate and the school board chair when the mask mandates were implemented.

DeSantis, who showed support for the protesting parents, also is encouraging the conservative school board push with his platform. This month, the governor released a statewide agenda for school board candidates and members who are committed to advancing his priorities locally that included ten policy points to advocate for. With the announcement, he tweeted that it is important Florida’s school boards follow those values: “In Florida, we value student success, parental rights, and curriculum transparency, and we need school board members who do the same. We need strong school boards who will fight for these values and put students first.”

Looking at the races

Most of the conservative school board candidates are focused in red-leaning or purple counties like Sarasota, Duval and Brevard. Ziegler says she believes those are the most important to watch. “There is an opportunity to move and flip some boards to a majority of limited government conservatives or parental rights-minded school board members,” she says. “There has been a very strong progressive lean on education and they're fearful of losing that.”

In Ziegler’s district, two conservative candidates – Robyn Marinelli and Timothy Enos – are running for open seats with Ziegler’s endorsement against opponents that are not carrying the parental rights banner. If they win and Ziegler is reelected, the parents who protested those Sarasota school board meetings last year will have a board that would have voted the way they wanted. A similar situation is playing out in Brevard, where two candidates – Megan Wright and Courtney Lewis – are running either against a school board member who supported the mandate or for the seat of one who did. Two candidates with similar circumstances are also running in both Volusia and Orange counties. 

Republicans also are pushing to pick up some school board seats in Democratic strongholds. Some of them will likely be successful. In Miami-Dade, Roberto Alonso holds a $50,000 fundraising lead over other candidates in the race after the seat’s incumbent, Perla Tabares Hantman, ended her reelection bid in late April. Alonso, a former director of a school choice and student enrollment software company, was appointed by DeSantis to the Miami Dade College District Board of Trustees in 2020.

While Republicans in those races do trail their opponents on average in terms of fundraising so far, the divide is not significant. Except for two outlier races, the conservatives in those races are outraising their opponents in total, amassing about $369,000 to $353,000. The outliers: Monica Colucci in Miami-Dade is being outraised about $53,000 to $165,000, and Marinelli in Sarasota is being outraised $59,000 to $171,000. 

Some of the Republican candidates also have received financial backing from conservative political committees. Marinelli, for example, has received $12,000 from 12 conservative aligned PACs so far. Ziegler says she was glad to see people at the grassroots level and in conservative politics involved in these races. “Arguably, there's nothing more important than the education of our children and the policymakers that oversee it,” she says.

The push of conservatives for the seats and the involvement of GOP PACs and leadership has prompted some Democrats to mobilize for the fight, including one of the casualties of conservatives’ increased involvement in Florida school boards. Former Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon was removed after losing the support of the school board’s majority. That was after DeSantis removed one of the members and appointed conservative Mildred Russell. Simon is launching a PAC to fight back against the red push. Called Families Deserve Inclusive Schools, the PAC is meant to support candidates that champion LGBTQ+ students, or are being targeted by an individual who may “undo important work focused on equity within our schools,” Simon says.

“We want to make sure that we have the right people in the right place to be effective,” she says. “Candidates who believe in making sure that we acknowledge equity needs to be addressed in our school systems and make sure that we are providing safe learning environments for all students.” Simon says her PAC is in part a response to DeSantis becoming involved in school board races, specifically mentioning his statewide agenda.

“When the governor is inserting himself in funding, considerable amounts of money to support his candidates of preference, it's just not fair. It's very David and Goliath-like,” she says. “He's already declared what he wants, and that level of authoritarianism is frightening, I think for any person who believes in the right of citizen’s vote.” 

Simon also says her PAC will look to push against the push for privatization in Florida schools. “The success of our economy and of the state is based on the success and quality of our schools. Public education is the place where we can really focus on leveling the playing field and making sure that all students have access to high quality education,” she says.

Parents drop their kids off at Hillcrest Elementary school in Orlando Aug. 16, 2021 with a sign at the entrance advising for the requirement of face masks for students unless the parents opt out of the mandate by writing a note to school officials. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

What’s it mean for Florida politics?

Progessive and conservative strategists both have noticed the conservative wave, but they have different perspectives on its origins and predictions on where it will end up. Jim Horne, a partner at Strategos Group and former Florida education commissioner under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, says the wave was formed by two catalysts: The growth of far-left policies inside Florida schools and a shift in how the Republican Party is focusing on education policy.

He says the party had historically made policy over the past few decades at the state level when it came to education while not focusing on school board races. “We've seen how school boards have tried to do workarounds on these kinds of policies, and have tried to embrace more of a very progressive ideology,” Horne says. “I think there's a sort of an awakening to (the fact) that's not what parents want and support.”

Lisa Peth, a Democratic strategist who has worked on school board elections, says she believes groups like Moms for Liberty are working to organize and mobilize a base of voters that includes far right voters and white suburban women who were previously under-targeted by the Republican party. “I think that this is an opportunity to utilize the culture war messaging to energize that base going into 2022 and 2024,” Peth says. “I think that this push is ultimately also a part of dismantling our public education system in Florida and increasing the number of students enrolled in private school.”

As Horne sees it, the Republican push is coming from the joining of forces between the momentum of the parental rights movement with the financial and establishment support from traditional Republicans pushing for school choice. He says those two groups working together is a lethal combination that Democrats will likely have difficulty weathering.

“From a Republican standpoint, it's a perfect storm. You've got this convergence of different kinds of conservative issues, representing different kinds of constituencies, all naturally coming together to form a very big strong force,” Horne says. “I think that there's not a lot they can do to survive this avalanche of sorts from the Republican conservative voting blocks that are going to appear.”

However, Peth says she is doubtful that the anti-CRT messaging and other culture war issues will not play well with the majority of people in purple districts, limiting the potential Conservative victories to Republican-leaning districts. “We know for a fact that that is not what most voters think, that is not what most voters want, and that's not what most voters care about for the students and teachers and staff of public schools” she says. “Our children deserve the freedom to learn and develop the knowledge and skills to really reckon with our past, to shape a better future and to pursue their dreams.”

Horne expects something else: Democrats either stepping away from its more progressive wings, or losing many school board races. Either way, “good luck with that,” Horne says. “This is going to be the year of the Republicans.”

Carly Zervis contributed reporting. 

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