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Amid nationwide culture wars, political groups see Kansas school boards as key battleground

 Amid nationwide culture wars, partisan politics are seeping in to local school board races.
Suzanne Perez
Amid nationwide culture wars, partisan politics are seeping in to local school board races.

Political groups are holding workshops for school board members and starting local chapters to rally Kansas parents and recruit candidates.

At a national summit this month, a co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty asked anyone to stand if they had served on a local school board, spoken at a school board meeting or lobbied lawmakers on education issues.

Everyone stood.

“You are the courage in America right now,” said Tina Descovich, a former school board member from Florida. “We are in a fight for liberty. We are in a fight for the future of this country.”

As national culture wars seep into education debates, political groups — especially on the right — see school boards as key battlegrounds. In Kansas, conservatives increasingly organize with schools in mind, forming coalitions and recruiting candidates to boost their influence on a wider scale.

Moms for Liberty, founded by Florida women who campaigned against pandemic school closures and mask mandates, recently established its first Kansas chapter. Members put flyers on cars in Johnson County defending the removal of some library books and criticizing local students’ scores on state tests.

New groups or offshoots are forming, too. The conservative Kansas Policy Institute recently launched the Kansas School Board Resource Center, a right-leaning option for school board members seeking guidance on education issues.

“From what I hear from school board members, they have trouble getting things done,” said Ward Cassidy, director of the center and a former Republican state legislator. “We need board members in the state of Kansas who will get involved and make real changes.”

The center holds online and in-person workshops for board members and crafts model policies on topics like parents’ rights and student discipline. In November, it will hold its first conference in Wichita.

Cassidy said the group wants students to learn more and school boards to make wiser use of tax dollars.

“It would be interesting to see what would happen … if they actually lowered a property tax some year because they had the money they needed,” Cassidy said. “There’s a lot of school districts that could do just that.”

But the education establishment sees a blatant effort to undermine public schools. Leah Fliter, assistant director for advocacy with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said some groups use culture-war debates to serve their own political interests, including a push to divert tax money away from public schools and toward private and religious schools through proposed voucher programs.

“It’s a long game that folks are playing,” Fliter said. “They’re using these political issues to undermine public schools so that they can criticize them and defund them.”

The Kansas Association of School Boards started more than 100 years ago. It’s financed with membership fees from local districts. Cassidy said the Kansas School Board Resource Center is funded by multiple donors, but its parent organization has ties to Wichita billionaire Charles Koch.

Another new group founded by evangelical Christian church leaders — the City Elders of Oklahoma — recently expanded into Kansas and is recruiting people to run for school boards. Leaders of the Sedgwick County Republican Party promoted the group in its newsletter to members.

“Government-funded, government-subsidized education has been the greatest adversary of faith, family and freedom for a generation,” founder Jesse Leon Rodgers says in a video on the group’s website. “It’s social engineering and secular humanism at its best.”

Since the pandemic, conservatives have been winning more school board races. Three conservatives who won seats on the state Board of Education last fall have raised objections to federal COVID-relief funding, library books and the school lunch program, among other issues.

In Wichita, the state’s largest district, three of four conservative challengers won seats on the school board in 2021. Similarly, candidates in Johnson County who campaigned against an anti-racism curriculum, calling it “critical race theory,” won board seats in Blue Valley and Olathe.

This year, five candidates running for an at-large seat on the Wichita school board will meet in a primary Aug. 1. Three of the five are conservative.

Cassidy, who leads the conservative school board resource center, said school board members need new perspectives and direction.

“We’ve done these things all these years the same way, and it doesn’t seem like we’re making any great strides for improvement,” he said. “So maybe if we do this it will help.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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Copyright 2023 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Corrected: July 27, 2023 at 4:58 PM CDT
Editor's note: Candidates running for the Shawnee Mission school board who campaigned against an anti-racism curriculum did not win seats on the board. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.
Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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