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What ever happened to the fight over critical race theory?

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Critical race theory might have faded in Republicans’ political messaging, but some of its advocates are more powerful than ever after the midterms.

The “parents’ rights” movement wanted schools to push for in-person learning, allow students to remove their masks during the pandemic and elevate an academic framework called critical race theory, framing it as a radical liberal pursuit. A year ago, Republicans were pointing to parents’ rights as a winning political message in the suburbs, pointing to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia as evidence. But national Republican strategists dropped the issue after the primaries. Outside the national spotlight, however, the party’s brief and fervent push against masks and CRT has already changed the political landscape. And while the “parents’ rights” message fades from the national spotlight, calls for it live on in local politics.

In Charleston, South Carolina, five candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty — a group that advocates for more parental influence in education — won their school board races, taking a majority stake of the panel. In Indiana’s Hamilton Southeastern School district, four candidates who campaigned on their opposition to critical race theory and parental rights were elected, also becoming a majority on that seven-member board. In Oklahoma, the Republican candidate for state superintendent who allegedly left wanting to convince students they are racist, trounced his Democratic opponent and won even more votes than the incumbent Republican governor.

Political newcomer Youngkin’s 2021 win was one of the sparks that lit the movement. His first act after taking office was to fulfill a campaign promise, signing executive orders giving parents the power to opt their kids out of wearing masks at school and abolish the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” in the classroom.

Initially, taking a page out of Youngkin’s playbook, candidates at every level of office touted their plans to take control of classrooms and empower parents ahead of the midterms. For instance, in Arizona, failed Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake pledged to take a sledgehammer to CRT. In Alabama, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey boasted of banning CRT in her state during her successful reelection bid. Florida incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, ushered in new policies empowering parents and suppressing lessons on gender identity and race, declaring after his reelection that his state is where “woke goes to die.”

Other candidates invoked fear about schoolchildren being “groomed” to join the LGBTQ community, adapting a term used to describe the behavior of sexual predators. Some championed policies banning access to healthcare for transgender youth. By one count, anti-trans ads had aired in at least 25 states by late in the election season.

By September, however, whatever fervor Youngkin had whipped up over CRT was dead. Or at least it had quieted enough that an email address he created for people to report concern about these lessons had been shuttered. It apparently wasn’t getting much use. The same month, the Republican National Committee said in a memo that candidates needed to change tack on CRT.

“Voters are most concerned with kids not learning enough basic life skills AND the long-term effects of covid on emotional and educational development. While masks on seven-year-olds and CRT is a concern, it is not the driving force,” the memo said. “If Republicans [are] solely focusing there, they are missing a wide swath of voters open to the Republican message on education.”

But even as Republicans shifted their focus toward the end of the cycle, legislation based on the campaign for parents’ rights took hold. Over the course of the last three school years, at least 25 states have passed some 64 laws aiming to unearth and banish teaching of CRT or curtail how teachers discuss race, racism, American history more broadly and gender identity; limit students’ access to books and school libraries; and boost parents’ ability to shape how their kids are taught, among other changes, according to a recent Washington Post analysis.

“States that moved this [legislation], it means that children in those states will be hurt,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, an organization that works on civil rights. “It hurts us all. We are ceding to a generation of young people who lack information about the history of white supremacy and its impacts.”

Where the anti-CRT campaign worked

Parents’ frustration was based on a combination of issues, said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican consultant and the founder of Targeted Creative Communications, and it wasn’t always clear which one was driving them to show up at school board meetings or vote a certain way . On top of that, as the campaign season progressed, inflation and crime seemed to be the best messages to win over voters, Hazelwood said.

“In hindsight, campaigns should have used CRT to motivate the base,” he said. “We as Republicans had a turnout problem.” Hazelwood said “these issues still have salience. It would be a colossal mistake to say CRT is over as a debate.”

“The debate is coming back, and it will come back again and again in these local elections,” he said.

Those local elections were where plenty of candidates kept banging on the CRT drum right up to Election Day. Parental rights’ advocates who backed school board and state-level candidates in favor of CRT bans and expunging books with LGBTQ themes from school libraries said they won the day, given they were backing candidates generally brand new to the political process on newer platforms.

“We’re thrilled with the results. A lot of our candidates were first-timers, and they beat longtime incumbents,” Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice said, noting that a couple of her group’s foes, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, collected a combined $575 million in dues in fiscal 2021, much of which is spent on campaigns and lobbying.

Her group, which has pushed a parents’ rights agenda, advocated for policies that ban discussion of LGBTQ issues and spawned a legion of activists working to pull or hide what it considers unsuitable books from school libraries, endorsed 270 candidates for school board nationwide. About two weeks after Election Day, the group said just under helped its backed candidates won.

A big win for the group was taking control of the school board in Charleston, South Carolina, where all nine seats were up for election at once because of a change to state law. Five of the eight candidates Moms for Liberty backed won. The group also backed six candidates, including some incumbents, who all won, taking control of another South Carolina district, Berkeley County Schools. At the first meeting of the newly composed board, the board fired the district’s first Black superintendent, voted to ban CRT and created a panel that will study whether some books should be prohibited at district schools. At least two school boards in Florida that flipped on Election Day also fired their superintendents.

A group that specifically works on critical race theory bans, the 1776 Project PAC, said 20 of its 50 endorsed school board candidates won their races.

And where it didn’t work

While a portion of those candidates did clinch their races, overall, public schools may have dodged a censorship bullet.

“Republicans did center parents in their campaigning, and they did talk about parents’ rights, what teachers teach in schools, banning books, censoring conversations about race,” said Ailen Arreaza, co-director of the nonpartisan Parents Together, a news and research network for parents.

“That did not resonate with parents,” said Arreaza, who lives in North Carolina and is the mother of a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old. “They didn’t take that bait.”

Where Democrats and public school advocates faltered, she said, including in races in the state where she lives, which was because they weren’t in tune with parents either.

In other cases, parents just wanted a change. For instance, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg County School Board candidate, Stephanie Sneed, wasn’t backed by Moms for Liberty. But the group did not encourage people to vote for their opponent, incumbent board member Carol Sawyer.

Local Moms for Liberty Chairwoman Brooke Weiss put it like this: “There’s a lot of people that are anti-Trump, and they would vote for anybody except him. That’s the way I feel about Mrs. Sawyer, you know, I’m gonna encourage people to not vote for her.”

Democrats’ showing should have been much stronger, Arreaza said, if only the party had spoken more directly to parents.

“There’s a lot of playing defense, a lot of playing to Republicans — these boogeymen they create,” she said. “I think there was still room for Democrats to center parents and talk to them directly.”

One of the parents in her community, she said, put it like this: “A book about a gay penguin has never caused a child not to come home from school.”

Arreaza said as a parent, every decision she makes goes back to that, “from the cereal you buy to the soap you buy to the pediatrician you choose,” she said, and “parents are struggling.”

Whether or how much critical race theory and the broader culture wars galvanized voters is uncertain. The economy swooped in to take the place of what may have been some voters’ priorities earlier in the election. If there was truly a late-season shift to back off, it may have saved some campaigns.

“CRT, LGBTQ issues, trans issues — these have all been kind of trotted out in order to motivate voters,” said Rich Schragger, a professor of law at the University of Virginia. “It’s not clear that they do motivate voters. We’re just not sure.”

Don’t assume they will disappear.

“I expect we’ll continue to see those kinds of themes being used to scare voters in part,” Schragger said.

Indeed, a number of candidates were undeterred by any urging to pivot or pull back, and the winners pledged to make their promises from the trail a reality. In Arizona, newly elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican who in the past served as state education chief and state attorney general, boasted of his 15-year war on critical race theory during his campaign. He won by the slimmest of margins, beating incumbent Democrat Kathy Hoffman by a few thousand votes.

Among his plans once he takes office? He’s said he will create a hotline for people to report incidents of the teaching of critical race theory.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

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