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National Issues Failed To Resonate With Voters In Many Ohio School Board Races

 Signs advertising candidates for Columbus School Board dot the landscape outside of the Franklin County Board Of Elections on Morse Road in Columbus.
Signs advertising candidates for Columbus School Board dot the landscape outside of the Franklin County Board Of Elections on Morse Road in Columbus.

Some high-profile local school board races throughout Ohio that drew attention for their nasty tone, their nationally driven agenda and their eye-popping fundraising from outside sources didn’t translate into major changes in most cases.

Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate candidates raised money and supported some candidates. Jane Timken, for example, backed 42 candidates, paying for robocalls, texting services and more. And her candidates lost in many places, including Gahanna, Hilliard, Hudson, Parma, Rocky River, Bay Village, Beavercreek, and Olentangy.

Fellow Republican Senate candidate Mike Gibbons said he contributed to 73 school board candidates during this election cycle, though he didn't identify them.

A candidate in the Olentangy school district who received financial support from the wife of fellow Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Moreno also lost. Other GOP U.S. Senate contenders and conservative political groups invested in school board candidates who made Critical Race Theory and masks in K-12 schools the centerpieces of their campaigns.

Critical Race Theory is considered a graduate school-level concept and is not currently taught in any Ohio K-12 schools.

Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, says national messages just didn't resonate with some local voters.

“My own sense is that voters resent this kind of national in-road into school board races,” Beck says.

Beck says urban and suburban voters seemed less likely, overall, to embrace the national messages.

“They may be more aware of the nature of these contests and where the pressures and the money are coming from. It also could be just, we are talking about a polarized America, with people living in rural areas much more inclined to be supportive of the Trump agenda, the Republican agenda, the conservative agenda. People who live in urban and suburban areas are much less inclined to be supportive,” Beck says.

Former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper says he thinks the election gave parents who’ve stayed out of politics a way to finally speak out on things like COVID protocols.

“There’s been a silent majority for more than a year that actually thinks having kids wear masks makes sense because it will keep their kids safe. They don’t want to have their schools taken over by the same extreme politics that we see at the Statehouse. And despite all of the yelling and screaming and, even worse, threats at these school board meetings, that silent majority showed up and said, ‘enough,’” Pepper says.

Aaron Baer is the head of the Center for Christian Virtue, a group that advocated for some of the candidates who ran on conservative ideals. He says he has a couple of takeaways from the outcomes.

“One, overall, you just saw much more engagement in the election process throughout the state and across the country and for an off-year election like this which is generally a good thing. And you saw some parents really stand up and have their voices heard. But I think the big lesson here is, for those parents who really concerned about seeing systematic reform in education, you need something like the ‘Backpack Bill,’” Baer says.

The so-called Backpack Bill would expand Ohio’s existing school voucher program to allow anyone, regardless of income or address, to use state dollars to send their kids to private or religious schools. The legislation would also allow dollars for homeschooling. It's celebrated by school choice advocates like Baer, while public school advocates say it would take hundreds of millions of dollars away from public education by decreasing the amount of state money available.

Political scientist Beck says he thinks the school choice message resonated in the governor’s race in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe was defeated by Republican Glenn Youngkin, who was supported by former President Trump.

“So I think we can expect the conservative forces, particularly Trump supporters and forces, to continue to try to use those issues as wedges to continue to try to influence school boards and put their supporters on these school boards,” Beck says.

Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.