Political Action Groups Battle for Texas School Board Power Amid Fights Over Book Bans and Race
By Corey Smith
Battles over removal of LGBTQ-themed books from libraries and the teaching of race in Texas schools are moving to the ballot boxes in hotly contested school board elections.
“Everything is on the line,” said Nancy Thompson, who founded the political advocacy group Mothers Against Greg Abbott to call for mask requirements in schools during the COVID pandemic and has since turned to broader political fights.
Thompson’s political action committee has raised $1,443,562 this year to support “pro-inclusion” candidates pushing back against book bans, according to finance reports from the Texas Ethics Commission. On the other side, “parental choice” groups such as Patriot Mobile Action, which has gathered $1,014,201 in fiscal 2022 contributions, are backing school board candidates who consider teachings of gender fluidity to be dangerous and discussion of race in school as divisive.
“There’s a national trend of right-wing folks who are going after these school board races,” said Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield. “I think COVID was an opening for Republicans to make inroads with suburban voters and on public education issues.”
Last spring, conservative candidates backed by Patriot Mobile, which bills itself as “America’s first Christian cell phone provider,” won 11 of 11 school board races they contested in the Keller, Southlake, Grapevine-Colleyville and Mansfield school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“We ultimately have what I like to call a ‘tyranny of the minority,’ ” said Laney Hawes, who has four children in the Keller school district north of Fort Worth. “So we have about 10 percent electorate turnout for school board elections. … The No. 1 factor is you’ve got to get people to vote. This whole 10 percent voter turnout is abysmal.”
Hawes drew national attention for speaking out against a graphic novel version of the “Diary of Anne Frank” being removed from her district’s school shelves. She went on to co-found Keller ISD Families Supporting Public Education, one of several “pro-inclusion” advocacy groups that have formed to try to counter the conservative wave at the polls.
“It used to be that on average you needed to fund raise about $5,000 for a school board race, and that was on the high end,” she said. “Now we’re at half a million dollars for these candidates. It can no longer be just a regular person in the community who has kids in the school, like a PTA president.”
In addition to raising money, Thompson says Mothers Against Greg Abbott is helping candidates in key Texas races with social media and video content and is teaming up with campaigns to get greeters out to poll locations, coordinate block walks and distribute yard signs.
“We’re filling in for what we can do to have a more comprehensive, cohesive collaboration program with everyone,” Thompson said. “From the candidates themselves all the way down to local grassroots organizations and helping them out, I like to think we’re collaborating with everybody.”
Thompson sees two Central Texas school board elections — those in the Austin and Round Rock school districts — as among the most pivotal in the state on Nov. 8.
Thompson’s group is supporting incumbent Austin school board trustee Arati Singh for the District 9 at-large seat against challenger Heather Toolin, whose campaign has focused on parents’ rights and has been linked to Moms for Liberty, a rapidly expanding right-wing nonprofit that describes itself as having “a desire to stand up for parental rights at all levels of government.”
“I have been labeled by my opponent as a hardcore conservative, which is not true at all,” Toolin said in an Oct. 19 interview with KXAN. “That is not my mode of operation at all. I really just want to represent the parents, the staff and the students.”
Toolin did not return calls by Reporting Texas.
In Round Rock, Access Education Round Rock ISD, a grassroots organization that opposes book censorship, has endorsed five candidates for the school board — Estevan Jesus “Chuy” Zárate (Place 1), Amber Feller (the Place 3 incumbent), Alicia Markum (Place 4), Amy Weir (the Place 5 incumbent) and Tiffanie Harrison (the Place 6 incumbent).
Meghna Roy, treasurer for Access Education Round Rock ISD, says the attention and animosity surrounding school board issues have accelerated in recent years.
“The extreme chaos and national attention is the worst part, but at least we are heard,” Roy said. “It is very intense in Round Rock. I understand, not everybody comes from the same background or conviction. We want everybody, irrespective of who they are, to be catered to. But one person’s conviction should not drive everybody else.”
She says she is an example of the type of voter who didn’t follow school board board politics closely in the past. “I knew there used to be meetings, but it didn’t really fundamentally impact me,” she said.
But that has changed. Now even the far-right group Proud Boys has made an appearance at a Round Rock PTA forum, she said. “Then suddenly, it’s flipped over its head, and for regular parents like me who have zero political ambition, we are pretty aware,” Roy said. “This level of intensity of involvement was not something I was expecting.”
Round Rock One Family, a political group that advocates for more conservative values and parents rights, has endorsed five candidates for the Round Rock school board — John Keagy (Place 1), Orlando Salinas (Place 3), Jill Farris (Place 4), Christie Slape (Place 5) and Don Zimmerman (Place 6). At an early voting location in Anderson Mill this month, a poll greeter from Round Rock One Family was warning incoming voters about pornography in school libraries and calling for removal of objectionable material.
Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member seeking a school board seat, says that “transgenderism” in public schools is the biggest issue among his supporters. “I’ve had a number of parents tell me that their elementary student has come home distressed, and they say, ‘Mom, are there more than two genders?’”
Among his top priorities, he said, is “firing the superintendent, because the elected board really has very little power.”
Harrison, the incumbent trustee whom Zimmerman is challenging, serves as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant for schools and districts across the country. She says she strongly opposes the removal of LGBTQ- and race-related books from school libraries.
“When you look at the list of books that have been banned across the state of Texas, they’re heavily authors of color, they are heavily LGBTQIA+, and it’s important for students to see themselves in literature,” Harrison said. “We know through other policies they’re advocating for and trying to get passed that they are seeking to minimize the presence of LGBT students.”
Zimmerman and other conservative school board candidates view social emotional learning (SEL) as being at the crux of this debate over public school curriculum and books. The SEL educational approach dates to the 1990s and seeks to help students develop social and emotional skills.
Those generally aligned with the Texas GOP say the teaching of values belongs at home, not in schools.
“What you’re really talking about is teaching someone good manners,” said Marcy Galle, who was Parker County chair for Moms for Liberty before resigning in October.
“Social emotional learning is a Trojan horse for a lot of bad curriculum items,” said Galle. “It’s become, basically teaching of attitudes, beliefs and values. It’s become very insidious, and we’re getting further from teaching basic academics.”
Leaders of the 10 other Moms for Liberty chapters in Texas did not return calls from Reporting Texas.
Among those keeping an eye on groups like Moms for Liberty is Frank Strong, an Austin teacher, who has joined the effort to support “pro-inclusion” groups and candidates by collecting information.
“I’m just a guy with a Google document,” said Strong, a high school English teacher at KIPP Austin Collegiate and an Austin school district parent.
He has worked with “pro-inclusion” groups to publish the online “Book-Loving Texan’s Guide to the November School Board Elections” to help voters recognize school board candidates whom he considers “pro-censorship” and extremist. He says he was motivated by the wave of book removals occurring in Texas schools.
“I teach 17- and 18-year-olds. I teach students who are making big moral decisions every day, deciding what they’re going to do in their future, whether they’re going to join the military. I have students who are parents,” Strong said. “It seemed to me infantilizing to my students, whom I respect, that these books were being taken away as a tool for me as an educator, taken away as a means of understanding the world for them.”
The Conroe and Tomball in suburban Houston are among the school district elections he’s watching. He says those already-conservative boards could become “hyper conservative.”
“I think it’s going to be really detrimental to students of color, to LGBTQ students in those districts,” Strong said.
Mark Smith, president of Blue Action Democrats-South Central Austin, says he’s seen mobilization by the “pro-inclusion” groups succeed.
“Out in the Westlake district, for example, the west and southwest Austin Blue Action groups got really involved in those elections and were successful in keeping some of these ‘parental rights candidates’ from taking over the school board in May,” Smith said. “They were super energized in that particular election. Also, in Leander, we’ve got the North Austin chapter trying to keep those candidates off of the school board there. We’re really pushing people to look at the downballot races.”
Thompson and Mothers Against Greg Abbott, meanwhile, are continuing to work to mobilize voters — and then make plans for the Texas Legislature to reconvene next year.
“We just have to get through November,” Thompson said. “Then get set up for January. Get everybody trained to start participating in democracy by showing up at the Capitol and advocating for good legislation.”