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Lessons learned from spring school board elections

By Libby Sobic

The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to set up the perfect opportunity for education reform to sweep across the nation. And in some places it did—in  West Virginia and Kentucky, legislatures embraced new education reforms. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case in Wisconsin.

Even though several groups of Wisconsin parents pushed back on their local school board decisions on re-openings, and even mounted real challenges to current board member seats, many of these efforts were defeated by the public-school establishment. The election results were mixed and seemingly fell along party lines—conservative areas saw successful school board challenges, while liberal-leaning areas did not.

In Mequon-Thiensville, a suburban area near Milwaukee, the local school district’s decision to go virtual for the start of the 2020-21 school year motivated parents to work together to change the school board. In response to frustrations with the local school board, this year’s school board race was crowded with all three incumbents challenged by new candidates. Andrew Hopkins, an outsider running on transparency and academic rigor for students won the election with 21 percent of the votes, the most out of all of the candidates.

But the success of school board newcomer Hopkins’ campaign did not come easily. It required immense coordination and effort by Hopkins and his supporters to run a campaign for the first time. Similar efforts were seen in other conservative areas in the state.

There was a sweep of the Wausau school board election after a contentious year. All four candidates were supported by the Republican Party of Marathon County and three of the candidates, Jon Creisher, Cody Nikolai and Karen Vandenberg, ran on a combined platform calling for a return to in-person schooling and overall reforms to “restore confidence in the district.” But this success came at a high cost—with the three raising and spending over $30,000 on the campaigns.

Similar efforts were coordinated and turned out successful in other school board races, like Oak Creek-Franklin. The creation of a PAC, Take Back the Board, was able to raise money and support a sweep by three challengers to the board. This coordinated funding support was critical with the incumbent receiving more than $3,000 in contributions from Democratic Party of Wisconsin. This was a far larger donation compared to any conservative PACs or parties for the Oak Creek-Franklin candidates.

The need to raise significant campaign funding and coordinate campaigns will continue to be a barrier for other motivated parents who don’t have similar support networks within their communities.

The need to outraise the incumbents, often backed by local unions, remained a barrier for many reform-minded campaigns. The Oregon School District, a suburban district just outside of Madison, saw a similarly crowded race that required a primary before the April election. Despite the efforts by parents to overturn the board, both candidates backed by the local teacher’s union won. Josh King, an Oregon parent and first-time challenger to the race, chose not to fundraise and spent his own money on the race. He lost to the union-supported candidate who raised over $5,000 for the campaign and spent nearly double as much as Josh during the race.

The takeaway from these Wisconsin school board races is a hard and important one. As education reform becomes more partisan than ever, success will be dependent on both mobilizing parent voices and local support to combat the status quo.  But a silver lining remains: parents are paying attention to their local school boards like never before.

As Oregon school board candidate Josh King said, after losing his bid for the Oregon School district but drawing nearly double the number of votes from previous school board elections, “Tonight’s election results showed that there is a large and growing population of parents who want a say in their children’s education. And while we did not win this election, this is just the beginning of our efforts to take back our education system from radicals and outside parties.”

Libby Sobic is director of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL)

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