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Back to school: California Republicans bet big on local board races

Sonja Shaw is running for a seat on the Chino Valley school board in the Inland Empire, with help from the state Republican Party. “I’m running because I want to make sure that parents have a voice on the board, and to preserve the rights of a parent. During the shutdown, parents were pushed out, and we have had enough," she said on Aug. 14, 2022.
Pablo Unzueta
Sonja Shaw is running for a seat on the Chino Valley school board in the Inland Empire, with help from the state Republican Party. “I’m running because I want to make sure that parents have a voice on the board, and to preserve the rights of a parent. During the shutdown, parents were pushed out, and we have had enough," she said on Aug. 14, 2022.

Shut out from winning statewide offices, the state GOP is seeking to capitalize on parents’ anger to win local school board races in 2022 and motivate Republican voters. The party’s “Parent Revolt” program is its most ambitious school board candidate recruitment and training program ever.

When California Republicans gathered in Anaheim this spring, attention focused on candidate speeches and endorsement battles as the party tries to win its first statewide race since 2006.

But a little-noticed, hour-long session in a small conference room at the Marriott could very well be more consequential for the state GOP this election.

The meeting focused on running for local school board seats, and it was led by Shawn Steel, a former party chairperson. Now, he’s one of the biggest evangelists for strengthening the GOP by recruiting new candidates and voters in what are, officially at least, nonpartisan races.

“When you’re a minority party, like Republicans in California … you have to think, ‘Well, what can we do as a party to make a big difference?’” Steel told CalMatters. “You see the schools are just in great freefall and chaos. Parents don’t want to send their kids there. So this is the time to get people that are otherwise angst-ridden, upset, powerless.”

In California, Democrats have long used school boards as a recruiting and training ground for political candidates — with help from teachers’ unions.

But while the state Democratic party isn’t amping up its school board efforts in 2022, the GOP is going in big with its “Parent Revolt” program — what party officials call their most tailored school board recruitment and training program ever. It includes virtual training sessions that detail how and where to run for office, plus tips for digital campaigns and going door-to-door.

The goal: To capitalize on COVID pandemic frustrations and concerns over “critical race theory” and other issues among parents of school-aged children — and win not only school board seats, but also, eventually, legislative and congressional races by re-engaging core Republican voters and attracting independents.

There are about 2,500 races for local school board seats in California in November — about half of the total 5,000 seats, according to the California School Boards Association. The filing deadline for candidates was Friday, though it was extended until today for seats held by incumbents not seeking reelection. While no statewide tally exists, of the nine seats up for election in the threelargest school districts— Los Angeles, San Diego, and Fresno — three are open seats, where no incumbent is running.

The Republican Party would not disclose its goals for recruited candidates, other than as many as possible. It also wouldn’t say how much it is spending on its “Parent Revolt” effort.

“We recognized early that education is going to be a major motivating issue for many Californians this year,” said Ellie Hockenbury, spokesperson for the state GOP. “Whereas it is often the case that top-of-the-ticket races help turnout for down-ballot races, we also believe that local races could be just as big a motivator for many to drive turnout. Having strong candidates in school board races could help our slate of candidates at every level.”

Sonja Shaw with her two daughters in Chino on Aug. 14, 2022
Pablo Unzueta
Sonja Shaw with her two daughters in Chino on Aug. 14, 2022

One candidate is Sonja Shaw, who is running for a seat on the Chino Valley School Board in the Inland Empire.

Shaw, a parent of an eighth grader and a 10th grader, used to volunteer in the classroom, but says that during the pandemic, the school board became less accessible and less transparent about its decision-making. “When they closed down, parents were exited out of the school system,” she said.

Then the GOP provided a level of guidance on running a campaign that Shaw otherwise wouldn’t have had: “We were treading water, without knowing where we’re going,” she said.

These local races are hardly low-stakes: School board members around the state will be at the forefront of determining how federal funding is spent and addressing labor shortages, teacher pay and inequities in education exacerbated by the pandemic.

“I’m just trying — and the party is trying — to get the word out: There’s a whole lot of stuff going on in your backyard,” Steel said in an interview. “Don’t worry about the Ukraine, don’t worry about D.C. You can do something socially useful, and start showing up to your school board meetings.”

Will the strategy work? Some political consultants think it could be a smart way to go.

“It’s the one instance where the David really can defeat the Goliath — when David continues to be so arrogant,” said Sean Walsh, a GOP strategist.

But Rusty Hicks, chairperson of the California Democratic Party, said he sees some within the Republican Party using “this really challenging moment in our history” to further divide the state for political gain.

“Ultimately I think parents want the best education for their kids,” he told CalMatters. “And is banning books and punishing teachers and those kinds of activities – is that top of mind for parents? No, I don’t believe so.”

‘A logical outgrowth’

In California’s 2022 election, the big action on education isn’t in the statewide race for the superintendent of public instruction. That’s a departure from the last midterm election in 2018, when it was one of the state’s most hotly contested races.

With the help of teachers’ unions, Tony Thurmond narrowly defeated school choice advocate Marshall Tuck. The two — both Democrats in the nonpartisan race — spent $60 million combined. This year, there has been little challenge to Thurmond, who won 46% of the vote in the June 7 primary, just shy of the majority he needed to win outright without going to November.

His challenger on Nov. 8, Republican Lance Christensen, earned a top-two spot with only 12% of the vote. He has raised only about $55,000 so far, compared to nearly $1.7 million for Thurmond, who is also boosted by $2.3 million in independent expenditures on his behalf.

The GOP’s lack of attention on the superintendent race is a reflection of the party’s record statewide and the daunting odds of unseating a Democratic-backed incumbent, given the 2 to 1 Democratic advantage in voter registration.

Instead, Republicans have “become a party that focuses on presidential politics and local campaigns,” said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine.

The focus on school board races, he said, “is a logical outgrowth of that strategy.”

Party officials, consultants and candidates of both parties say school choice is not at the forefront of the election this year for a number of reasons, including the pandemic, the shift of the issue to the local level, and the passage of Assembly Bill 1505 in 2019, which changed how publicly funded charter schools operate in California.

This year, the GOP is seeking to capitalize on the increased political engagement of parents — which started with COVID policies, but has carried over to national issues such as “critical race theory” and sex education.

“I think there’s a real demand that this power structure is challenged and overturned, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” Steel said. “We don’t lead it. We don’t own it. But if we can help inspire people, particularly newcomers…”

The state party says it doesn’t give directly to school board candidates, but said its training provides non-monetary support. The April workshop and virtual event in July had at least 100 attendees each. The party has also conducted one-on-one sessions with prospective candidates.

"Don't worry about the Ukraine, don't worry about D.C. You can start doing something socially useful and start showing up to your school board meetings."

Similar to its California Trailblazers program, which focuses on running for legislative seats, participants received a binder of information that includes not just deadlines and required forms, but also vendor options, website design tools and tips on how to make the most of campaign funds.

There’s also a website dedicated to the cause, plus emails sent out weekly from a rotation of Republican leaders: Steel, party Chairperson Jessica Millan Patterson, U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel, gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Brian Dahle, Christensen and Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon.

During the party’s July event, speakers didn’t dictate specific talking points. Instead, they encouraged participants to focus on the issues important to their community.

Sonja Shaw, a candidate for a seat on the Chino Valley School Board, holds a state GOP training binder on Aug.14, 2022.
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Sonja Shaw, a candidate for a seat on the Chino Valley School Board, holds a state GOP training binder on Aug.14, 2022.

For Kelly Felton, a first-time candidate running for a Tustin Unified School District seat in Orange County, that issue was the “political narratives” being taught to her kids (one in 7th grade, and one who is in 10th), including critical race theory, sex education and the use of gender pronouns. 

In June 2021, she began attending Tustin Unified school board meetings, where she said she joined many other angry parents. Feeling shut out, Felton decided to enter politics, and took part in the state GOP July training session, which she said taught her “the practicality of running.”

“It did inspire me to think that I can do it,” she said.

One point emphasized in the training sessions: It usually doesn’t cost a lot to run for school board.

The cost varies depending on the district size, according to Mari Barke, a member of the Orange County Board of Education and director of the California Policy Center’s project to recruit and train local elected officials.

Barke espouses the low-cost “walk to win” strategy by going door-to-door, but acknowledges that’s not always possible in large districts, rural areas or in gated communities. That’s where mailers come in handy, and they can cost anywhere from $10,000 in a smaller district to $40,000 in a large one.

For the GOP, that’s a more cost-effective way to win seats. The state party has said it wants to focus its limited resources on congressional races, rather than statewide legislative races.

Fueled by parents’ anger over pandemic school shutdowns, a record 50 school board members in California were the targets of recalls in 2021, according to EdSource. And three San Francisco school board members were recalled in February.

Shawn Steel, former chairperson of the California Republican Party.
Photo via Wikipedia
Shawn Steel, former chairperson of the California Republican Party.

But according to Steel, running for school board in regular elections is a better use of time for candidates than recalls — which can be powerful at times, but are often short-sighted. “I like to say run or recruit. Don’t bitch to me anymore,” he said.

Hicks, the California Democratic Party leader, said the Republican party’s focus on local races is not surprising, given that the Democratic Party has largely targeted state and federal races for the last two decades.

“As a result, Republicans have been able to maintain some level of relevance on the local level,” he said.

Is Hicks worried?

“No, because at the end of the day while Republicans in California are trying to throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks — to keep people angry and to frankly, in my view, destroy a traditional free public education in California — Democrats have been focused on the most important things.”

That includes smaller class sizes and ensuring students have pathways to college and careers, Hicks said.

Schnur said that while education is an issue that Democrats believe belongs to them, the pandemic concerns could help the GOP.

“It’s more than likely that Republicans can reinforce their strengths in their regions of core support,” he said. “But it’s an open question whether they can expand beyond that base.”

Counter-messaging by Democrats

While the state Democratic Party doesn’t have a specific strategy focused on school boards, it is operating the California version of the Democrats’ national strategy called “Contest Every Race,” recruiting candidates to run for city council, school board and other local seats, with a focus on rural areas.

Hicks said the party looks to its county chapters to take the lead on local races. In Placer County, for example, the local Democratic Party is hosting phone bank events every Saturday.

In Contra Costa County, the local party responded to concerns from school board members who reported being harassed and threatened. It passed two resolutions, one supporting the pandemic measures taken by school board members and calling out “coordinated efforts by a ‘network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks’ to engage in culture war fights designed to intimidate school board members so they can be replaced by radical conservatives.”

A second resolution passed in November 2021 backed the district’s ethnic studies curriculum and criticized the effort to mislead parents into confusing critical race theory with ethnic studies.

To counter some of the anti-union messaging from GOP-recruited candidates, the California Teachers Association has spoken out in support of pro-union candidates, many of whom happen to be Democrats.

Rusty Hicks, California Democratic Party chairperson, speaks at the state Democratic Party convention in San Francisco in 2019.
Devlin Shand
Rusty Hicks, California Democratic Party chairperson, speaks at the state Democratic Party convention in San Francisco in 2019.

Hicks said that while there’s no formal partnership between the Democratic Party and the CTA, it makes sense that they’re often allied. “I think the Democratic Party is the party of working people,” he said. “I think that means not just workers on the job, but also ensuring that workers on the job get their kids a quality education.”

Lisa Gardiner, spokesperson for the 310,000-member California Teachers Association, said the union’s local chapters do endorse school board candidates, but not along partisan lines. She also disputed that teachers’ unions have too much influence over school boards, saying that “the real power resides in parents, educators, students and communities working together.”

“November’s school board elections are a critical opportunity for all of us to stand together to support racially and socially equitable schools, and the public education our students need to succeed,” she said in a statement.

Prospects for success

The state GOP isn’t alone in recruiting or training school board candidates who oppose critical race theory and vaccine mandates and take issue with school unions. Other organizations involved include Let Them Breathe, a group that advocates for more parental say, including against mask mandates; the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation; and churches, though as nonprofits, they’re not permitted to do more than provide information.

Some candidates who took part in the GOP sessions said they’ve taken part in training by other groups as well.

Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education, said while there are legitimate concerns about how school boards handled the pandemic, partisan influence can sometimes turn toxic — and isn’t politically beneficial, either.

“What I would hope is that these efforts actually engage seriously with issues that matter to voters … and not on sort of manufactured stuff about transgender athletes, or pick a topic, that these culture wars that conservative candidates in other places are running on,” Polikoff said.

How likely are candidates to succeed?

Polikoff said that depends on how much candidates can stay on message with issues that matter to parents and voters. “In my view, the reason why the Republican Party has really struggled in California is the candidates are too extreme for where the majority of the state is,” he said.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Sameea Kamal is a reporter at CalMatters covering the state Capitol and California politics. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was one of three 2020 IRE Journalist of Color fellows, and previously worked for the Center for Public Integrity. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.