The Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, Kansas, boasts some of the top public high schools in the state. Generally, candidates for the school board sail to victory unopposed, while turnout is a meager single-digit percentage of all eligible voters.
“Very sleepy, very sedate,” said Andrew Van Der Laan, who is running for one of three contested seats on the school board in the Nov. 2 election.
But in past months, a school board meeting went virtual because of safety concerns after reported threats were made as dozens of people gathered to oppose the district’s mask policy. A group, Mask Choice 4 Kids, has held rallies and encouraged children to wear T-shirts in support of the cause and pull down their masks in coordinated protest to “peacefully disrupt the educational system … until kids and parents have a CHOICE to wear a mask in school.”
This year’s school board race is heating up in Kansas’ most populated county — and across the country.
School board meetings have become ideological battlegrounds during the pandemic, activating public comments and lawsuits over mask enforcement and other Covid-related learning requirements. They have also become a forum for fights over the teaching of critical race theory in the wake of racial justice protests in 2020. And school board recall efforts are under way in districts in several states, including Louisiana, Virginia and Wisconsin.
But this election cycle has shifted in another way: Outside special interest groups and political action committees have a toehold in nonpartisan races that might otherwise draw little interest from even local citizens, say some school board members, candidates and academics.
“It’s telling that the conception of where decisions are being made is changing,” said Van Der Laan, a father of three and self-employed business consultant and executive leadership coach who has never previously run for elected office. “You used to see presidential races, Senate races and gubernatorial races holding that influence. Now, you’re seeing it filter all the way down to the schools.”
In August, a group called The 1776 Project PAC said it was endorsing the slate of Blue Valley candidates running against Van Der Laan and two other candidates with shared interests. The endorsements are among more than 50 the PAC has made, supporting school board candidates in Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and elsewhere.
The group, which has a New York mailing address, says it rejects the “divisive philosophy” of critical race theory and “The 1619 Project,” created by The New York Times to examine the effects of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The group contends such programs are “being taught in classrooms in nearly every state across the country.”
Despite some recent efforts by GOP-controlled statehouses to ban schools’ use of critical race theory, an academic study that suggests looking at U.S. history through a lens of systemic racism, a June survey by the nonpartisan Association of American Educators found that more than 96 percent of teachers in K-12 schools said they were not required to teach the theory.
Supporters of the theory and “their positions are incredibly…