In suburban Maryland restaurants and warehouses, activists and frustrated parents have gathered by the dozens this past year. They’re hanging American flags, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and nodding their heads as speakers have encouraged them to take control of their schools.
Their meetings spring from exasperation after months of pandemic-related disruptions to education. But while they oppose mask, testing and vaccine mandates for students, their mission has broadened to push back against schools using books with gender identity and immigration themes, as well as lessons on race and other social issues that parents fear label their children as oppressors.
The activists say they’re building a movement that will “stiffen the spines” of moderate Republicans and replace government officials whose political beliefs are at odds with theirs, which mirror those of former President Donald Trump.
They’re in the closing weeks of efforts to recruit candidates for nonpartisan school board races in places like Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, where at least 17 seats are up for election. Organizers say they’re hearing a lot of interest in the races, but it’s too soon to tell how many candidates will run.
Some Maryland Democrats and civil rights activists view the movement as one that threatens to give far-right parents control of suburban school systems — unless Democrats, too, find people willing to run by an April 15 filing deadline.
On a chilly evening in November, dozens of parents packed a Towson pub, eager to learn how to resist school mask mandates.
Organizers mingled and sold raffle tickets to benefit the Baltimore County Parent & Student Coalition, which blossomed from protests of the county school system’s prolonged closures during the 2020-21 academic year. Attendees received a five-page guide to education governance, with contact information for the state’s educational and health leaders, as well as talking points to use with principals and teachers’ union heads. It also explained how to volunteer as an election judge.
The meeting was organized by parents Kate Sullivan and Laura Hartman, who believe their interests aren’t represented on school boards. They’ve hosted a number of such gatherings in hopes of getting more parents involved in education politics.
“It was that mama bear moment: ‘My kid is not OK and I need to do something about it,’” Hartman said of deciding to organize the meetings. “I think parents have been feeling powerless.”
The events and others organized by similar groups across the region appeal to voters who worry about government overreach and oppose critical race theory or systemic racism being discussed in classes, along with what they say is a growing influence of Marxism in education. They’ve attracted people who have never been involved in politics, including independent voters, those who have left the Republican Party, and even the occasional Democrat, organizers said.
The movement has encouraged political newcomer Maggie Litz Domanowski to seek a Baltimore County school board seat.
The mom of three elementary school students didn’t follow local politics until she tuned in to school board meetings in the fall of 2020. She said she was stunned by the rude way members spoke to one another. And, on social media, parents debated with hostility whether to reopen school buildings.
“I just felt like I was being demonized for wanting my son to go back in schools,” Litz Domanowski said.
When Litz Domanowski decided to run, the coalition helped her navigate filing paperwork and fundraising, she said.
Litz Domanowski identifies with voters who oppose COVID-19 mandates in schools, don’t want transgender students competing in sports that align with their gender identity, and seek to bar certain classroom discussions regarding race. Still, she believes school board elections come down to candidates’ stances on local educational issues—not national party platforms.
“I’m going to be in this community for a long time,” she said. “Why not give it a try?”
While education has long been a battleground for the nation’s culture wars, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement brought new scrutiny.
Maryland schools were among the last in the nation to reopen after the pandemic’s initial wave of lockdowns in 2020, with Baltimore County one of the last districts in the state to do so. Its school board members bickered over the decision, leaving some parents appalled by both the pace of the return to classrooms and the vitriol the topic engendered.
When reopening advocates announced in January 2021 that they had incorporated to form the parent coalition, its leaders pledged to identify viable candidates for school board seats in 2022.
“We’d love to have involved parents who’ve really been paying attention this year to step up,” said coalition leader Amy Adams. She became interested in local politics shortly after schools closed and packets of schoolwork were sent home for her children. That made her worry that there wasn’t a plan for returning students to classrooms.
According to Maryland law, school board members are nonpartisan (they run for four-year terms in the general election in November, not in party primaries in July). .
Until recent years, the governor appointed local school board members. As counties transitioned to elected boards or a hybrid of members (some elected in districts within a county, others appointed at-large), high-profile races have been rare. Still, interest groups, such as teachers’ unions, have courted and endorsed candidates. Officials with the Maryland State Education Association, the umbrella union representing teachers, say local units determine whether to endorse candidates.
In principle, the goal of the coalition is to be nonpartisan, but the group is “not perfect,” Adams said.
“We do have a lot of members who think alike, but we also have members who challenge that, and I appreciate that,” she said.
The coalition is opposed to mask or vaccine mandates in schools. It has partnered, on occasion, with Republican groups or activists, such as the Reagan Club of Baltimore County and former Republican state delegate Pat McDonough of Baltimore County. He said he was inspired to help the coalition by an America First agenda he attributed to the Trump campaign.
The coalition established the Children 1st PAC in the fall to raise money to support school board campaigns. In an affidavit, the PAC notified the state in January that it had raised less than $1,000. The coalition hasn’t endorsed any candidates and its leaders have not said whether they will do so.
At another meeting in Howard County last fall, about 70 people gathered in an Elkridge warehouse beneath signs that read “Student Lives Over Political Lies.” Speakers encouraged the unmasked audience to “take a stand” against the professional leadership of the county school system, which they described as infiltrated by communist thinking in the education departments of top universities.
A Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Gordana Schifanelli, and Towson University professor Anthony Campbell told the nearly all-white audience that they didn’t believe in structural racism and that teaching such a concept only divides people.
Schifanelli, a parent-turned-politician, described to the audience how she pushed to oust Andrea Kane as Queen Anne’s County’s superintendent after Kane wrote “Black Lives Matter” in an email to families with students in the Eastern Shore school system. Kane didn’t seek to renew her contract when it expired last year.
Campbell, who is running for a seat on Baltimore County Council, said the wealth gap in the US is the result of Black families buying houses in areas of high crime and poorly performing schools, which he called “a self-inflicted wound.” Audience members murmured, “Yes.” Black people were historically barred from predominantly white neighborhoods through discrimination and harmed by racist policies such as redlining, in which banks and insurers denied services to homebuyers in specific areas.
Willie Flowers, president of the NAACP in Howard County, said the statements at the Elkridge event take “us back to 1950, and that is very unfortunate. Attacks like these result in people storming the US Capitol and breaking into the school district headquarters in 2021.” He referred to a burglary at the Ellicott City building the same evening as the riot in Washington; county police said surveillance video showed a white man breaking glass doors.
Maryland Democrats foresee the possibility of a partisan shift on school boards in the next election if they can’t encourage more centrist candidates to run. In Baltimore County’s 2018 election, candidates won with as few as 13,000 votes, meaning a few thousand motivated voters could control an outcome.
“There is a significant opening and an alarm needs to be raised here,” said Nick Stewart, a Democrat and former Baltimore County school board member. The question, he said, is whether “levelheaded” people who approach education from a nonpartisan perspective will be willing to enter the fray.
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In Howard County, Kelly Klinefelter, part of the Howard Progressive Project, a recently founded nonprofit group, said she is concerned about the “threat of what truly is a nationally funded conservative movement coming into Howard County under the guise of parent voice.”
She believes the conservative activists want to teach an “incomplete history of the United States” and remove the rights of LGBTQ students. County conservatives recently filed a police report on the school system’s use of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. The county school system is waiting for a ruling from the Democratic state’s attorney on whether it’s a criminal matter before it reviews the book’s use.
Other books, such as those dealing with immigration issues, have led to debates in places like Queen Anne’s, according to Schifanelli.
Schools have been a political battleground during several periods in recent US history, from the Red Scare of the 1950s, when communists were said to be indoctrinating children, to the 1990s, when the Christian right attempted to take control of school boards, said Melissa Deckman , professor of political science at Washington College.
But American suburban counties are diverse and harder for conservatives to win than they might have been in the past. Much, she said, will be determined by the context of the election in November, including the state of the economy nationwide and the pandemic.
“The difference now is that you have parents who are at the end of their rope,” she said. “That general disgruntlement is fertile ground for folks on the right who are organizing.”