'Parents are rising up': York County school board races now a battlefield in culture war

Mike Argento
York Daily Record

When Ellen Freireich first ran for York Suburban school board in 1993, she didn’t see herself as a politician. 

She still doesn’t. Serving on the school board, any school board, she believes, should be above politics. It’s a matter of public service, overseeing the operations of the public schools and ensuring that the district’s children get the best possible education. It’s not a matter of ideology.  

That’s how school boards were designed, to be apolitical, even though they are political entities, selected via election. School board members can cross-file – running on both Republican and Democratic ballots in the primaries. Often, it is difficult to tell the party affiliation of candidates. Also, school board elections are held on off-years, when the politics of more traditionally political campaigns aren’t on voters’ minds.  

Attendees shout and point as several South Western School District school board members walk out of an emergency meeting at the high school in Penn Township on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. The meeting was canceled after more than one hundred attendees refused to put on a face covering.

York County voters guide 2021:Get to know the candidates on your ballot

But nothing has prepared her for this year when national politics have seeped into what has mostly been a locally focused election in the form of opposition to mask and vaccine mandates and concerns about critical race theory being introduced into public school curricula.  

Politicization doesn't end with the issues, as locals have been digging up dirt on some school board candidates. York Suburban candidate Quentin Gee’s social media posts of him sharing his relief in the deaths of Republican Sen. Mike Reese and an Arkansas Republican county chairman, who were both against the COVID-19 mask mandates – along with a video of him receiving a lap dance at the Sturgis Rally in 2019 to receive VIP concert tickets – were surfaced by political opponents.

Another York Suburban candidate, Cecilia Clark, had her criminal record made public by locals on Facebook, citing incidents as recent as 2019 – and including a DUI in 2016.

“I think there’re a lot more politics involved than there used to be,” said Freireich, who’s married to long-time York Sunday News columnist Gordon Freireich. “We’re not talking about issues and what’s best for the children. It’s becoming much more political than it was. At times, we’re not in the same boat as we used to be.” 

'It's very simple' 

The politicization of school board elections is not just happening in York Suburban. It is occurring all throughout York County, the state and the nation for a variety of reasons. 

Chad Baker, chairman of the York County Democratic Party, believes that it’s “a carryover” from the 2020 election, “but really probably the last four years as well. I think nationally we've had a pretty politically divisive time, and I feel like that's something that's carrying over now even into our local politics.” 

Baker’s GOP counterpart, Jeff Piccola, agrees that some national issues have filtered down to local school board races. But he believes it’s more of a grass-roots movement.  

“I think parents are waking up to the fact that there are groups of people out there who wish to take their kids and educate them the way they want to be educated, not necessarily the way the parents think they should be educated,” Piccola said. “And many parents are rising up and fighting back. It's very simple.” 

Some candidates bill themselves as “Real Republicans,” a response to Democrats who had cross-filed and, in Piccola’s words, “were running a very deceptive campaign that were trying to pretend that they were actually Republicans.” 

More education news:Central York book ban supporters fear a Trojan horse to critical race theory. What is it?

Some are expressing their desire to fully re-open schools – many of which are under state and federal guidelines intended to curb the spread of COVID-19. Some candidates have accused sitting school board members or opposing candidates of indoctrinating students in critical race theory.  

For instance, in the Suburban race, candidate Cecilia Clark, speaking at an August school board meeting, endorsed the use of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID, though the Food and Drug Administration had determined that neither drug is an effective treatment of the disease. 

Clark also criticized the school for inviting poet and activist Zetta Elliott, who wrote a collection of poems titled "Say Her Name," about victims of police violence, to the district.   

Matthew Lechowicz reads off his phone as he addresses attendees at a South Western School District emergency board meeting at South Western High School in Penn Township on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. A few minutes prior it was announced that the meeting was canceled after attendees refused to put on a face covering.

At that August school board meeting, Clark said Elliott “told these kids that if they were of a certain skin color they’re guilty, they’re privileged and inherently advantaged because of it. Oh yes, the abhorrent and divisive critical race theory assaults York Suburban School District.” She concluded that “telling kids that they are bad because of their skin color used to be called racist. It still is racist and there is no excuse for it.” 

Masking mandates and critical race theory have also surfaced in races in Central, South Western and other area districts. One candidate in the South Western race, Justin Lighty, is running on a platform that includes “protecting (students) from political indoctrination, exposure to chemicals (school lunch ingredients, possible forced vaccination with new vaccines), and most of all, unwarranted sexual exposure to young minds.” 

More school board news:Central York school board votes unanimously to rescind book ban: 'It has taken far too long'

Not all Republican candidates are in line with these issues. Laura Bond, running as a Republican in Central, had joined with three other GOP candidates in the primary, incumbents Veronica Gemma and Tim Strickler and Faith Casale, but split from them for the general election, saying she was turned off by how political the race had become. Gemma, Strickler and Casale did not respond to requests for interviews. 

“This is about kids, this is about families, this is about taxpayers, and I'm sick and tired of the arguing, I really am,” she said. “And I want us to get back to core academics.” 

In these polarized times, it’s difficult to find a Democrat and a Republican agree on anything. But Democratic candidate Amy Milsten seems to agree with Bond. 

“None of us expected it to be this big of a deal,” she said. “None of us are politicians. This was never supposed to be a political thing, this was a moral thing we were doing because we thought we could make a difference.” 

Parents have been speaking out 

Parents have expressed their concerns at school board meetings that the way some districts are trying to incorporate diversity and discussions of race into curriculum has not been fully thought out. 

At the Sept. 20 meeting of the Central school board, a mother of two students, Christina Hardesty, spoke out in favor of removing some of the books from the controversial diversity resource list.  

She specifically objected to two books on the list, “A is for Activist” and “Not My Idea,” that she said promoted ideas like socialism and anarchistic behavior to young children. “A is for Activist,” she said, introduced children to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a Mexican revolutionary group. 

“It's not that parents don't want their children to learn about diversity,” she told the board. “I certainly do. It has to do with these, just a few books, a few books on this resource list that we're unhappy with and the school board needed time to suss out what was inappropriate and what was OK." 

Check out:South Western school board meeting ends in chaos after attendees refuse to wear masks

'This isn't anything new' 

This is not exactly a new phenomenon.  

Fifteen years ago, the board of the Dover Area School District attempted to insert the teaching of “intelligent design” into the science curriculum. Parents objected and sued. After a 40-day federal court trial, then-U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III issued a blistering opinion against the board, writing that the board’s decision was merely an attempt to introduce creationism into the science curriculum. The board’s defeat in the case resulted in the judge receiving death threats and in Dover having to pay more than $1 million to partially cover the plaintiffs’ legal expenses. 

The next election, the majority of the board was defeated. 

“This isn’t anything new,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at the Teachers College of Columbia University and co-author of the book “Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics.”  

“For a long time, local school politics were local, that decision-making should reflect the community’s values, that schools should be responsive to local priorities,” he said. “That didn’t work out so well. For instance, in the South, it meant white control of schools and separate-but-equal doctrines.” 

Out of ideological or political interests, Henig said, “The last two or three decades saw growing roles of state and national government in education. The last 10 or 15 years, we’ve seen national political groups get involved in local education. National interests fighting national battles see local school districts as battlefields, and they believe they should get their feet on the ground there.” 

To some extent, it has nothing to do with education. Henig said it’s all about politics and power. The same conservative interests trying to regain power are fighting for suburban voters who abandoned them in 2020 and view “resentment” over critical race theory and masking as a way “to reanimate voters who drifted from Trump and get them back into the Republican column, Henig said.  

“We’re seeing it as a hyper and more expansive form now,” Henig said. And it plays on nostalgia to “get back to the good old days, which weren’t so good for a lot of people who weren’t white men” and anxiety about economics and other factors, “the sense that they’re being buffered by bigger forces.” 

Across the country, school boards have become battlefields in the culture war. National conservative think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, have produced training manuals for school board candidates instructing them on how to talk about critical race theory and take over school boards, Henig said.

For example, in Texas, a state law mandates, among other things, public school teachers to provide opposing points of view “without giving deference to any one perspective” when discussing current events or controversial public policy or social issues.  

That law led the executive director of curriculum and instruction of the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake to tell teachers, “Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979 and make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”  

One teacher, recorded on audio at the meeting, asked, “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” 

South Western School District board president Vanessa Berger announces for the second time that an emergency meeting has been canceled and that attendees need to leave the building at South Western High School in Penn Township on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.

'It's very disturbing' 

The notion of universal and public education in the United States dates to 1647, when the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony established the uniquely American tradition of free schools governed by elected or appointed lay citizens.  

In Pennsylvania, universal public education was established by the Free Schools Act of 1834, signed into law by then Gov. George Wolf. (No relation of current Gov. Tom Wolf.) An attempt to repeal the law in 1835 was fought off by then state Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, who condemned the forces for repeal as a “war cry and battle axe of ignorance.” 

The state established locally elected school boards, intending to remove school control from the hands of those who voiced that war cry and wielded that battle axe. 

“School board elections (in Pennsylvania) were intended to be nonpartisan,” said Chris Lilleinthal, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “The idea was this office was less partisan than other offices.” 

South Western:Who's on ballot for 2021 school board election, and what do they stand for?

But, he said, “I think this hasn’t been happening this year. Most years, school board races turned on local issues and were driven by local concerns. In the past, it seemed that once elected, school board members set partisanship aside and did the job. This year feels different.” 

It seems, Lilleinthal said, candidates running for school board by opposing anti-COVID measures and critical race theory are motivated by national politics, a desire by some of those on the political spectrum to “divide communities along racial and political lines.” 

“It’s very disturbing,” he said. “We’re troubled to hear some of the rhetoric from some of the candidates out there. But we caution that the loudest voices aren’t reflective of the voices of most people in the community.” 

No public-school districts, he said, are teaching critical race theory, an academic pursuit that is studied in law and graduate schools. It seems that the criticism of critical race theory arose from efforts by teachers to teach accurate and diverse versions of history, versions that reflect that reality of history.  

“We’re very concerned about this issue being brought out as a stunt to divide communities,” he said. “It amounts to censorship, how teachers can talk about race and racism. It stifles critical thinking about race and other questions. It’s denying teachers the ability to teach.” 

'The Great Parent Revolt of 2021' 

Conservatives are calling the increased engagement in school board races “The Great Parent Revolt of 2021.” 

The movement, they say, began with parents becoming concerned about curriculum in their local schools.  

“Whether it’s age-inappropriate sex education, critical race theory, or anti-American history, parents are seeing more of what their children are learning — thanks to COVID’s virtual learning — and they don’t like it,” Katharine C. Gorka, director for civil society and the American dialogue at The Heritage Foundation, wrote on Real Clear Politics in April. “As a result, parents are organizing, speaking out, and pushing back, and they are having a noticeable impact.” 

Gorka believes this year’s revolt will change education in America forever. 

“The bottom line is that education in America will likely never be the same, thanks to the Great Parent Revolt of 2021, and that’s good news,” she wrote. “For decades, many parents have outsourced the raising of their children to the schools, trusting that administrators, school board members, and teachers would share their values. We blindly believed that schools would care about our children as much as we do. We believed that if the teaching went astray, if the books were inappropriate, or if the civics and history were a little un-American, what we did at home would serve as a gentle correction and all would be well. The past two years have taught us how wrong we were.” 

'A crisis of information'  

How did it come to this? 

Dr. Stephan Medvic, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, has some ideas. 

“In this age of polarization,” he said, “it’s hard to avoid.” 

There is a sense, he said, that everything has become nationalized, “even down to the local level.” 

Part of it has to do with the influence of national cable news networks that express certain political views. Opinions of how our schools are operating are not based on what’s happening locally, but what’s being reported on Fox News or MSNBC. For many voters, he said, the bulk of information they receive comes from national sources. The lessening influence of “robust local journalism” has contributed to the nationalizing of local school board races. 

We are experiencing, he said, “a crisis of information,” noting that the media landscape has had a tectonic shift in the past few years, with community journalism being starved of resources or even going out of business and ceding the ground to media outlets that have axes to grind. 

Take critical race theory. Conservative provocateurs have conflated the academic pursuit with diversity education and how history is taught in public schools, the founder of the movement being a self-described “political brawler” who told The New Yorker that he viewed critical race theory as “the perfect villain.” 

“For the most part,” Medvic said, “candidates and voters are really sincere about it. Maybe the fear is misplaced. But that’s the narrative out there. 

“It may be a sincere concern, but it reflects the information environment where everybody gets one message. ... All they hear is that national message.” 

He concluded, “It’s hard to have a democracy without good information. It’s hard to navigate. I hope we figure it out. In a pandemic, it’s particularly harmful. If you get bad information, you might die.” 

'Just wish it was not so partisan' 

Freireich, the York Suburban school board member, tries to get good information to her constituents.  

On the masking issue, she said, the Pennsylvania Department of Health mandated masks, and that’s what the board did. 

“I wish masks hadn’t become so politicized,” she said. “We’re in a national, and international, pandemic and science has told us that wearing masks definitely helps. We follow the science, and it’s working.” 

Addressing critical race theory, she said, “it’s not really an issue at this point. It’s not a part of state standards, and it’s not being taught at York Suburban. We have enough things to cover in the state standards without putting something in there that’s not part of the state standards.” 

This election year has been distressing, she said. 

“It’s become more divisive than other years I’ve run,” she said. “I just wish it was not so partisan.” 

Columnist/reporter Mike Argento has been a Daily Record staffer since 1982. Reach him at 717-771-2046 or at mike@ydr.com. Staffers Jack Panyard and Elena Tzivekis contributed to this report.