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How language and 'code' are being used in Jefferson Co. school board elections

Election 2022
A mother votes early at The Jeffersonian on Nov. 3, 2022.

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · How language and ‘code’ are being used in Jefferson Co. School Board elections

Over the last two years, schools have become an arena for culture wars. Conservative activists have ignited a nationwide frenzy over mask mandates and supposed leftist indoctrination in public schools, including in Jefferson County.

Now, these issues are injecting polarizing political elements into nonpartisan school board elections.

The General Election will be the first time voters in Jefferson County will have a chance to weigh in on these education battles at the ballot box.

Conservative activist groups are outnumbered in Democrat-dominated Louisville. But the dollars spent against them suggest opponents, like the Jefferson County teachers union, aren’t taking any chances.

A ‘conservative insurgency’

JCPS parent Jennifer Griffin founded the “Jefferson County Kids Matter” Facebook group in 2020. She was frustrated over the shutdown of schools and athletics during the first year of the pandemic.

The group, which now has about 3,000 members, evolved over the next two years and coalesced around issues that resonated with conservatives nationally.

Members of the group have organized anti-mask rallies outside the district’s central office building, disrupted school board meetings, called for book bans, and delivered fiery public comment against mask mandates, diversity training, and the lack of armed police in school buildings.

Now, their mission is to be on the other side of the dais.

“When we started going into election season we needed to find some candidates to run against the current board,” Griffin said.

The slate of four candidates they landed on talk about school safety as their top concern.

They highlight the increases in behavioral issues that have been documented in Jefferson County and across the country since the pandemic started. Some connect those behavioral issues to the teacher and bus driver shortages plaguing the district.

“I think the glaring issue by far is safety,” Griffin said. “Teachers are fed up, parents are obviously fed up. Kids can’t learn.”

Along with school safety, there are other common themes among the candidates Griffin’s group is backing. All four challengers say they are proponents of “parental involvement,” “parent voice” or “parent rights.” Some candidates talk about the need for “nonpartisan education” or a “back-to-basics” approach to learning.

Binghamton University history professor Adam Laats said to many who are unaware of the culture wars playing out in American schools, these phrases sound innocuous and even persuasive. But to voters mobilized by the so-called “critical race theory,” or CRT, controversy, phrases like “parental rights” are code for the desire of mostly white, conservative parents to dictate curriculum that supports their worldview.

Some candidates also talk about “school choice” or make explicit appeals to private school parents, signaling a support for school privatization initiatives such as charter schools and tax-credit scholarship programs, which hold sway amongst many conservative voters.

“When someone says, ‘I'm for parental rights’ … they don't mean, you know, ‘in general’ ... they mean a specific kind of parental rights,” Laats said.

Laats says these candidates are part of a larger national “conservative insurgency” running for school boards. And the coded language they use, Laats says, harkens back to other moments in American history, like Alice Moore’s run for school board in Kanawha County, West Virginia back in the 1970s.

Moore’s opposition to new multicultural textbooks gathered momentum and eventually spurred Ku Klux Klan violence. She won a seat on her local school board, using much of the same language conservative school board candidates are using in this November’s election cycle.

“It's not, ‘Get the Black authors out of the textbooks,’ which is what her campaign was about,” Laats said. “It was ‘parental rights,’ and ‘high-quality schools,’ … it was ‘back to basics.’”

While today’s candidates in Jefferson County are careful to speak in what Laats calls code, the PACs backing them are more explicit.

“The Jefferson County School Board has allowed children to be subjected to radical political agendas,” an ominous voiceover says in one attack ad from Kentucky Tomorrow, Inc., a PAC that’s spent at least $63,000 so far in independent expenditures campaigning for conservative challengers.

“The district is secretly teaching critical race theory, making pornography accessible, masking children and raising your taxes,” the ad continues.

Griffin, who describes herself as a moderate, said concerns about so-called “critical race theory” are at the bottom of her list of issues and that she is not personally opposed to diversity and inclusion efforts in schools.

“I’m Arab-Jew,” she said. “I mean, do you think I would support a candidate that didn’t include kids that were Arab or Jewish heritage?”

Griffin said she doesn’t think her candidates’ platforms are partisan. Asked why her group draws in conservatives rather than liberals, Griffin said she hasn’t “done a deep dive into all that.”

“All I know is: I want normal for these kids,” she said.

The teacher’s union spends big

This Jefferson County Board of Education election is the most expensive one Brent McKim can remember. McKim is the longtime president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) and advises the union’s PAC, Better Schools Kentucky (BSK).

BSK has spent more than $770,000 this election cycle campaigning for four incumbents on the Jefferson County Board of Education. That money comes from a mix of donations and union members’ dues. JCTA members pay around $100 a month to be a part of the organization.

One reason this year’s school board elections are so expensive is that each incumbent has drawn at least one serious challenger. But, McKim said, he’s concerned the challengers won’t support racial equity efforts and diversity training in JCPS, where students of color make up the majority of the district.

“We believe every learner deserves a welcoming environment,” McKim said. “And part of that means you need diversity training.”

Given the political leanings of Jefferson County, the conservative challengers are at a disadvantage overall, even in a nonpartisan election. But in some school board districts, there may be enough highly-motivated conservative voters to oust more centrist or left-leaning incumbents. 

That’s why, McKim said, the union is spending more in Districts 5 and 3, which have pockets of conservative voters.

Whether this slate of conservative challengers is successful or not, their movement will likely be a presence in boardrooms and elections to come, bringing more partisanship with them.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.