Liberal and moderate candidates take control of school boards in contentious races across US

school board Pennsylvania
Democrat Susan Gibson, middle, hugs supporters after an announcement that she and fellow Democrats swept the Central Bucks, Pa., school board races on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023.
Jason Nark/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP


On Tuesday, voters across the U.S. largely rebuked conservative candidates in local school board elections who want to ban books and restrict classroom conversations on race and gender.

In recent years, down-ballot elections have become proxy votes for polarizing national issues. This time, liberal and moderate candidates took control in high-profile races in conservative Iowa, and the swing states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The American Federation of Teachers said that candidates endorsed by conservative groups such as Moms For Liberty and the 1776 Project, lost about 80% of their races nationally on Tuesday.

“They don’t want to engage in this banning of books or censoring of honest history or undermining who kids are,” Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president told The Associated Press on Wednesday, characterizing the candidates who won as “pro-public school.”

Conservative groups weren’t totally shut out though. In Pennsylvania’s York County, for instance, the 1776 Project’s political action committee said on social media that 36 of the 37 candidates they endorsed had won.

School boards, usually nonpartisan, deal with the nitty-gritty of running a key community institution that decides curriculum standards and discipline policies for students, negotiates contracts with teachers unions and sets property tax rates for homeowners.

But they also deal with some of the most divisive issues.

Pennsylvania saw a number of Democratic victories in school boards, particularly in districts that have recently seen GOP-led school boards adopt policies targeting transgender students, as well as reading materials and curriculum on LGBTQ+ history.

Turn PA Blue, a partisan political organization, said Democrats gained control of at least seven school boards and gained ground in a half-dozen others in Pennsylvania, a swing state.

In the Central Bucks School District, Democrats flipped three seats, ousting the incumbent school board president, and retained two others, giving the party majority control. Democrats also wrested control of Bucks County school boards for Council Rock and Pennridge, where supporters never imagined they’d see so much success in the swing county after the recent gains of Moms for Liberty candidates.

At contentious school board meetings in Central Bucks in the past year, students who spoke out at meetings recalled experiences where they endured hearing slurs, hate speech and sometimes violence.

Many students felt more isolated after the board barred school staff from using students’ chosen names and pronouns without parental permission. The board also enforced policies of so-called “neutrality,” which prohibited classroom discussions that opponents say targeted LGBTQ+ students.

In a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, the six Republicans who controlled the board said they enacted the policies “to put the community’s wishes into action.”

“Some of us made these issues part of our campaigns to be members of the school board and were elected; we are simply upholding the campaign promises that the majority of voters wanted,” they wrote.

But strong opinions about these policies are precisely what drove people to the polls, said Bonnie Chang, the chairperson for Turn Bucks Blue.

“I think all of that made people understand that this has to change,” she said.