April Carney is less than two months into her new role as board member for the Duval County Public Schools system in northeast Florida.
Carney assumed her seat on Nov. 21. On Dec. 6, she found herself on the losing side of a 5–2 vote in favor a supplemental sex education curriculum package for the district. She argued that the supplemental materials do not meet with state standards because they omit medical side effects of gender-transition surgery and do not aid in teaching about reproductive health or STIs and HIV.
Backed by the pro-liberty activist group Moms for Liberty during her school board campaign, Carney saw herself as a parent who was not being heard. Galvanized by what she saw as the district’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carney ran against and defeated incumbent Elizabeth Andersen, whom local conservative parents viewed as the most liberal member of the school board.
Carney won her seat in August 2022, amid a wave of conservative victories in school board elections across the country buoyed by support from right-of-center politicians, political action committees, and grassroots groups, including Moms for Liberty.
In Sarasota, Florida, “[v]oters in the Republican-leaning county flipped the school board Tuesday night from a 3-2 liberal majority to a 4-1 conservative majority,” Fox 4 reported in August. The new majority subsequently oversaw the resignation of then–Superintendent Brennan Asplen in November–December of last year.
In Texas, “[a]ll but one of the 11 Tarrant County conservative school board candidates … defeated their opponents” in the May 7 election, the Texas Tribune reported.
Those victories fell short of Wisconsin’s clean sweep the month before. There, as Wisconsin Family Action reported, “[c]onservative school board candidates had a banner night on [April 5], winning all the available seats in Wausau, Manitowoc, Waukesha, Menomonee falls, Elm Brook, New Berlin, Mukwonago, Kewaskum, West Bend, and Germantown.”
Conservative momentum did not let up last year. Of the seven school board seats in southwest Riverside County, California, five went to what a local news outlet deemed “conservative Christian candidates.”
The 2022 school board elections culminated months of impassioned debate and outrage from parents over educators’ handling of COVID-19 mandates, sexually explicit classroom materials, cascading academic standards, and student discipline. In many respects, these wins constituted the so-called electoral red wave that never materialized in the midterm congressional elections.
That is the view the national media portrays: sensational and bitter political fights between parents and school board members played out through monthly meetings.
But those high-stakes debates are not the whole story. On the ground, parents and school members like Carney shirk politics.
“I wish we didn’t have to address these issues,” Carney said in a phone interview, referencing a local debate on whether transgender students should use bathrooms according to their biological sex.
Sex education and transgender identities are big topics in Duval in the wake of a recent controversy.
In late November, the school district cut ties with the local LGBTQ group JASMYN, which had organized or produced many sex education–based materials and programming taught and distributed in the schools. Controversy erupted when the group posted a sexually explicit Instagram post featuring a card game based on male genitalia.
Nonetheless, Carney’s primary concern is the falling literacy rate among students.
“If [students] can’t read at third grade, they won’t be able to get minimum-wage jobs,” she said.
Speaking on educational attainment and making the school board more transparent for local parents, Carney’s approach to public service reflects an underreported trend in the national media’s coverage of sensationalized K-12 controversies.
Parents and school board members who identify as center-right are not out for political victories, as many mainstream media outlets would have audiences believe. These individuals are excited by procedures, policies, and processes that many would find mundane. They are not hoping for conservative domination of school boards: They want balance between both sides and more transparency and communication from elected leaders.
To that end, these conservatives see high-profile topics such as sex education, transgender inclusivity, and COVID-19 protocols as symptoms of the structural problems that negatively impact the operation of the K-12 education system. Approximately two months into new terms following the whirlwind 2022 elections, conservative parents are hoping for process reforms, not ideological victories.
Rebecca “Becky” Nathanson is the Moms for Liberty chapter chair for Duval County and a supporter of Carney.
Nathanson is full of optimism, saying that parents in her circle sense a “snowball” effect of parents’ rights growing throughout the district.
Her proof? Not in the sex education. Her side lost that vote.
Nathanson is referring to the school district’s current legislative platform, which now includes multiple references to “Florida(’s) parents and families.” She sees the inclusion as evidence that the school district is finally listening to parents from different backgrounds and soliciting diverse points of view.
Duval is not the only place where pro-liberty education activists are excited about mundane legislative processes.
In Berkeley County, South Carolina, the newly elected school board, with a new conservative majority, fired Superintendent Deon Jackson in a 6–3 vote. During that same Nov. 15 session, the Berkeley County School Board named Dr. Anthony Dixon, a senior-level educator in the district, as Jackson’s interim replacement.
Christi Dixon, chair of Berkeley County’s chapter of Moms for Liberty, said in an interview that she was “shocked” and that the “entire room was caught off guard.”
But Dixon’s account of the incident contained none of the enthusiasm she reserved for South Carolina Senate Bill 910, which designated campaigns for eight out of nine school board seats as “nonpartisan elections from single-member districts in which they are residents, coterminous with county council districts.”
Dixon credits the new law with allowing greater viewpoint representation on this term’s board. What she really wants is a responsive and accountable elected body.
“They don’t respond,” Dixon says of the members that composed the previous board.
Dixon criticizes the presence of sexually graphic books in school libraries and classrooms, such as Looking for Alaska and Dear Martin. But she sounds more focused on making school board members responsive to parent concerns and accountable for their actions.
Dixon proposes that the school district create a parental advisory board to provide the superintendent’s office with parental input, in addition to the teacher input the administration already receives.
Across the country in California, Jennifer Grinager is settling into her Templeton School Board seat after winning her election in November.
Grinager has a professional background in therapy and has been audibly passionate about children’s mental health and safety. She blames draconian COVID-19 mandates for making them angrier and creating a countywide discipline issue in San Luis Obispo County.
A March 2022 YouTube video shows Grinager holding back tears as she speaks to the Atascadero Unified School District about the effect masking has had on students’ emotional and intellectual development.
She founded the county’s Moms for Liberty chapter and displays as much intensity as any mom I spoke with about what motivated her to become a K-12 activist. But how did she characterize her first board meeting on Dec. 15?
“Fine,” she said.
Grinager hedges when discussing her concerns about sexually explicit books in schools and community libraries by stressing that she has not had a chance to review their contents. She adds that many parents are in the same boat because it is difficult for many to either volunteer in schools or spend time on the premises reviewing educational material.
Grinager also resists painting the state of public education in her county with a broad brush. As chapter founder, Grinager is familiar with K-12 operations across San Luis Obispo County and admits that some districts do a better job, even if, on the whole, previous school boards made bad decisions.
Back in Duval, Carney’s friends in the Moms for Liberty chapter are hopeful for a more calm and balanced future after pandemic-era mandates led to contentious and fraught school board debates.
Duval parent Lara Hejtmanek says that it was “refreshing” that the school board did not unanimously vote for the supplemental sex-education curriculum.
“Last few years, we’ve drifted farther [away] from the center,” Jessica Morgan, mom of two middle-school children and fellow Moms for Liberty member, says. “The politics of California don’t work here.”
But when asked what she wanted most from this new board, Morgan cited responsive communication.
Morgan, who is a friend of Carney, claims that she never received a response from the former board member, Andersen.
She adds that, in contrast to the attitude of most other board members during the pandemic, Carney attends board meetings “with her head up, watching the person speaking.”
There is much relief in the pro-liberty crowd, but very little celebrating. Instead, conservatives soberly recognize that their terms have only just started, and mundane, tedious work is needed to make parents feel heard, even when the votes do not go their way.
JASMYN, Elizabeth Andersen, and Anthony Dixon did not respond to requests for comment. Deon Jackson and Brennan Asplen could not be reached for comment.
Zachary Marschall is editor-in-chief of Campus Reform. An assistant adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky, Zachary received his Ph.D. in cultural studies at George Mason University.