Pennsylvania Voters Rejected the Culture Wars in School Board Races

A protester holds a placard during a protest against Moms For Liberty in Philadelphia.Matthew Hatcher/Sipa USA via AP

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Is the “parental rights” movement slowing down?

In 2021, there was a broad push after the pandemic from the right to retake education institutions. Across the country, “Moms for Liberty”—a sprawling national organization the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled an anti-government extremist group—ran school board candidates to challenge inclusive policies and push book bans. The group helped successfully elect conservatives. But now there seems to be less appetite for such radical policies. 

There is no better example of this backlash to the backlash than elections this year in Central Bucks, Pennsylvania. Two years ago, three Republican school board candidates—two of whom were members of a Moms for Liberty local Facebook group—rode to victory to form a 6-3 majority on the Pennsylvania school board. Upon taking control of the prized school district in a key presidential battleground state, Republicans passed a series of controversial policies to challenge and remove books and bar “advocacy activities,” and, more recently, were pushing for a measure to “separate athletic teams on the basis of sex.”

But after almost three years of seemingly never-ending negative press coverage and contentious school board meetings, voters in Central Bucks have rejected the new status quo in this week’s elections. All five Democrat school board candidates running as the CBSD Neighbors United slate won their races—including a first-time challenger to President Dana Hunter—flipping the board.

“Last night, the voters of Central Bucks sent a strong message,” the group’s executive committee wrote after the win. “We want leaders who will serve with compassion and common sense. We want leaders who trust and value experts. We want leaders who protect our tax dollars.” 

I wrote earlier this week about how the Central Bucks school board election has attracted a once-unusual kind of attention and money for a down-ballot race, with more than $600,000 pouring into the dispute, and why the stakes were so high:

In the past three years, contentious disputes about race and gender, personal attacks, calls for resignation, and even paper-throwing-chair-winging altercations seem to have become regular occurrences at Central Bucks’ school board meetings. Once a source of pride, the 18,000-student school district sends almost 90 percent of graduating high schoolers to colleges and universities and is home to some of the best high schools in PennsylvaniaBut it is now a cautionary tale—in the state and beyond—for what can happen when outside money and national extremist politics seep into local school board elections with effects that drastically change the social dynamics of a community. 

In response to what many Central Bucks residents have described as the district’s descent into chaos, calls for a return to normal rose ahead of the election. “I long for the day that no one talks about us anymore because we are just doing the right thing all the time,” Tracy Suits, a former school board president and member of the executive committee for the Neighbors United slate, told me before the election. 

“This isn’t just a victory for me or my fellow candidates,” re-elected Democrat Karen Smith said in an email. “This is a victory for our students, our teachers, our support staff, and our community. With this vote, we showed that love is stronger than hate and compassion is stronger than fear. And voters made clear they will not be divided or distracted from working together—all of us—to solve the real issues facing all of our students.” She vowed to work towards “restoring civility” to board meetings and revising “policies that have so divided us over the last couple of years.”  

Democrats also swept school board seats in another culture wars-plagued district in Bucks County. In Pennridge, where the Republican-controlled board voted to adopt a curriculum from a conservative education consulting firm and enacted an anti-trans sports policy, Democrat candidates beat their Republican contenders to claim all five open positions, according to unofficial election results. 

Paul Martino, a Doylestown venture capitalist who bankrolled the Republican slate Central Bucks Forward that included his wife Aarati, said on Facebook that he was disappointed with the outcome.

“We won in 2021 and lost in 2023,” he wrote. “That’s 1 for 2 if I am doing my math right. We will need to figure out plan for 2025, which is EXACTLY what the Ds did the day they lost in 2021 for 2023.” Republicans’ losses not only in school districts but also for State Supreme Court and other offices, Martino added, “bodes poorly for the 2024 nominee for president.”  

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