In Ohio, conservative activists have pursued a well-coordinated, well-funded effort to elect far-right, anti-Critical Race Theory, anti-vaccine candidates to local school boards. In this Jan. 14, 2019 file photo Republican Mike DeWine speaks before being sworn-in as the 70th Governor of Ohio.(AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool, file)

Throughout 2021 and 2022, the Ohio Board of Education—an independent body responsible for the direction and policy of the state’s public K-12 schools—pushed one right-wing crusade after another. Never mind that Education Week’s annual ranking of Ohio’s education outcomes (both public and private) plummeted from fifth in 2010 to 21st just a decade later. Or that, in recent years, a chaotic revolving door of state school superintendents had made things worse. Despite the need for stable leadership focused on academics, far-right school board members dedicated meeting after meeting to culture war debates.  

Then something interesting happened: the voters weighed in.  

Two conservative board members faced reelection in November 2022, and a third Republican-held seat was open. (Board of Education elections are officially nonpartisan, but the major parties generally endorse candidates.) Eleven of the 19 members are elected, with the others gubernatorial appointees. First elected in 2018, Jenny Kilgore had spent much of the prior two years fighting to rescind a resolution against racism that the school board had passed following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. She participated in protests against teaching critical race theory in schools (even though it’s not taught in Ohio public schools). Tim Miller, appointed by Republican Governor Mike DeWine in 2021 to fill a vacancy in an elected seat, also voted to rescind the anti-racism resolution. These and other actions turned the once-quiet school board into a vicious political battleground.  

Three candidates—two former teachers themselves—ran for those seats promising to end the culture wars. Tom Jackson, who challenged Miller, declared: “It’s time to take politics out of the classroom to allow students to learn and teachers to teach.” Fellow candidates Teresa Fedor and Katie Hofmann struck a similar chord. 

The three faced difficult odds of being elected in 2022, a year that was mostly a smashing success for Ohio Republicans. DeWine won reelection in a landslide. The Donald Trump-endorsed J.D. Vance held off a spirited Democratic challenge for an open U.S. Senate seat. Republican supermajorities in both statehouse chambers grew even larger. Yet all three of these Democratic Board of Education candidates won, flipping control of the elected makeup of the board.  

As surprising as those victories were, they followed a trend. In the fall of 2021, conservative activists launched a well-coordinated, well-funded effort across Ohio to elect far-right, anti-CRT, anti-vaccine candidates to local school boards. It only became apparent late in the cycle how robust this effort was, and it appeared that the surge would sweep MAGA sorts to victory everywhere. But despite enormous advantages, most conservative education board candidates lost in Ohio—even in conservative districts. Similar school board election outcomes occurred in 2022 and 2023, from Wisconsin and Illinois to North Carolina and Texas.  

While banning books and politicizing curricula have emerged as the latest front in the attack on democracy, what happened in Ohio shows that the success of this well-financed movement is not inevitable. 

It can be defeated for three key reasons.  

First, unlike statehouse races, local races occur within school districts’ boundaries. This means they’re generally not in gerrymandered districts where outcomes are often preordained. Similarly, state school board districts, like those in Ohio, tend to be less one-sided.  

Second, these races are generally nonpartisan—party ID is not listed on the ballot. This creates opportunities for hard-working and dedicated candidates and coalitions to overcome knee-jerk partisan politics in their community. 

Third, and most importantly, those who oppose banning books stand on the side of the people. As much as the far-right may press a censorship agenda, it (like most of their policies) remains underwater with Americans. Deep underwater.  

A Baldwin Wallace University poll in Ohio in late 2022 made this clear: 

  • Most Ohioans trust teachers to teach students unbiasedly (63.1 percent to 30.2 percent).  
  • Most trust that Ohio’s current curriculum exposes students to appropriate concepts and ideas (56.6 percent to 32.1 percent).  
  • Most disagree that parents should have direct control over which books are available in school libraries (40.2 percent agree—53.8 percent disagree).  
  • Most disagree that parents should be able to stop schools from teaching topics they don’t like (38 percent to 56.4 percent).  
  • A supermajority supports teaching about the history (74.9 percent to 20.4 percent) and impact (75.3 percent to 20.6 percent) of race and racism in the United States.  

National polls—including one conducted by the American Library Association—show similar preferences. 

It turns out that most people don’t want someone else’s parents or some outside group telling their kids what they can read or what ideas they can consider. I sure as hell don’t. Like me, most trust teachers, schools, and librarians to do the job, and they vote accordingly.  

For the same reason, people don’t want extremists taking over as secretaries of state to undermine the administration of elections, and they really don’t want radicals taking over the schools and undermining their children’s educations. That impacts voters on an even more personal level.  

State and local school board races are the front lines in the battle against censorship. And the struggle for democracy.  

That means:  

Leave no seats uncontested. Anywhere. 

Leave no incumbent extremists unchallenged. Anywhere.  

Take it as your responsibility to fill these seats wherever you are. And if the candidate taking on that run is not you, help them in any way you can. 

As Teresa Fedor, Tom Jackson, and Katie Hofmann prove, even in Republican areas, standing against censorship is not just a moral obligation. It’s a political winner. 

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David Pepper is a writer, lawyer, former elected official, and the immediate past chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. This is an edited excerpt from his most recent book, Saving Democracy: A User’s Manual for Every American. @davidpepper