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Was education really the winning wedge issue for the GOP? School board elections tell a different story

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks to supporters and potential voters during a meet and greet at Manassas Park Community Center in Manassas, Va., on Saturday, October 30, 2021.
Greg Nash

Conventional wisdom quickly hardened around the idea that the Republicans’ surprising success in Virginia and elsewhere was due to their focus on education. This argument, partially based on the campaign strategy of Virginia gubernatorial victor Glenn Youngkin, should not be a surprise. Over the last year, the most fervent debate over the restrictions enacted to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was over distance learning and mask mandates for students. The result was not just highly charged school board meetings. Throughout the country, at least 244 school board members have been targeted with recall elections efforts, almost all based on COVID, significantly more than double any previous year.

But the focus on school issues as the reason for the GOP’s resurgence may be off.

For one thing, they weren’t a big campaign issue in either the New Jersey races or in the Pennsylvania judicial elections that also saw a strong performance by the GOP. But another, barely seen data point drives this home: The actual results of the recall elections show that education may not have been the electoral wedge issue that it has been made out to be.

While they are a small subset, these recalls present a distilled look at a policy question. While some recalls are partisan, personal, or “kitchen sink” type of events, most are focused on a single issue. In a regular year, that would be firing a school superintendent, approving controversial development plans or combining school districts. Few recalls are truly pure partisan plays, which isn’t a surprise either, as they take place on the local level, and most jurisdictions are one-party dominated areas. But this year, most prominently in California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall, the issue of COVID was front and center in the recall fights. Some recall proponents tried to use the alleged teaching of racial subject matters, under the rubric of “critical race theory,” as another wedge, but that issue was generally a secondary method of riling up the base after COVID stopped getting the same level of vituperative reactions.

What we saw this year is that almost none of the recalls against school board members got enough signatures to get to the ballot.

Recall efforts usually get to the ballot somewhere between 25 percent to 33 percent of the time. But of those school board recalls, less than 10 percent got the signatures: Only 17 school board recalls resulted in a vote. Of those 17, only two were ousted. One was due to social media posts and another was in a charter school over personal behavior. Eight officials resigned, though only three of those appeared to face a serious chance of getting on the ballot. This survival rate is extremely odd. Normally, about 60 percent of recall votes result in removal, and another 6 percent result in resignation. Instead, this year — for school boards — we had an 11 percent removal rate.

On the same day that Youngkin upset Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, using schools and fears of critical race theory in ads, voters overwhelmingly kept in office four school board members in Mequon-Thiensville, Wis., and one in Nehama, Kan. Earlier this year, seven school board members in three school districts in Idaho survived recall votes, as did three in Loup City, Neb. None of these areas are noted hotbeds of liberal voting.

Rather than look at potential economic troubles or the traditional backlash against the ruling party — for instance the widely cited stat that since 1974, Virginia has only once chosen a governor of the same party as the president — the issue of schools grabbed the spotlight. But the recall elections, taking place on the same day or throughout the year, tell a different story about voter interest.

This is not necessarily good news for Democrats.

It is easier to take action on one issue rather than a whole cavalcade of problems such as inflation, supply chain breakdowns or poor historical trends that suggest that the party in power is punished in the mid-terms. We’re likely to still see education cited as the big policy issue for 2022. But there’s plenty of reason not to believe it will be decisive.

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Tags 2021 Virginia governor election Campaign issues Education Gavin Newsom Glenn Youngkin Recall election school board elections school boards Terry McAuliffe Virginia Governor race Wedge issue

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