Woody Allen once observed that 80 percent of success in life comes down to showing up. For decades, conservatives failed to heed this advice in education politics, letting unions monopolize the school boards that govern American K–12 education. That ended on November 8, as Florida governor Ron DeSantis helped conservatives defeat a record number of union-backed school board candidates.
Despite conservatives’ faith in the virtue of local control, the Right’s failure to engineer consistent conservative school board victories has long given progressives in the education establishment a stranglehold on local school politics. Decades of research show, for example, that teachers’ unions win roughly 70 percent of competitive school board races. What’s more, because most school board races are nonpartisan, low-turnout affairs, conservative voters often unwittingly help elect union-friendly board majorities. With no reliable counterweight to hold them accountable, teachers’ unions hold outsize power in school board decision-making.
This state of affairs quietly persisted until the pandemic, when conservative (and moderate) parents discovered the price of their apathy and disorganization. Conceding school board seats to the education establishment now had real and visible costs. Union-friendly boards that presided over unjustifiable school closures showed more concern for their politically active employees than they did for the parents and kids struggling with remote schooling. At the same time, classes on Zoom gave many parents their first-ever look at controversial curricula and instructional materials. Even though a majority of parents oppose elementary students learning about “sex education and LGBTQ issues,” establishment forces persisted, with parents reporting one outlandish episode after another during the pandemic-plagued school year. One local union leader in Maine told complaining parents that they should just leave the public schools entirely.
Enter DeSantis. In his victory speech on Election Night, his line, “we fought the woke in the schools [and won],” made all the headlines. But the hard work that enabled this victory came from coordinated electioneering efforts during the quiet summer months leading up to Florida’s August primary. DeSantis had put his political muscle behind 30 conservative school board candidates who pledged to support a parents-first and anti-woke agenda. When the dust settled, DeSantis’s conservative school board candidates had prevailed in over 80 percent of their races. More impressive still, in the 19 elections where one of DeSantis’s candidates faced a union-backed opponent, the unions won just four races (21 percent). In previous elections in the same districts—when conservatives had no coordinated electioneering effort in place—union-favored candidates won more than 70 percent of their races.
These trends prevailed across the country last week. Where conservatives mounted a coordinated electioneering effort as in Florida, they did well. But where conservatives did not make such a push, teachers’ unions continued their dominance of school board contests in both red and blue states. My own analysis of union electioneering in red Indiana and blue Michigan, for example, uncovered robust union win rates of 66 and 74 percent, respectively. In other words, without the coattails of a strong (and coordinated) conservative message in these local races, teachers’ unions were able to maintain their historic edge and notch three times as many victories (in percentage terms) in the Midwest as they did in Florida.
There’s no reason that the DeSantis/Florida GOP strategy can’t work beyond the Sunshine State. Other Republican states had popular governors who stood up to teachers’ unions on reopening schools and keeping unwanted and divisive ideology out of the classroom. But showing up matters. Even now, in this time of hotly contested educational controversies, numerous school board seats routinely go uncontested. In low-salience contests, progressive boards can easily endure in conservative communities that don’t pay much attention. As Craig DiSesa, who oversees campaign operations for the Virginia-based The Middle Resolution, told me, even in some of the commonwealth’s more conservative school districts, liberal boards have persisted because of a lack of political engagement. In 2022, DiSesa’s group flipped several school board seats in Virginia Beach, installing school-choice advocates over union-backed establishment figures.
Basic efforts aimed at recruiting better candidates and coordinating small donations from popular conservative officials (DeSantis gave his endorsed candidates $1,000 each) can go a long way toward winning conservative majorities on school boards. The potential return on this investment is huge. Taxpayers and families will benefit by seeing their interests better represented on boards, and conservative lawmakers can begin building a stable of future candidates for other local and state offices.
For conservatives, there’s a clear path forward, but they will need to get—and keep—their hands dirty. As the pandemic subsides and normalcy returns to our schools, conservatives cannot afford to take their eyes off these crucial down-ballot races.
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