Georgia school board races attract more local and national interest

National political action groups are pouring funds into local elections with mixed results
Campaign signs for various 2023 Atlanta school board candidates are lined up near an early voting location on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Midtown Atlanta. (Eric Stirgus / eric.stirgus@ajc.com)

Credit: Eric Stirgus

Credit: Eric Stirgus

Campaign signs for various 2023 Atlanta school board candidates are lined up near an early voting location on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Midtown Atlanta. (Eric Stirgus / eric.stirgus@ajc.com)

Historically, school board elections have been sleepy affairs marked by low voter turnout and scant media coverage. In recent years, though, they’ve become popular targets of political groups in Georgia and across the nation.

With qualifying for local elections, including school board races, taking place next month, experts say there could be more interest — and money — from outside donors and groups.

That may include several Cobb and Gwinnett county school board seats up for election this year, where turnout will likely be higher with the presidential race on the ballot. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a national grassroots organization that claims 1 million members, recently announced it’s endorsing Laura Judge, a parent who has worked with the volunteer watchdog group Watching the Funds — Cobb, for a school board seat ahead of the May 21 primary. Organizations like Moms for Liberty, which had former President Donald Trump speak at its convention last year, could target areas that align with their agenda, says Tammy Greer, a clinical assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University.

“The larger turnout, especially in ‘soft’ areas could have a greater impact on the make-up of the school board,” Greer said.

Moms for Liberty, along with the 1776 Project, another well-funded conservative PAC, started financially backing candidates in 2021. Their interest in exerting their influence has been seen in Georgia. During the 2022 election cycle, the 1776 Project PAC endorsed two slates of four candidates in school board races in Coweta and Cherokee counties and spent money on mailers in those races. None of the endorsed candidates won. However, the group had more success in states like Florida and Kansas.

Georgia lawmakers Sen. Greg Dolezal, Sen. Clint Dixon, Rep. Scott Hilton and Rep. Mesha Mainor participated in a panel discussion led by Moms for Liberty founder Tina Descovich (center) on Nov. 13 at the Gas South Convention Center in Duluth.

Credit: Josh Reyes/AJC

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Credit: Josh Reyes/AJC

Moms for Liberty has opposed curricula dealing with LGBTQ issues, ethnicity and race. The group has supported efforts to bar books dealing with such themes from school libraries. The 1776 Project opposes the teaching in public schools of Critical Race Theory (CRT) a graduate-level academic framework that examines racism in society.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee says Judge’s endorsement is one of the first the group plans for the 2024 election cycle. Last year, it announced a campaign to support more than 200 aligned school board candidates nationwide in the upcoming cycle.

“This year, school boards are at the forefront of the fight for democracy,” PCCC Candidate Services Director Hannah Riddle said in a statement explaining its endorsement of Judge.

Politics and schools

The intersection of politics and education goes back decades, from Southern governors fighting school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s to the debate over the federal law No Child Left Behind, which increased the federal government’s role in education, in the early 2000s. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents became divided over school policies around masks and remote learning.

More recently, in Virginia, then-gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin capitalized on parents’ frustration over mask mandates and school closures. The Republican ran in 2021 on a platform of “parental rights,” promising to give parents a say in how schools teach about race and history. He pledged to ban K-12 schools from teaching CRT.

Youngkin’s win caught the attention of Georgia Republicans as Gov. Brian Kemp was preparing for a 2022 rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp and the GOP used a similar playbook as the Georgia Legislature passed a law prohibiting schools from teaching nine “divisive concepts,” which backers of the bill said would effectively ban CRT from schools.

The fever over curriculum has also been felt locally, as political action committees are pouring money into school board campaigns across the country and looking for strong candidates.

In November, Moms for Liberty held a town hall meeting in Gwinnett with some state GOP lawmakers to encourage supporters to get involved at the local and state levels — or run for office. Tina Descovich, a Moms for Liberty co-founder, downplayed national headlines about some of the losses their endorsed candidates had in the November elections. Many candidates were motivated to run because an incumbent wasn’t facing a challenger, she said that evening.

Greer, the Georgia State University professor, said conservative activists will not be discouraged by some defeats.

“Conservatives continue to win because they have the long game in mind,” Greer said. “Non-conservatives want to see results quickly and if it’s not happening, then I get bored and I quit because it’s not working.”

Tammy Greer, a clinical assistant professor at the Andrew Young School of Public Policy Studies at Georgia State University, says politically-aligned groups could target Georgia school board races in the 2024 election cycle. (Photo credit: Georgia State University)

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Credit: Credit: Georgia

However, those non-conservative groups also play the political game, said Zachary Peskowitz, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

“Teachers unions (have funded) particular candidates who hold positions aligned with their goals, and then education reform advocates (have funded) school board candidates who support standardized testing accountability systems, such as linking student performance and teacher compensation, for example,” he said in an interview.

Outside influence in Atlanta races

In Georgia, teachers unions don’t have collective bargaining rights, making them less powerful than some in other states. The two biggest statewide teachers groups, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) and the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) don’t endorse or contribute money to school board candidates.

However, the Georgia Federation of Teachers (GFT) endorsed two candidates in the recent Atlanta school board races and donated to two others. The two endorsed candidates — Erika Mitchell (District 5) and Alfred “Shivy” Brooks ( At-Large Seat 7) — won, but the candidates GFT donated to — Michelle Olympiadis (District 3) and Nkoyo Effiong Lewis (At-Large Seat 9) — lost their races.

“We try to do as much homework as possible on people to find out who they really are,” said GFT President Verdaillia Turner. “What have they been doing? Who are they connected with? Who is financing them?”

In recent years, federal election laws have changed, relaxing donation limits and registration rules for donors. While that has enabled politically motivated groups to flood a race with donations, it doesn’t always work that way.

Ken Zeff defeated incumbent Olympiadis. Zeff has raised millions of dollars for Learn4Life, the education nonprofit he leads, but said it was harder to raise $68,000 for his campaign.

“There’s a lot of folks that just don’t give to political campaigns,” Zeff said. “That’s not something they feel is a good use of their dollars.”

Atlanta Public Schools District 3 board member Ken Zeff, right, is sworn in on Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, at APS headquarters in downtown Atlanta. (Bita Honarvar for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bita Honarvar

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Credit: Bita Honarvar

Zeff said some potential donors questioned how the money would be used. He explained the funds were going toward messaging, not his personal bank account. Zeff had some out-of-state donors, but put some of his own money into his campaign, while adhering to campaign finance rules.

“We (were) running against a two-term incumbent. (We needed) to build name ID, to have a website, to have mailers, to do digital ads, to have flyers. That’s where the money goes,” he said.

Several other Atlanta school board candidates accepted donations from individuals and groups outside of Georgia. But Peskowitz, of Emory, said that’s part of the political process.

“I wouldn’t think about it as some kind of conspiracy of outside groups trying to take over school boards in particular places,” Peskowitz said. “Every interest group and unorganized interest is trying to get candidates in office, and using the tools at its disposal to do that. That’s what democracy is.”

Staff writer Josh Reyes contributed to this article.