The soul of education: Why school board wins matter

Last week, voters made it clear: They’ve had enough.

In race after race, parents and voters sent a sweeping message that they want real solutions to address learning loss, literacy and loneliness and to help prepare young people for college and career. They want public schools where all kids are welcome—no matter what—and teachers and kids can thrive.


An AFT analysis of approximately 250 races throughout the country found that AFT-supported school board candidates beat out extremist-supported, anti-public education candidates more than 80 percent of the time. In locations as diverse as Ohio; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Aldine, Texas, voters chose the candidates who put public education first.

And that, says Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper, is critical.

“There is no such thing as a small school board race; these are political battle grounds for the future of education,” she says. “We knew these races were going to be tough, but we also knew how important it was to elect people who prioritize the future of all our children over a political agenda to marginalize and divide people.”

Across Ohio, candidates spouting culture-war rhetoric were consistently rejected by voters. In Columbus, the state capital, 8 out of 10 extremist candidates lost their races. Cincinnati posted similar results, electing only two candidates backed by extremist group Moms for Liberty.[1]

“These races are about the soul of education,” Cropper says. “These races are about who is deciding what our children can and cannot learn. They are about whether we’re going to support all children or leave some children out because we don’t support who they are. There is much more emphasis on these races than ever before because there is so much at stake.”

In Aldine, Texas, union-backed incumbents retained all four seats, and voters approved a $1.8 billion bond that will invest in infrastructure. In the run-up to the election, the Aldine American Federation of Teachers spent a lot of time at football games doing voter education and advocacy, says Candis Houston, AAFT president.

“This race was so important because we had to fight to preserve our relationship with the school district and the superintendent,” she says. “We are a blueprint of what those relationships should look like and how you can lift up the entire community if you partner with each other. If the board flipped, we could have lost that.”

The Albuquerque Teachers Federation knocked on 7,604 doors and made 5,802 phone calls before last week’s election—starting in January.

“Everything about public education is political, from the moment we decided it exists up to moment we are in now,” says ATF President Ellen Bernstein. “Everything—from what we teach to how we teach it and who we teach it to is all a political decision. In order to have policies that ensure our students are well-educated, we have to have a school board that is well-informed, supportive and respectful of the essential nature of public schooling in our democracy, and we have to have school board members who will work with us.”

Of the eight candidates running for three open seats on the board, ATF-backed candidates won two of the seats, beating Moms for Liberty-backed candidates in both cases, including one incumbent who was running for a third term.

This election was notably significant because the new school board will be responsible for hiring a new superintendent in 2024. Scott Elder, who has been the superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools since 2020, will step down when his contract expires next year. With that in mind, the ATF started an information campaign early, releasing a series of issue briefs throughout the year and distributing them everywhere from political events and district and board meetings to their own members and communities.

“We made it clear that we had a choice,” Bernstein says. “There are two kinds of superintendents: those who are educational leaders and those who are corporate reformers, and who we elect to the school board will determine which kind we get.”

In the midst of a manufactured culture war, Bernstein says the ATF is focused on making sure Albuquerque kids get the best possible education, and that is not something that will ever come easily.

“There are political groups out there that still have an eye on books bans and anti-LGBTQ measures, or at least on making sure LGBTQ+ kids are marginalized,” she says. “And there is disrespect everywhere in this profession. One school board member said we were ‘living in la-la land’ if we thought teachers had good decision-making skills. We worked hard in the run-up to this election because we know what we’re up against, and we want to create the best possible teaching and learning environments. In order to do that, we need respect and support at every level government.”

[Melanie Boyer]