So-called “parental rights” or “parental choice in our schools” candidates for school boards in New York state on Tuesday appear to have done poorly, with one such list of candidates achieving only 11 victories compared to 45 losses statewide.
By comparison, the New York State United Teachers union on Wednesday said their endorsements and campaign assistance helped elect 295 school board candidates statewide who tend to be more politically moderate and mainstream than most parental rights hopefuls. Sixty of the successful candidates are members of the union, one of the most powerful and influential unions in New York state.
“Under the banner Public Schools Unite Us, we saw a wave of pro-public education school board members elected Tuesday who we know will prioritize students at every board meeting,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a released statement.
Finding a spokesperson for the “Parents Rights” school board candidates, or even an agreed-upon comprehensive list of which candidates had received or should have received that label is difficult and perhaps impossible.
The list of candidates used for this article comes from a map of 56 “Parents Rights” school board candidates running in 27 different mostly upstate school districts that was shared on social media platforms prior to Tuesday’s school elections by a number of Republican politicians including Republican 20th Congressional District candidate Liz Joy and Republican gubernatorial candidate Andrew Giuliani.
Joy did not respond to multiple requests to interview her for this story about the origin of the list of candidates, or to identify who assembled the list and what criteria was used to determine who was put on it. Whether the map was part of a national effort is also unclear, but it did include at least one error, a candidate for the Seward School Board in Nebraska, Jacob Bierbaum, whose Facebook candidate page says he’s supported by the Protect Nebraska Children Political Action Committee. Joy’s map incorrectly indicates Bierbaum was running for school board in Schoharie County, where there is a Town of Seward, but no Seward School District.
In her post to Instagram Joy said she endorses the candidates on the list based on them having been “vocal, pledging to uphold parental rights & parental choice in our schools, curriculum transparency and fiscal responsibility.”
Among the other unifying issues for the very loosely assembled list of “Parents’ Rights” candidates seems to include opposition, or at least skepticism toward, some undefined concept of “Critical Race Theory” being taught in schools as well as “Diversity Equity and Inclusion” policies, and opposition to books or curriculum deemed too sexually explicit for the sensibilities of the candidates.
Other lists of “Parents’ Rights” candidates have been distributed under similar slogans or conservative or rightwing ideologies such as “Take Back our Schools” or the “1776 Project.”
Joy’s list doesn’t appear to include every candidate locally who might fit the criteria of the movement, and oddly, includes no candidates in Republican-dominated Fulton County and only one who was a resident of Montgomery County, Sarah Reese did not win a school board seat after receiving 75 votes, the 4th most among candidates at the very rural Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District.
During a school election that saw increased turnout for many school districts, most of the turn out seems to have been aimed at approving school budgets and, in most cases, defeating “Parents’ Rights” labeled candidates.
The New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA) has calculated about 99% of school budgets passed Tuesday night, with voting results showing at least 615 school district budgets were approved, while only six were defeated.
And, more tellingly, the success rate for school districts seeking to exceed their property tax cap jumped to 88% Tuesday, with 15 out of 17 districts receiving 60% or greater voter approval to break their tax caps. That’s a 21% increase from the overall average 67% rate of success in tax cap override votes statewide over the previous 10 years.
The school board association said new school board members were elected in 675 school districts statewide.
“We expect to welcome a bumper crop of new board members this year with the retirement of many veteran members,” said Schneider. “We look forward to providing training and support for these new members as they learn about the broad array of issues that school boards face each day.”
Most of that crop appears to not include “Parents’ Rights” candidates backed by Joy and Giuliani.
“PARENTS’ RIGHTS” WINNERS AND LOSERS
The greatest concentration of “Parents’ Rights” candidates among the list of 56 who won was in Schenectady County where four school districts account for five of the 11 total winners, including two in the Duanesburg Central School District (Sarah Gwiazdowski, 498 votes and Avis Sanchez, 442 votes) and one each in Mohonasen Central School District (Chad McFarland, 794 votes), Schenectady City School District (Vivian Parsons, 798 votes), and Schalmont Central School District (Miranda Eldridge).
Schenectady County also had four losing “Parents’ Rights” candidates including two who received the least votes among candidates who were on the ballot — Jason Bustelos for Mohonasen Central School District school board, who received 394 votes and Scotia-Glenville School District school board candidate Eric Potts who received 379 votes.
For the Schenectady City School District school board, Parsons, a registered Republican, received the second most overall votes out of four candidates vying for two seats on the seven member school board.
Her successful platform included an emphasis on student safety as well as on her support for parents being given more choice with respect to what curriculum their children are exposed to, particularly regarding sex education. She said the Schenectady City School District should provide parents with a list of all curriculum materials at the beginning of each school year.
“A parent should know what is being presented to their children,” she said.
Besides sex education Parsons was unclear on what other lesson categories she feels parents should have the right to opt their children out of, saying it could be “whatever a parent feels they would object to”, but also saying she does not want any New York State Board of Education requirements to be “altered for any specific child.”
Also unclear to Parsons was how she came to be listed among the map of 56 “Parents’ Rights” candidates, although many of her views seem to closely align with those described by Joy’s Instagram post.
“I’m not aware of any map,” Parsons said.
Parsons said she doesn’t know how she was chosen for it. She said if her candidacy was part of a statewide or national campaign to elect more conservative or rightwing candidates under the “Parental Rights” label to school boards, nobody told her about it.
“I can’t speak to anything Liz Joy or her campaign decided to post in support of my candidacy,” she said. “I’m not aware of any specific group or any specific movement in this area. To my knowledge there is not a secret society of school board candidates with one singular agenda.”
Albany County had the most losing “Parents’ Rights” school board candidates on the map, with 13 losing candidates and zero winners, while Saratoga County had 1 winner from the list — Dean Kolligian 3,311 votes, the least among three winning board candidates for Saratoga Springs City School District — and 10 losing “Parents Rights” candidates.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, endorsed Kolligian before Tuesday’s school elections but she also endorsed two Saratoga Springs “Parents’ Rights” candidates who lost: Ed Spickler and Billie McCann.
Spickler, who said he’s a registered independent, said he never met with Stefanik or sought her endorsement, and he’s not sure why he received it or the “Parents’ Rights” label. He said he was supported by some groups he’s not affiliated with, but not backed by any “major groups” and received no real assistance beyond some “shout-outs on social media.”
“I think it possibly hurt me,” he said of the “Parents’ Rights” label, “because, obviously, I didn’t get the endorsement of the teachers’ union. And it seems like all of the candidates who were endorsed by the teachers’ union or CSEA — they were elected.”
Spickler said there is no equivalent level of organization or support among conservative or Republican school board candidates in the Greater Capital Region compared to the level of organized support received by Democratic candidates, or candidates of any party endorsed by teachers’ unions.
“I’m about to file my final expense report, and I had no big money backing,” he said.
In winning and losing efforts Parsons and Spickler both agree and disagree about the issue of critical race theory in the curriculum.
“Critical race theory is currently not being taught in the school district of the City of Schenectady, and I know there are parents that want to keep it that way,” Parsons said. “I, personally, do not agree that critical race theory should be taught in schools, and there are many parents who feel the same way. I believe American History needs to be taught in its entirety, but not through the lens of critical race theory.”
Spickler said he believes critical race theory, which he defines as a Marxist ideology that asserts that systemic racism is responsible for inequitable outcomes among people of different races in the United States, is both wrong and is being introduced into the Saratoga Springs City School District under the guise of diversity equity and inclusion policies.
“This is very motivating for me, because we have had instances where teachers have given questionable lessons on gender as well as surveys to students on ‘privilege’, and things like that,” he said. “I don’t think labels should be put on kids, and I don’t think you should label any kids, any students … what we have is a school that is putting gender labels, as well as racial and ethnic labels on children, and it’s not appropriate.”