When controversy erupted last year in the Central York School District in southern Pennsylvania over what looked like a ban on books by or about people of color, including children’s books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., Joel Folkemer, a Lutheran evangelical pastor and parent of two students in the district, decided to run for a seat on his local school board.
Folkemer has always spoken out against racism, bigotry, sexism and “other things that people try to use as instruments to distract or to tear people down or divide communities.” So when the all-white, Republican-led school board put a “a freeze” on a list of 300 books and resources created by a district-sanctioned diversity committee to bolster curriculum around anti-racism in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020, Folkemer became a leading voice in the fight for change.
Initially, Folkemer, who in addition to leading his congregation, coaches his son’s baseball team and helps with his daughter’s dance troupe, declined requests from community members to run for a seat, stating he didn’t have time to serve on the board. But after speaking at a student-organized rally protesting the school board’s decision to put on hold a pilot curriculum that would have addressed diversity and racism, Folkemer changed his mind.
“I eventually said yes because it wasn’t about me but serving the community in which I live,” he said of his decision. “It was about working for justice, equity, and inclusion for our students and the staff.”
Amid pressure from the community and national news coverage, the school board lifted its book ban in September 2021, a couple of months before the election. But Folkemer and others running to add more progressive voices to the school board said the damage had been done and a new direction was needed.
The community agreed. While Folkemer lost his bid for school board in the November 2021 election, the three other candidates running with him won their seats.
Folkemer and his fellow progressives in the race aren’t alone. There’s been intense interest in school board elections over the past year, fueled mainly by a fervor among conservatives to push cultural issues over school reopenings and masking, as well as diversity issues such as gender identity and how or if racism should be addressed in schools. The intensity of these debates has galvanized candidates on both the left and right to run for school board seats.
While there’s nothing new about culture wars bleeding into local politics and schools, experts say this time is different due to the coordinated campaigns fueling these debates and the deeply partisan divide that has emerged on both sides. The fights also come at a time when the institution of public education itself struggles to navigate a post-COVID world in which large numbers of students suffer from learning loss and mental health issues and teachers and administrators suffer burn out that’s leaving schools severely understaffed. These clashes also come ahead of what is expected to be a heated midterm election in November.
“The level of coordination and the financing from outside groups as well as the use of social media to spread a very consistent message is what makes this particular moment so different,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, professor of educational policy at Michigan State University. “What is frightening is that we’re now seeing national style politics in our largest and most trusted public institution, schools. I worry that trust will erode, especially as schools are faced with some really big challenges that have nothing to do with the national political and cultural issues in many of these races.”