North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Robinson and other far-right Republican leaders have been at the forefront of conservative culture war politics at the local school board level. (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson) The Culture War in North Carolina Schools
North Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Robinson and other far-right Republican leaders have been at the forefront of conservative culture war politics at the local school board level. (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)

Voters in North Carolina will have the choice of book-banning candidates focused on boogeymen like Critical Race Theory, or candidates who actually want to do something about real issues in school systems like the school bus shortage, school funding, and teacher recruiting.

[Editor’s Note: Gwen Frisbie-Fulton is the communications director for Down Home NC, a nonprofit that advocates for rural communities.]

The sun is setting outside Clayton and Amanda’s kids are getting off the school bus. They look tired, backpacks drooping off their shoulders, exhausted from the long bus ride that takes them all over the county before getting home.They leave before sun up and get home after sun down and Amanda feels like she barely sees her children. 

Johnston County, like so many North Carolina counties, has a bus driver shortage so the kids here have an unnecessarily long ride. Bus drivers are the tip of the iceberg– statewide our schools are experiencing teacher shortages, too. Our state’s public schools started the year with at least 4,469 teacher vacancies.

While Amanda is dashing around trying to help with homework, serving dinner, and getting the kids in the bath all before bedtime, the local school board isn’t addressing her family’s needs. Instead they have been adrift with drama and scandal, including trying to remove an embattled board member and leaked recordings of council members allegedly talking about hiding money from county leaders.

 “What our schools need is funding,” says Erika Hall, another frustrated Johnston County parent. “And common sense.” 

Unfortunately for Amanda and Erika, local politicians have been playing politics with school funding. School systems get their funds from a few sources, but local county governments are one of the most important tributaries. And, until last month, Johnston County commissioners were refusing to turn over millions in funding to the system until they adopted an anti-Critical Race Theory policy. This, even though North Carolina school systems are not teaching Critical Race Theory, a decades-old legal theory about the way race impacts law and policies. 

“There are people who are trying to create division and use the board for their own political or financial gain. We need people who believe in public education and care about kids.”

Unsurprisingly, the far right saw opportunity in Johnston County’s turmoil and have inserted extremist school board candidates into the election. 

A candidate associating himself with the hate group, the Proud Boys, was bumped off in the primary, but at least two other far right candidates, one with possible ties to the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia group, are still on the ballot here.

None of this is unique to Johnston County, but it’s part of a national strategy to attack and dismantle public schools. 

Taking Advantage of a Crisis

Last year, Madison Cawthorn attended a Johnston County school board meeting to rally local parents, though the county is 300 miles away from the district he represents. While Cawthorn has since suffered a true political death, the strategy lives on.

The pandemic put decades of underfunding in plain view and left parents, teachers, schools, and kids struggling. But instead of acting in good faith to help our struggling schools recover from a crisis, the far-right instead latched onto a coordinated attack on public schools and – ultimately – our children. 

Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon and other malefactors identified the weakness we were experiencing and moved in to exploit, not heal, them. Through Bannon’s War Room podcast and other established far-right media networks (such as the enormous network of QAnon channels), these bad actors manufactured outrage in stressed out, susceptible parents by creating the boogie man of “Critical Race Theory,” book banning, and, most recently, by putting trans children in their political crosshairs.

Their endgame is clear: They want to influence elections by manipulating our emotions during hard times.

 The Big Issues Facing Local Schools

As planned, this strategy on high has trickled down to our local communities and elections. In Johnston County, the extremist candidates are getting into internet fights to rally their troops, while more traditional conservative candidates and Rick Mercier, the lone Democrat running in the nonpartisan race, try to focus on real things … like solving the bus driver shortage.

In Cabarrus County, Bannon’s culture war playbook is fueling candidacies beyond the school board. This November, Cabarrus voters will have to navigate through a minefield of extremism up and down the ballot. 

There’s the far-right state house candidate with no political experience except a viral video in which he rails against CRT, and at least one county commission candidate and one school board candidate who launched their political careers by attempting to get local teachers fired for “indoctrination.” 

Meanwhile, the Cabarrus Board of Education vice chair, who is up for re-election, recently joined Steve Bannon on his podcast to talk about banning books – while denying that’s what she is doing back home. 

“I left teaching because the joy was utterly gone for me,” says Cabarrus parent Kim Bondi.

Bondi left behind a 21-year teaching career because of these attacks. 

“I knew I could never censor myself or my book choices and I knew that in order for kids to learn critical-thinking skills, they must be able to read, understand, and respond to a variety of texts. I simply cannot be effective in an atmosphere of book banning and censorship.”

Not only do these manufactured outrage campaigns fail to get Amanda’s kids home on time, fund Erika’s local school, or keep qualified teachers like Kim in the classroom, but there are very real consequences for all our children when we allow far-right talking points to stand in for real policy. 

In Cherokee County, the local school board  banned an entire high school volleyball team from playing any more games this season because they declared one player a “safety threat.” That player is transgendered. 

The attacks might seem new, but it’s a way for extremists to keep pushing an agenda to end public education. That agenda has been going on for a long time. 

“Where we are is where we’ve been,” said James E. Ford, a former NC Teacher of the Year at the launch of HEAL Together NC, a public education initiative launched this summer. Ford heads the Center for Racial Equity in Education, or CREED, a nonprofit that advocates on race and equity issues in K-12.

Nonetheless, it feels dire as we head to the polls and cast our votes.

Most of us want normal things for our kids and for our schools: A good education, decent buildings, quality books, qualified teachers. 

The good news is, there are local candidates who are holding back the flood waters of extremism – you just have to dig in to find them. Most school board races are non-partisan and the no-nonsense candidates are often not running in the trappings of political party: Dianna Eldreth in Ashe County, Gary Childers in Watauga County, or Brian Floyd in Cabarrus County as examples– and insist on sticking to the serious issue of educating our kids.

In Alamance County, Seneca Rogers’ “We Are the Neighborhood” campaign is running on kids-first values while avoiding the trappings of the manufactured culture war. 

Even in a county where the superintendent unilaterally is banning books without input, Rogers is well positioned to win. He drew roaring applause during a Republican-sponsored debate in Burlington last spring by citing common sense solutions to real problems. 

While his opponents talked disparagingly about trans children and other talking points, Rogers took down the house by consistently reverting back to the real issues: Schools, funding, kids, and, yes, bus drivers. “Someone’s got to talk right about children,” he said.

That’s a winning strategy and something the extremists can’t seem to do.