Conservative school board candidates feared indoctrination. What’s next for Indiana?
Avi doesn’t usually pay attention to school board elections. But last fall’s race was different. The 16-year-old is nonbinary and attends Carmel Clay schools, an affluent and majority White district.
“When you have people, like, verbally talking about outright banning your presence from a classroom, it's startling and worrying,” Avi said about rhetoric they heard during the campaign. “Especially because there were people that agreed with them.”
WFYI is not using Avi’s full name to protect their privacy. Avi learned about the school board race in Carmel from their dad, Phil.
Phil said he took an early interest in the candidates because of rising tensions over the district’s adoption of diversity, equity and inclusion measures over the last two years.
People in Carmel and other communities across the country started attending school board meetings to voice their concern and anger regarding school policies. In Carmel and elsewhere in Hamilton County, schools were accused of teaching critical race theory and pushing liberal ideologies on students. Administrators at Carmel Clay and other Hamilton County schools have refuted these claims.
Phil said he was particularly concerned about a slate of conservative school board candidates who were running together for three open seats in an effort to gain majority control of the five-member Carmel Clay board. School boards have the power to vote on a district’s budget, hire the superintendent, set strategic goals, and oversee other priorities and policies.
The group campaigned on a platform that included academic excellence, transparency and parental rights; the latter has become a rallying cry for those who believe schools are teaching critical race theory — a theoretical framework that’s been conflated with diversity, equity and inclusion — and promoting LGBTQ identities.
The trio of Jenny Brake, Greg Brown and Adam Sharp were among hundreds of conservative candidates who ran in school board races across the country this past election cycle. Many campaigned on similar platforms and were supported by Republican politicians and groups like Moms for Liberty, a national conservative organization that has railed against COVID-19 policies, critical race theory and LGBTQ inclusion.
Phil said he and his family were worried about the consequences of the election for Avi if the conservative candidates won a majority of seats.
“We did have serious reservations and concerns about our future in the Carmel Clay school district,” he said. “Because we weren't sure that it was going to be a safe space for our kid.”
Avi was full of dread in the lead up to last November’s election.
“Because of the fact that I was worried that these candidates were going to get seats and then be able to greatly affect my school and my life,” Avi said. “But I was pleasantly surprised.”
Only Brown, one of the three members of the conservative slate, won a seat on the Carmel Clay school board. Jenny Brake and Adam Sharp lost to Jennifer Nelson-Williams and Kristin Kouka, who were running as a slate along with Jake Nichols. Nichols narrowly lost to Brown.
In an interview with WFYI in December, Brown said stories of liberal indoctrination in schools motivated him to run for office.
Brown was sworn into a four-year term as Carmel Clay School Board member on Jan. 9. He was chosen to be the board’s representative to the Carmel Redevelopment Commission, a city commission that partners with developers and businesses on projects.
The race in Carmel was close, with neither slate claiming landslide victories in what are supposed to be nonpartisan races.
A mixed bag of victories and losses
What happened in Carmel mirrors local school board results across the country. Republican candidates promoted by conservative groups had a mixed bag of victories and losses.
“It seems like the sort of push from the right worked electorally in some places and it didn’t work in others,” said Jon Valant, a senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Conservative school board candidates won seats on school boards in states like Florida and South Carolina, but many failed to win races in places like Michigan and California. An analysis from Ballotpedia concluded that school board elections that were previously uncontested races drew slates of candidates who were motivated by three issues: race in education or critical race theory, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and sex and gender in schools.
The Ballotpedia analysis found that about 41 percent of winning candidates expressed support for these issues, while about 30 percent opposed them, and another 27 percent had stances that were unclear.
The results were also mixed across Indiana. Pro-parental rights candidates supported in social media posts by the Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty swept to victory in Hamilton Southeastern schools — which neighbors Carmel — and now hold a majority on the seven-member board.
After being sworn in last week to the HSE board, three of the just elected members were nominated by the fourth new member to be president, vice president and secretary. The slate won in a 5-2 vote.
But candidates promoted by the national Moms for Liberty group lost their races in Allen, Boone and LaPorte counties. And a majority of those promoted by Moms for Liberty in Howard County also lost.
Valant said voter perspectives on schools and the world at large vary from community to community.
“And I think what we're seeing is a reflection of that in these school board election results,” Valant said. “In some places, those groups that were pushing these sort of far right extreme agendas that were focused on some of the components of the sort of parental rights ideology, they did really well, because it resonates in those communities. But then in a lot of other places, it just doesn't resonate.”
The idea that there’s widespread indoctrination of students is a result of a media landscape that has amplified isolated incidents and made-up stories, Valant said. Conservative activists have also pushed the narrative that schools are sexualizing children.
“I think it's giving people a really warped sense of what's happening in the vast majority of American classrooms,” he said.
A fear of indoctrination
Brown moved to Carmel nearly three decades ago because of the reputation of its school district. Brown said he and his wife were involved in the district while his son was in school, and that it was a great experience for the family. His son graduated from Carmel Clay High School in 2007.
Today, about 16,400 students attend Carmel Clay Schools. Nearly 71 percent of all students are White and less than 11 percent qualify for free or reduced meals due to family income, according to state data.
Brown acknowledged that at the time he chose to run, he didn’t know many parents of current students in the school district. But he filed for candidacy because of stories he saw in the media and stories he heard from others around the country.
“I'm concerned with where schools are going across the nation. I am not saying that Carmel has lots of progressive teachers that are doing these things. I don't know,” Brown said. “I just want to make sure we don't head that way.”
Brown said he doesn’t have any evidence to suggest liberal indoctrination is happening in Carmel Clay schools.
The Brake, Brown and Sharp campaign sent out a message a week before the election that claimed radical liberal teachers were indoctrinating students. Brown said he didn’t sign off on that message, and if he could do it again, he would’ve blocked the campaign from sending it.
Carmel Clay Superintendent Michael Beresford said such a political narrative was false and insulting to teachers in a public video message released following the campaign email.