What We Learned From the PA School Board Elections

by | Nov 20, 2023 | News

The 2023 school board elections have come and gone for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Republicans earned some wins, but they were trounced in a handful of regions in the state and failed to repeat their successes from 2021 in 2023. Here are some results and takeaways from a few of these races.

Central Bucks School District, home to 23 schools and 17,570 students, has come under the national spotlight in part due to its ongoing culture wars on matters including parental rights, bathroom policy, and Title IX. Democrats made a clean sweep here on Election Night, winning all five Board of Directors races. In region 1, Democrat incumbent Karen Smith defeated Republican Stephen Mass. Region 2 offered the closest competition but still went blue, as Democrat Heather Reynolds knocked off Republican incumbent Dana Hunter. In Region 3, an open seat, Democrats prevailed again, with Dana Foley defeating Glenn Schloeffel. In Region 6, Democrat Rick Haring defeated Republican Aarati Martino, while in Region 8, Susan Gibson outpaced Republican Tony Arjona by more than 2,000 votes.

The lesson? The GOP may have had the correct positions on protecting biological females from biological males in athletics, and on sensible bathroom policies and keeping pornographic materials away from children in schools, but its messages failed to resonate.

Why is that? Republicans brought their 2021 playbook and expected identical results in 2023. That’s either poor planning and strategy, ill-advised consulting, or plain laziness. In any case, it’s a losing strategy. If you fail to adapt, you perish. That is evolution in a nutshell. Republicans clearly missed the mark.

Voter migration could also play a role. We have seen a shift of Philadelphia city residents leaving for the suburbs but continuing to vote blue. Citizens may have left Philadelphia for more safety and security in Bucks County while maintaining their Democratic loyalties.

Republicans saw more encouraging results in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster, which is quite similar to Central Bucks in its affluence and focus on culture war issues in the schools. Here, three Republican incumbents and two newcomers emerged victorious and were elected to the board. Incumbents Mike Alfery, Jennifer Bretz, and Vince DeAugustine won reelection. They will be joined by Republican first-timers Jennifer Stape and Tracy Miller.

The graphic content of books in school libraries was a big factor in these races. Librarians must now submit a public list of requested books to a 30-day community assessment, allowing residents to raise concerns about any of the proposed titles. These races constituted a much-needed victory for the Republican Party.

Overall, however, one could argue that Republicans misplayed their hand this year. In 2021, culture wars were a hot topic in the schools. They remain so in 2023, but not at the same pitch. Republicans did not modulate their approach to reflect the somewhat changed landscape.

Election Night was a mixed bag for Republicans in Cumberland County. This was an area with a heavy Moms For Liberty presence, but despite over $40,000 spent, there were few surprises. In the Big Spring School District, Republicans took five of the six seats. In East Pennsboro School District, the GOP also took five of the six spots up for grabs. Meanwhile, the Carlisle Area School District went entirely for the Democrats, as Republicans were shut out in all five races.

Moms For Liberty continues to be a polarizing group. While one can understand their goals and appreciate their message, their aggression repels many centrist voters. Moms For Liberty will continue to have success in deep-red areas but may lose more races than they win in purple areas, to say nothing of blue regions. They are already saddled with a negative image in the mainstream media.

Dauphin County was not kind to Republicans on Election Night, as Democrats, running under an “inclusion” message, took several key elections. Derry Township, Susquehanna Township, and Halifax pushed back against conservatives who ran on “parental rights.” Democrats saw their wins here as victories for teacher empowerment.

The big takeaway from Pennsylvania’s school board races? If it is true that these races are the entry point to grassroot politics, then Pennsylvania remains up for grabs in 2024 as one of the key battleground states. The results also show us once again that the GOP isn’t capitalizing on opportunities that seem ripe for the picking.

This article was originally published by RealClearPennsylvania and made available via RealClearWire.

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