In School Board Elections, Parental Rights Movement Is Dealt Setbacks

Conservative activists for parental rights in education were dealt several high-profile losses in state and school board elections on Tuesday.

The results suggest limits to what Republicans have hoped would be a potent issue for them leading into the 2024 presidential race — how public schools address gender, sexuality and race.

The Campaign for Our Shared Future, a progressive group founded in 2021 to push back on conservative education activism, said on Wednesday that 19 of its 23 endorsed school board candidates in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia had won.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest educators’ union and a key Democratic power player, said that in 250 races it had tracked — a mix of state, local and school board elections — 80 percent of its preferred candidates won.

On the right, Moms for Liberty, the leading parental-rights group, said 44 percent of its candidates were elected.

The modest results for conservatives show that after several years in which the right tried to leverage anger over how schools handled the Covid-19 pandemic and issues of race and gender in the curriculum, “parents like being back to some sense of normalcy,” said Jeanne Allen, chief executive of the Center for Education Reform, a right-leaning group in Washington.

She suggested Republicans might have performed better if they had talked more about expanding access to school choice, such as vouchers and charter schools, noting that academic achievement remains depressed.

In the suburbs of Philadelphia, an important swing region, Democrats won new school board majorities in several closely watched districts.

In the Pennridge School District, Democrats swept five school board seats. The previous Republican majority had asked teachers to consult a social studies curriculum created by Hillsdale College, a conservative, Christian institution. The board also restricted access to library books with L.G.B.T.Q. themes and banned transgender students from using bathrooms or playing on sports teams that correspond to their gender identity.

Democrats in nearby Bucks Central School District also won all five open seats. That district had been convulsed by debates over Republican policies restricting books and banning pride flags.

The region was a hotbed of education activism during the pandemic, when many suburban parents organized to fight school closures, often coming together across partisan divides to resist the influence of teachers’ unions.

But that era of education politics is, increasingly, in the rearview mirror.

Beyond Pennsylvania, the unions and other progressive groups celebrated school board wins in Iowa, Connecticut and Virginia, as well as the new Democratic control of the Virginia state legislature.

That state’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, has been a standard-bearer for parental rights, pushing for open schools during the pandemic and restricting how race is discussed in classrooms.

Supporters of school vouchers had hoped that a Republican sweep in the state would allow for progress on that issue.

For the parental rights movement, there were some scattered bright spots. Moms for Liberty candidates found success in Colorado, Alaska and several Pennsylvania counties.

Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of the group, said she was not deterred by Tuesday’s results. She rejected calls for conservatives to back away from talking about divisive gender and race issues in education.

Progressive ideology on those issues, she said, was “destroying the lives of children and families.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said culture battles had distracted from post-pandemic recovery efforts on literacy and mental health.

Notably, both the A.F.T. and Moms for Liberty have argued for more effective early reading instruction, including a focus on foundational phonics skills.

But the conservative push to restrict books and to ideologically shape the history curriculum is a “strategy to create fear and division,” Ms. Weingarten said. The winning message, she added, was one of “freedom of speech and freedom to learn,” as well as returning local schools to their core business of fostering “consistency and stability” for children.