TOPEKA — As local school board candidates gear up for the November election, community leaders worry about misinformation and extremist candidates.
Judith Deedy, executive director of Game On for Kansas Schools, a public education advocacy group, said the organization had to fight against “fake issues” promoted by several right-leaning local school board candidates, such as parental rights debate and pushback on diversity, equity and inclusion practices in schools.
“I’m worried about a new type of school board candidate that we’ve seen in the last couple of elections,” Deedy said. “These aren’t our traditional candidates who come to board elections with experience of civic engagement, participation. … Lately, we see kind of an angry parent. And sometimes they’re not even parents, but they’re running on wedge issues, culture war issues. They’re using deceptive information.”
Deedy joined Lauren Tice Miller, of the Kansas National Education Association, to talk about the school board race election cycle on the Kansas Reflector podcast.
Miller, who serves on the Shawnee Heights school board in Shawnee County, said she was concerned about Moms for America. The group is similar to Moms for Liberty, Miller said, raising objections to books and curriculum and wanting to remove vaccination requirements.
“The even more concerning part is they are very strong advocates for funneling public dollars to private schools,” Miller said. “I always question, why would somebody who is supposed to be an advocate for public schools come and serve on our board when they’re being supported by a group who wants to remove funding from public schools to go to these private schools?”
The issues of DEI and parental rights have made it to the forefront of conservative education platforms both nationally and locally. DEI is a training practice that seeks to prioritize student safety and comfort by giving voices to historically underrepresented groups. The diversity aspect is meant to acknowledge differences, correct systemic imbalance and offer everyone equal opportunities and support.
In the Shawnee Mission district, several school board candidates are running on an anti-DEI platform, following uproar at Shawnee Mission North High School in May. A teacher at the school said DEI training was harming students and enforcing a “woke ideology.” The argument is a common one made by Republican leaders who say public school teachers promote a “woke agenda” — without a firm explanation for what that means.
Deedy said Moms for Liberty has been especially vocal in the Johnson County district races. The extremist group platforms against LGBTQ and racially inclusive school curriculum and has advocated for book bans. MFL was started by Florida women who opposed pandemic-era school closures and mask mandates.
The Johnson County chapter lists 21 books as problematic, including the novels “Fun Home” and “Gender Queer.” The chapter’s stated goals are to act as “truly Joyful Warriors” and “secure parent’s rights and freedom,” according to the organization’s website.
The group declined to respond to a Kansas Reflector inquiry for comment as well as invitations to appear for a podcast. In a July 26 Facebook post, the group blamed teachers’ unions, which they have labeled a “K-12 cartel,” for poor student education in the state.
Deedy pointed to several MFL-supported candidates, including Jennifer Gilmore in the Olathe school district. Gilmore, who is running for the second time, also is suing the district following her removal from a board meeting after disrupting the meeting and yelling accusations at board of education members.
Gilmore, in a Facebook comment from her personal account, denied being a current member of MFL, but she defended the organization in multiple comments. She said she was a member in 2021 but didn’t renew her membership.
“Can you help me understand why you would be concerned if I was a member of a 501c that was established to educate and empower parents to defend their fundamental rights at all areas of government?” Gilmore wrote in a July 27 comment.
Miller said candidates needed to focus on real issues, such as the growing use of fentanyl in the state, child poverty and fulfilling school funding obligations.
“We are responsible for establishing the goals and the vision for the district — where do we want to move our districts, what directions to be able to provide students, all students, with opportunities to succeed?” Miller said. “What we’re seeing with these national groups getting involved in some of these extreme candidates is they’re hyper focused on one one thing, no matter what that one thing may be, and oftentimes, it could be student outcomes, and they want to hyper focus on one metric.”