Across Pennsylvania this month, anti-extremism candidates swept local school board elections, beating out right-wing candidates for elected positions that shape public education and, with it, the trajectory of students’ lives.
The East Penn School District, north of Philadelphia, was the site of one of these battles in the larger war for the soul of public education in the state. In this district, a “pro-education,” bipartisan slate of candidates successfully prevented a Moms for Liberty-aligned slate, which prioritized culture war issues over problem-solving, from taking the reins of educational power.
Shonta Ford, a Democrat, was one of the candidates on the successful slate, which consisted of two other Democrats and two Republicans — including one incumbent from each party.
She thinks her slate’s victory over the far right one is an example of the frustration many Pennsylvanians feel with extremism at all levels of the political landscape.
“I think that people are exhausted with hate, they’re exhausted with the fighting back and forth, they’re exhausted with the anger,” Ford said. “I just think across the country, people are exhausted. And they would like some normalcy, they would like to see people work on issues. Because when people are fighting and going back and forth, and throwing hot button issues all over the place, the reality is, no work is getting done, and nobody’s getting any help.”
The anger being pushed by the far right was present throughout the campaign, Ford said.
“There was the Republican ticket that decided to capitalize initially on a kind of fear, telling people that trans boys are going to use the girls’ bathroom and all kinds of crazy stuff,” Ford said. “I would get messages in my inbox, that I was going to let Black kids beat up white kids. It was too much.”
Gabrielle Klotz was another Democratic candidate on the slate.
“I think that people are tired of extremism on either side,” Klotz said. “I think we, as a country, have really dealt with a lot of anger. There’s anger, just all over the place. I mean, all you have to do is turn on the TV.”
That sort of extremism and partisanship, Klotz said, has no place in local politics.
“It doesn’t matter who helps you. It doesn’t matter the political party who helps you with local government,” Klotz said. “I’m a Democrat. I don’t care if a Republican gets my issue resolved. It doesn’t matter to me as long as my issue gets resolved.”
Ford and Klotz didn’t have to look far to see an example of what happens when a school system gives into division, either.
The nearby Pennridge School District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with lawsuits as it grapples with the consequences of enacting far-right priorities like removing books from libraries and anti-trans bathroom restrictions. The district was also recently the subject of a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education.
“I think like in the Pennridge School District, they tried it the other way and it didn’t work,” Ford said. “It ended up with a lot of lawsuits and the district spending a lot of unnecessary money. And I think that was the warning sign: like, hey other school districts, if you allow this to happen, if you allow your school district to be taken over by this element, it’s going to cost you and it’s not going to help the kids. It’s not going to help the students. It’s certainly not going to help the teachers.”
The conservative board members in Pennridge were voted out on the same day Ford and Klotz’s slate won in East Penn. But much of the damage has already been done.
“Our concern if we didn’t win is that we would be the next Pennridge,” Ford said.
Set to take office in December, Ford and Klotz are both newcomers to elected office. It’s Klotz’s first election, while Ford ran for school board once before, losing by just one vote, she said.
“I’m excited to bring a different voice to the board,” Ford said. “In its history it has been predominantly male. There have been women on the board, but there’s never been an African-American woman on the board.”
Both said they’re excited to get past the division of the campaign and get things done for the people of their school district.
“They are tired of hearing only negative things,” Klotz said. “And they appreciate knowing that there are good things, we can focus on good things, while acknowledging there’s always room for improvement.”