Despite GOP gains across the state, voters in the Austin-area suburb of Round Rock rejected conservative school board candidates

A visitor attending a Keller ISD school board meeting wears a shirt reading, Please Dont Politics, Porn, Prey on April 25, 2022. During the midterm elections earlier this month, conservative school board candidates who ran on platforms against critical race theory lost every race in the suburban school districts of Round Rock, near Austin, and Wylie, near Dallas. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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The Round Rock Independent School District, north of Austin, had a tumultuous lead-up to Election Day. Debates over mask policies, teacher shortages and allegations of threatening behavior and assault against the superintendent pitted trustees, and their supporters, against each other in recent years.

The Texas GOP and other political groups sought to leverage those divisions to oust board trustees who have not been supportive of conservative policies. Even though school board races are nonpartisan, the Nov. 8 elections for Round Rock school trustees drew high-profile endorsements from the Republican Party of Texas.

The elections could have dramatically changed the political makeup of the school board. Between Round Rock and the Wylie Independent School District near Dallas, there were nine school board seats open for election this month.

But in both districts, every candidate endorsed by the Republican Party of Texas lost. In Round Rock, the races weren’t even close.

Tiffanie Harrison, the school board Place 6 incumbent and a former teacher in the district, beat Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member and conservative firebrand, by 25 percentage points.

While Texas Republicans largely swept Tuesday’s elections and GOP-backed school board trustees made gains elsewhere in the state, the results in Round Rock and Wylie raise questions about the current conservative strategy in suburban school districts and the universal appeal of an agenda built on the front lines of the culture wars.

One of the primary targets for conservatives running for school board seats has been critical race theory, a college-level discipline that examines why racism continues in American law and culture decades after the civil rights movement in the United States. It is not taught in elementary or secondary public schools in Texas, but conservatives have used the term as a shorthand to attack what they perceive as liberal “indoctrination” and bias in how children are taught about race in schools.

Most recently, a slate of 11 conservative, anti-CRT candidates won races in school boards across Tarrant County in May, backed by a self-proclaimed Christian political action committee. Tarrant County itself had been moving away from being one of America’s reddest urban counties, with recent victories from Democrats President Joe Biden in 2020 and Beto O’Rourke when he ran against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

But now with conservatives taking more notice of local elections and pumping money into them, the county voted for Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican Tim O’Hare as its county judge. O’Hare founded the Southlake Families PAC to elect conservatives on the city’s school board, starting a playbook that conservatives in other parts of the state could follow.

The GOP thought this strategy, which included strong funding and messaging around CRT, would allow them to place conservative candidates on the Round Rock school board, a suburban city in Williamson County that, much like Tarrant, in the last few years has slowly moved away from being a solid red county.

Harrison said she won because Round Rock families are tired of the political division that characterized the school board races this year.

“Children aren’t red or blue. They just need people that are willing to serve them and make sure that they have what they need in their schools to be successful,” Harrison told The Texas Tribune.

Harrison also said her opponent’s slogan — “Teach ABCs + 123s, not CRTs & LGBTs” — is an example of hateful rhetoric that she said parents don’t want their children to deal with.

Zimmerman and Jill Farris, another Round Rock school board candidate endorsed by the Texas GOP who lost her race, attributed the results to a changing electorate that is more liberal than in previous years.

“Maybe we were all kind of relying a little bit on this red wave and thought that parents were just as angry as we were,” Farris said. “At least now, we know where the community stands and we can move forward.”

Round Rock ISD straddles Williamson and Travis counties and sits north of deep-blue Austin. Voters in Travis County overwhelmingly supported O’Rourke during the midterm elections, while votes in Williamson County were split almost evenly over their support for O’Rourke and Abbott.

Williamson County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, which is driven, in part, by the increasing cost of living in Austin, forcing many middle-class families to move north and contributing to the shifting electorate.

Jeremy Story, one of leaders of the Round Rock One Family PAC that endorsed Zimmerman and Farris, said that school board races are no longer nonpartisan, even if the candidates are not listed with a political party on the ballot.

Story believes that voters didn’t reject the messaging of the candidates his PAC supported; instead, the results reflect the changing political leanings of the region. The conservative endorsement of school board candidates did not appeal to Round Rock voters, who are increasingly supporting left-leaning candidates, Story said.

Story said his effort to make the Round Rock school board more conservative will continue, though it’s unlikely there will be any major changes soon. Only three seats will be open during the next election in two years, not enough to forge a majority bloc of trustees who support conservative platforms like Round Rock One Family’s.

Organizing efforts

In Round Rock, parents who opposed conservative school board candidates started organizing about a year ago when they saw the politicization of masking and the COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, former school board Trustee Jun Xiao became the target of anti-Asian hate online after voting to keep the district’s mask mandate in place.

“We were horrified,” said Krista Laine, president of Access Education RRISD, the group that the parents formed. The group says it fights for equity in the district and it endorsed every candidate running against GOP-backed opponents.

Laine said the school board elections in Round Rock were playing out like other ones seen across the country and state, where the culture wars and buzzwords were being thrown around to persuade people to vote for the conservative candidates.

The race got contentious as some candidates — including Harrison — received packages with used women’s tampons and dildos.

The defeat of GOP-backed candidates “was a rejection of the Trump style of politics,” Laine said.

She said the key to winning was having time to organize and get community members involved.

“Most of us have never been involved in an election cycle or anything like that,” she said. “We were just worried about having high-quality trustees.”

Stephanie Knight, dean of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University, said she was surprised to see that GOP-backed candidates in Round Rock and Wylie lost.

“This is a ripe area for us to look at to determine whether there is something that we can learn that we could apply in other places,” Knight said.

Statewide gains 

While the GOP didn’t see the gains they expected in these races, they still won some crucial statewide seats.

Knight pointed out that Republicans flipped a seat on the State Board of Education, which dictates what Texas’ 5.5 million kids learn, and now 10 of the board’s 15 members are Republican. Many of the conservatives elected on the board ran on an anti-CRT platform.

She said Republicans strengthening their majority on the state board is a big win as Texas has yet to update its social studies curriculum and now has a new, more conservative board at the helm.

The state board was set to update the history curriculum standards by the end of this year, but instead delayed any updates, paving the way for a new board to do so.

While the parents in Round Rock successfully helped fend off a conservative takeover of their district’s school board and now want their model to be replicated, it is too early to tell if it could work elsewhere, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“I think the explanation is that in areas where you’ve got a higher percentage of progressive-leaning voters, and especially college-educated voters, they’re less likely to be susceptible to the messaging about how the there’s CRT and pornography in schools,” he said.

But Rottinghaus said that the defeat of GOP-backed school board candidates in Round Rock shows conservatives must adjust their strategy when trying to win races in places with shifting demographics and politics.

“The message about indoctrination is a strategy that has clear limits,” he said.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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