BOSTON — A TUG of war for control of local school boards is taking place in many communities across the United States.
Conservative religious groups are waging a grass-roots campaign to get like-minded candidates elected to community school boards. And liberal groups are fighting back.
During the last school year, the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way monitored close to 250 school-board races with religious-right candidates; about one-third of those campaigns were successful in primaries or general elections.
Religious-right candidates won school-board elections in at least 12 states in 1992-93, according to a report by People for the American Way.
Low voter turnout in school-board elections means that a few hundred votes can affect outcomes. In some cases, the new school-board members are considered "stealth candidates" because they do not reveal affiliations with religious-right groups.
"These school-board candidates often get into office by cloaking their true agenda, and when they do gain control, they go after parts of the curriculum that don't match their own religious and political views," says Matthew Freeman, director of research at People for the American Way.
Religious conservatives have gained a majority on some school boards and are beginning to have an impact on policies.
School-board meetings in Vista, Calif., now open with a prayer, and board members have proposed adding a creationist biology text to the curriculum.
In Round Rock, Texas, religious conservatives on the school board voted to reinstate prayer at graduations and want to make it easier to ban books from school libraries.
"This movement is gathering steam," Mr. Freeman says, "and will likely impact hundreds more school boards in the next few years."
Two nationwide organizations are actively supporting the grass-roots effort.
Robert Simonds, head of the National Association of Christian Educators/Citizens for Excellence in Education, says his group's followers won more than 3,500 school-board seats last year.
During this spring's school-board elections in New York City, the Christian Coalition, television evangelist Pat Robertson's political organization, passed out 500,000 voter guides. The pamphlets outline candidates' stands on such issues as voluntary classroom prayer and requiring parental consent for students to receive condoms in school.
"[Our involvement] doubled voter turnout from previous elections," says Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. Of 89 "pro-family" candidates, 56 were elected, Mr. Reed says, calling it "a stunning success rate of 63 percent."
Reed denies that his organization advises candidates to hide their affiliation or viewpoints. "We think that their mainstream, pro-family agenda wins votes; it doesn't cost them votes," he says.
The issue is civic responsibility, Reed says. "For too long, people of faith have not fully exercised their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Women, African-Americans, other minorities, gays, and union workers have all gone out there and increased participation and involvement of like-minded citizens. We're beginning to do the same thing."
"There's nothing new about different groups fighting for control of the public schools," says Patrick Groff, professor emeritus at San Diego State University.
"It's called democracy," says George Landrith III, a member of the Albemarle County School Board in Charlottesville, Va. "It seems odd to single out one particular groups' attempts to be heard as somehow dangerous," Mr. Landrith says.
As a school-board member, Landrith has seen just as much lobbying from the left side of the political spectrum as from the right, he says. This spring, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to school boards saying that graduation prayers are unconstitutional under any circumstances. "Clearly, they are trying to impact policy from a left-leaning perspective," Landrith says.
Although he would not be surprised if some conservative "stealth candidates" were being elected, Landrith does not view it as a widespread problem. "That's certainly no more likely to be the case than a candidate who buys 100 percent into the NEA [National Education Association teachers union] or ACLU policies, which are left-leaning."
"For many years, our schools have been in the control of bureaucrats and teachers' unions," Reed says. "Now parents and taxpayers are demanding a voice in the process."
As that voice gets more powerful, the other side is rousing the voting public and encouraging a closer look at school-board elections.