Republicans in conservative-led states are moving to control an often overlooked role in state government that helps set the classroom agenda for millions of children — the school superintendent’s office.
After helping propel Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin into office last year and animating a host of conservative campaigns for governor, state legislator and school board member, battles over public education have turned superintendents into a new political frontier.
Most of these officials are appointed by governors or education boards, but a handful of seats are up for grabs this November in states that let voters decide who helps oversee billions of dollars in public funding and influence debates on some of the hottest topics affecting schools today.
These once obscure jobs that supervise bread-and-butter concerns about academic testing and teacher certification — in tandem with legislatures and school boards — have now attracted attention from big-spending political groups and some of the most prominent names in GOP politics, including former President Donald Trump. Figures once known for steering education budgets are now part of the frontline response to parents who want a bigger role in classrooms and efforts to limit lessons about history, gender identity and race.
“We are in a time where the issues that impact education are seeing a higher profile — and that is impacting a whole host of electoral circumstances,” said Paolo DeMaria, who recently retired as Ohio’s state superintendent and now leads the National Association of State Boards of Education.
“If I am running in a state and I know that to win I have to accumulate a certain number of votes, then that goes into the platform-setting and the representations that are made. … But the ultimate question is how will you influence the overall success of each child in your state,” DeMaria said.
Trump tested his influence with an endorsement in what used to be one state’s sleepy superintendent election. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, contributed thousands of dollars to another campaign. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender, bestowed his conservative aura onto candidates for local board races across the Sunshine State as he pursues reelection. Federal lawmakers are getting in on the action, too, by throwing support to their chosen candidates.
Largely on the defensive after Youngkin’s victory, Democrats have sought to sharpen their response to waves of conservative legislation aiming to control curriculum and bolster what they describe as parental rights in schools. But polls reflect consistent partisan divides between voters over key education concerns. Research commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform, a school policy and advocacy organization, this summer meanwhile concluded parents and voters of color in dozens of congressional battlegrounds were significantly more likely to trust Republicans on education policy.
California is the only blue state with a superintendent election this year, but races in these six Republican-controlled states will help seed the next phase of conservative education policy.
When Oklahoma public schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister found herself term-limited, she switched parties to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt as a Democrat this fall.
That has opened a heated battle to take over the state’s top elected education post, and a campaign that’s attracted attention from the DeVos family.
Jena Nelson, a Democrat and former state teacher of the year, will face Stitt ally and state Education Secretary Ryan Walters in an election infused with cultural debates over school curriculum. Nelson holds an early lead over her conservative opponent, according to one recent poll.
Both candidates are under pressure to address the fallout from a 2021 state law that bars educators from requiring courses or teaching concepts that cause any individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race or gender identity.
Stitt tapped Walters, a former teacher who is also executive director of the Every Kid Counts Oklahoma school choice group, as the state’s education secretary in 2020. Walters has since garnered attention from social media posts that have called to revoke the license of a high school teacher who resigned in opposition to Oklahoma’s banned-concepts law and separately criticized one city’s school system for “allowing pornography in front of their kids” when parents demanded a ban on certain books from its libraries.
According to campaign finance records, Betsy and Richard DeVos in July each donated the maximum $2,900 allowed under state law for individual campaign contributions to Walters. The conservative Americans for Prosperity group and other political organizations also reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars combined to support Walters this summer. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is another Walters backer. Nelson, in turn, has accused Walters of “scheming with his billionaire funders to dismantle public education across the state.”
Wyoming’s state superintendent of public instruction was handpicked by the local Republican Party, and won a coveted endorsement for his reelection bid from Trump days before the party’s August primary.
But Brian Schroeder won’t hold the office next year. Megan Degenfelder instead won the Republican nomination over Schroeder by 3,565 votes — just four months after declaring her candidacy for the office.
Republican Gov. Mark Gordon appointed Schroeder in January from a list of GOP-nominated candidates to serve out the remaining term of former state Superintendent Jillian Balow, after she left Wyoming earlier this year to serve as Youngkin’s schools chief. Degenfelder meanwhile served as Balow’s chief policy officer at the Wyoming Department of Education and has worked as a government affairs executive in the state’s mining and gas industries.
Degenfelder’s platform declares she will resist “anti-American curriculum” and policies, work with local industries on workforce development, and empower parents as the top decision maker in their children’s education. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) has endorsed Degenfelder.
“She’ll face Democrat Sergio Maldonado, a doctoral student at the University of Wyoming and longtime classroom teacher who has said he would “de-politicize the Wyoming Department of Education.” Maldonado has also been endorsed by the Wyoming Education Association labor union.
Republican state superintendent nominee Ellen Weaver boasts endorsements from GOP Sen. Tim Scott and Mitchell Zais, a top Trump administration Education Department official. She heads South Carolina’s most prominent conservative think tank and school-choice cheerleader, the Palmetto Promise Institute, which was led by her old boss, former Sen. Jim DeMint.
Yet Weaver is racing to address questions about her qualifications to serve in office ahead of November’s election. South Carolina law requires the superintendent to hold a master’s degree. Weaver doesn’t yet have one, but said in April that she had enrolled in a program at Bob Jones University to obtain one by October.
It’s a notable footnote in a race that’s played out amid South Carolina’s successful effort to ban transgender students from participating on school sports teams that match their gender identity, and legislative attempts to outlaw the teaching of certain lessons on race and history.
Lisa Ellis, Weaver’s Democratic opponent, has stated her opposition to education savings accounts supported by the Palmetto Institute and said that teachers should be able to teach “without fear of politically-motivated punishment or censorship.” She also founded SC for Ed, a teacher organization that has opposed policies promoted by the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Henry McMaster.
Weaver, for her part, has said the state must “empower teachers and parents to speak up against any political indoctrination in South Carolina schools, while teaching complete and accurate history.” She’s also been a forceful fundraiser who has pulled in a total of more than $550,000 during this election cycle.
Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, a Democratic critic of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, will face former state attorney general and school superintendent Tom Horne in a November race that’s piled onto rhetoric wielded by conservative state politicians plus DeSantis and Youngkin.
Horne has promoted his past efforts to ban local Mexican-American studies programs — later deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge — as a pillar of his campaign. Ducey and the state’s GOP-controlled legislature have enacted a host of education laws during the pandemic despite Hoffman’s opposition, including a universal school voucher program, and bans on sports participation and gender-affirming surgical procedures for LGBTQ youth.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association support gender-affirming care for adolescents. But medical experts said gender-affirming care for children rarely, if ever, includes surgery. Instead, doctors are more likely to recommend counseling, social transitioning and hormone replacement therapy.
Hoffman, who has endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood, is attempting to preserve Democrats’ hold on the education office with a message that focuses on academics and shies away from cultural battles in a bid to appeal to independent voters — who made up roughly one-third of the Arizona electorate last year — and moderate Republicans willing to cross party lines.
Idaho Democratic superintendent nominee Terry Gilbert promised that, if elected, he would advocate for a “School Children’s Right to Life” law that bans people under age 21 from purchasing assault weapons following May’s deadly attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Gilbert, a longtime teacher who served as president of the Idaho Education Association labor union in the late 1970s, faces a well-funded opponent with ample education bonafides in a gun-friendly state.
Debbie Critchfield, a former state board of education president, is a heavy favorite to win this fall after she secured close to 40 percent of the Republican vote in May’s primary election over incumbent public education Superintendent Sherri Ybarra and a third challenger. Critchfield secured her victory with help from a campaign war chest that eclipsed her rivals and totaled more than $300,000 at its peak.
Critchfield has pointed to concerns with critical race theory and has said she’s open to having the state pay for students’ private school tuition if it’s not done at the expense of public education funding — though she has operated with more moderate messaging than other conservatives.
And after recording almost all of her spending during the primary, Critchfield entered August on more even campaign finance ground with Gilbert. Gilbert reported having $36,705 in cash at the end of July, according to the candidate’s latest available financial disclosures. Critchfield reported having $39,972 in cash on hand.
Incumbent state Superintendent Richard Woods won a landslide victory over former office holder John Barge in May’s primary election, solidifying his plans to harness a third consecutive term in office with a message centered on academic concerns.
Woods has also served as a close ally of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — who is locked in his own reelection campaign against former state Rep. Stacey Abrams. Woods backed the governor’s efforts to ban teaching about “divisive” racial concepts, codify a parental bill of rights and to make it easier for parents to seek to have books removed from schools. The superintendent also praised Kemp’s signing of a law this year that allows students to opt out of Covid-19 mask mandates, and is also aligned with the governor on boosting school police staffing and increasing teacher pay.
Woods will face Alisha Thomas Searcy, a former state representative and charter school manager turned education consultant, in November’s election.
Blake Jones contributed to this report.