Growing backlash against progressive policies implemented by school boards across the nation could manifest itself this year in North Carolina’s school districts.

Conservative candidates in once thought reliably Democrat-friendly districts hope to make inroads during what could be a red wave election in the fall. The push is visible in counties like Wake, Orange, and Guilford. Here, a number of progressive candidates have chosen to not seek re-election, while conservative candidates are feeling wind in their electoral sails.

Meanwhile, candidates in more middle-of-the-road or conservative counties are mounting strong campaigns — in areas like New Hanover, Johnston, Craven, and Union counties.

School board elections are nonpartisan in many counties, but candidates and members still represent progressive, conservative, or moderate points of view. Pandemic-era policies — like forced masking and shuttered classrooms — have motivated a new batch of candidates to get involved. A rising tide of “woke” policies on race and gender issues have contributed to the motivation.

Political and education experts with the John Locke Foundation say that some school board races could follow statewide trends in voting, but they caution there are key differences in these local elections that could make a difference.

“School board elections, much like other races lower on the bottom of the ballot, tend to follow the trends of state-level generic ballots,” said Jim Stirling, a research fellow at Locke. “While this can be seen in county-wide elections that happen in November, many counties have different ways of implementing their races. For starters, some counties lack a primary, have a different election date, or have votes pick multiple candidates. This makes these trends slightly more inconsistent than something like our judicial elections.”

Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at Locke, noted that the nonpartisan nature of most races — mixed with the high number of non-incumbents running — means that voters will have even less information heading into the ballot box.

“Because a number of incumbents declined to run for reelection, voters will select school board members from a slate of newcomers rather than choose from status-quo candidates and their opponents,” said Stoops. “Simply put, it is often difficult to distinguish the reformers from the reactionaries.”

“Endorsements from elected officials or prominent citizens may play an outsized role in school board elections this year,” Stoops added. “Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced school board endorsements in key races, a move that was instrumental in securing victory for parental rights candidates in the Sunshine State.”

In Orange County, progressive school board members Brenda Stephens and Hillary MacKenzie are not running for re-election. Conservatives are pushing hard to take those seats in the fall election. They are setting their hopes on three candidates: Bethni Lee, Penny Carter King, and Anne Purcell.

The Orange County School Board has come under fire for its policy on students who wish to transition to a different gender — specifically excluding parental notice or involvement. “In some cases, transgender students may not want their parents to know about their transgender status,” the policy states. “These situations must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The paramount consideration in such situations is the health and safety of the student.”

The board also voted unanimously to keep controversial gender identity books in school libraries, such as “Gender Queer,” “Lawn Boy,” and “Out of Darkness.”

In Wake County, five of the nine school board members are not seeking re-election. Four seats will be on the ballot for four-year terms, with the remaining five seats up for two-year terms before switching over to full four-year terms after the 2024 election. Conservatives are pinning their hopes on candidates like Cheryl Caulfield, Wing Ng, Patrice Nealon, Jacob Arthur, and Steve Bergstrom. Conservative candidates have been motivated to leap into the electoral fray by forced masking and curriculum concerns.

This article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov print edition of the Carolina Journal.