Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs HB7, also dubbed the "stop woke" bill, at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida.

The Classroom Culture War Comes to Round Rock

Bolstered by national groups, far-right religious candidates are swamping school boards with book bans and sex panic.

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The last regular meeting of the Round Rock school district’s board of trustees before the November election was tense as the floor opened to public comment. The board previously kicked out speakers for disrupting the meeting. Amber Feller, the trustee president, warned the audience that hate speech and personal attacks were not permitted. Police officers stood by, ready to keep the peace. 

Far-right candidates for school board Don Zimmerman and Christie Slape sat in the audience at Round Rock High School, ready for their two minutes at the microphone. They are two of the 16 candidates competing for the five school board seats up for election this year. The anti-LGBTQ+, pro-book ban speakers, Zimmerman and Slape included, outnumbered the more tolerant adults in the room. 

Denise Ray, a parent supporting yet another conservative candidate for school board, Linda Avila, invited Muslim parents to speak at the meeting. Inspired by the protests of conservative Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, in early October—who shut down their school board’s meeting and railed against books with alleged sexual content—Ray hoped they could muster a similar disruption in Round Rock. 

“This is important because the school board trustees are charged with policy,” Ray said. “They impact students, the budget. These local elections impact the next generations. If Muslims share the same values, I want them to know what’s going on.”

The handful of Muslims who showed up to speak their minds in Round Rock did so, unlike the scene in Michigan, with respect. Still, conservatives in the city—including Round Rock One Family PAC, which represents a slate of five conservative candidates seeking trustee seats, including Zimmerman and Slape—are actively courting their votes. Muslims make up less than 1.5 percent of the Round Rock population. 

The district has a long history of parents and politicians decrying ideas and literature that don’t adhere to their worldview. In 1996, parents attempted to ban Richard Wright’s Black Boy from the high school library for “violence,” but ultimately failed. Last year, the Round Rock Black Parents Association led a petition to stop conservatives from banning Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.   

When it was his turn to speak, Zimmerman commended the Muslim parents for opposing “inappropriate materials in the library and the sexualizing of our children.” Then, he added a biblical threat. 

“There are billions of people in this world, every one unique, every one created by one God,” Zimmerman said. “What he said is, if any of you cause one of these little children to stumble, that means transgenderism, you know, dysphoria is a dangerous thing in a child if you encourage them and cause them to stumble. He says it’s better for you to have a stone tied around your neck and be drowned in the sea. That’s how serious this is.”  

Not all of the Muslims present supported Zimmerman’s extremist view. 

Monte Albert, an immigrant from Pakistan and father of a child in the school district, rose to defend books describing various sexual experiences.

“I heard some people invited a lot of Muslims to protest books about LGBT people,” he said, describing himself as gay. “What they are doing is very dangerous. Books should never be banned. … You should teach your child to have empathy for fellow human beings regardless of religion or no religion. It’s not your business to impose your religious view on other people.” 

Albert lived in a Muslim household for 29 years before he came out as gay. He explained that living in the closet in a religious family was a struggle and warned that lives are being destroyed because of intolerance.

The current fight over children’s minds began during the pandemic, when anxious parents pushed back against mask policies in schools. Often, anti-makers such as Round Rock parent Jill Farris claim the face coverings interfere with their children’s ability to focus. Farris said her daughter complained that wearing a mask in class fogged up her glasses and hindered her ability to read the blackboard. Her daughter’s learning problems and what she says are lower education standards resulting from remote learning inspired Farris to run for the school board this year. 

“What they are doing is very dangerous. Books should never be banned. … You should teach your child to have empathy for fellow human beings regardless of religion.”

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As the pandemic subsided, however, attacks on school boards’ authority shifted to how America’s racist history is taught, transgender rights, and book bans. 

Reactionaries across the United States are pushing their candidates to take over school boards to push their ideology in the classroom, believing that power will nudge the next generation toward “traditional values” and more votes. Right-wing activists such as Steve Bannon and think-tankers at the Heritage Foundation urge parents to attain local political power through the schools. Like the decades-long strategy to overturn Roe v. Wade, the right yearns to control the education system by influencing local elections. With Texas Democrats dejected after many years of GOP rule, and apathetic non-partisans more concerned with securing their daily bread than the country’s long-term prospects, voting for whichever party stokes their fears most, school board elections are a power game conservatives are likely to win.

Conservative parents of all religious affiliations blame artists, Hollywood films, and leftists in the media for lampooning traditional family values and promoting what they see as immoral behavior. At the same time, conservatives unironically demand school boards impose their idea of godly virtues‚—which often include belittling LGBTQ+ identity as a“lifestyle choice” only appropriate for adults over 18—on everyone else.  

Tiffanie Harrison, a board member up for reelection, is facing off against Zimmerman, whose slogan is “Teach ABCs + 1-2-3s, NOT CRTs & LGBTs.”  

Harrison, a progressive, called Zimmerman and the four other One Family PAC candidates, including Jill Farris, Orlando Salinas, John Keagy, and Christie Slape, “the hate slate.” Someone anonymously mailed Harrison and two supporters packages of dirty tampons in August, labeling the package “A gift from Tiff.” The U.S. Postal Service is investigating the incident. 

Zimmerman regularly posts derogatory comments on his campaign Facebook page. For example, he recently wrote, “Early Voting Starts MONDAY! Final review of the INCUMENT [sic] RRISD cowards and deniers pretending there is no such thing as ‘RRISD sponsored porn in for school kids’ [sic]. I WILL LEAVE COMMENTS OPEN on this thread so the despicable liars, LGBTQIA groomers and their various anti-Christ bigots can show you how they respond to OBJECTIVE TRUTH.” 

In response to his tirade, one Facebook commenter posted a short video of a One Family flyer burning in a firepit with Zimmerman’s name on it. 

One Family PAC has received endorsements from the New York-based 1776 Project PAC, which has spent millions supporting conservatives in school board races in multiple states. Keagy and Farris explained they were interviewed by staff from the 1776 PAC about a week before their endorsements became public in October. The week before early voting started in Texas, the 1776 Project mailed flyers in support of One Family candidates to Round Rock residents.

Parents in Round Rock formed their own PAC, called Access Education RRSID, to counter the moneyed conservative assault from wealthy donors who live outside the state. Harrison said her campaign had raised more than $70,000 for her race alone, far outpacing her opponent. 

Estevan Zárate, a progressive candidate for trustee, raised $13,000, which would typically be enough for a school board race, he said, but “the other side has so much money coming from outside the district. The board is supposed to be non-partisan. If the money comes from somewhere else, donors will want something for that money.”

To secure a 1776 Project endorsement, candidates must demonstrate a love for the flag-waving, white supremacist version of patriotism, “pride in American History,” opposition to the New York Times1619 Project, and an eagerness to attack critical race theory, the right’s strawman for everything anti-racism.

“They just want power,” Zárate said. “It’s 2022, for God’s sake, and we’re still dealing with people with hate in their hearts who won’t let other people be.”