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A school board race is Pennsylvania is heating up, with gender policies on the ballot

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Across the country, people are casting ballots for local and state races, including school boards. In northeastern Pennsylvania, what a few years ago was a fairly nonpartisan school board contest has turned into a competitive and downright combative race. From WLVR in Bethlehem, Pa., Sarah Mueller has more.

DOUG DURHAM: Hey, folks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

DURHAM: Do you guys live in Southern Lehigh?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

DURHAM: We're running for school board, OK? We'd appreciate your support if you're registered. Have fun trick or treating tonight, OK?

SARAH MUELLER, BYLINE: It's Halloween in downtown Coopersburg, a borough nestled in the Lehigh Valley. And Doug Durham is handing out candy to trick or treaters, young and old.

DURHAM: Whether you're a Republican or not, the candy's free. So have some candy.

MUELLER: Durham's one of 10 candidates vying for one of the five seats on the Southern Lehigh school board. It's a race in a swing district in a swing state. And at stake is the chance to dramatically reshape district policy. Durham's slate of candidates have dubbed themselves the true Republicans. They've got the endorsement of the county Republican committee and signed a pledge that, in part, is aimed at a curriculum review to keep, quote, "woke politics" out of the classroom. That led to criticism that they wanted to censor school libraries. Here's Durham on local conservative talk show host Bobby Gunther Walsh's program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DURHAM: We're not book banners. I believe in free speech. But I don't think pornography should be available to children in the schools.

MUELLER: Durham's group says they want to restrict students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity and inform parents when they ask to go by different gender pronouns.

DURHAM: If you believe that a policy that keeps secret from parents is appropriate, then we are fully against that policy.

MUELLER: Emily Gehman, who's served on the school board here for eight years, is running for reelection. She's also a Republican, but...

EMILY GEHMAN: Being endorsed by the Republican Party at the county and local level was contingent upon signing that pledge. I chose not to sign that pledge.

MUELLER: So Gehman is running on the Democratic slate, with four moderate Republicans and one Democrat. She believes students have a right to privacy at school.

GEHMAN: If there is a policy that exists where a child is told, if you talk to an adult about anything, your parent will immediately be called, that does more harm than good.

MUELLER: These kinds of debates might sound familiar.

DAN HOPKINS: Schools sometimes become front lines in national political battles.

MUELLER: That's University of Pennsylvania professor Dan Hopkins. He says the often sleepy school board races of yesteryear are quickly becoming a thing of the past, fueled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

HOPKINS: COVID led to a genuinely important shift in the sense that school boards were making very, very meaningful decisions about whether to open or close. And many parents had the experience of suddenly having their kids in their houses, and oftentimes, they could hear the instruction.

MUELLER: Hopkins says what's happening in the Lehigh Valley is just another example of how local politics have become nationalized. Local candidates take cues from national groups focused on the role of parents in school, like the far-right Moms for Liberty and its left-leaning counterpart, Stop Moms for Liberty.

HOPKINS: These suddenly nationally kind of charged symbols infuse a local political debate.

MUELLER: Christine Slifer, who has two small children in the district, says she can't escape the tension in the race.

CHRISTINE SLIFER: I mean, some local groups on Facebook, groups that have nothing to do with politics but have stuff to do with the school or the town. You know, and I'm in there just to kind of find out what's going on. A lot of it gets brought into there, and it's very divisive.

MUELLER: She says she's frustrated by the local coverage.

SLIFER: It wasn't even focusing on how great Southern Lehigh is for academics or any of our achievements. It was all these hot-button topics. And it doesn't need to be like that. It just - and I just don't think that's positive for our kids.

MUELLER: The fierce competition for unpaid positions on Lehigh Valley school boards shows how political these races have become. Voters will soon decide what issues most resonated with them, but the results either way are unlikely to break the political entrenchment on both sides, with the kids caught in the middle.

RASCOE: That was Sarah Mueller in Bethlehem, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Mueller