Reporters Collin Binkley and Julie Carr Smyth analyzed how national conservative groups have targeted school board races that more typically have been sleepier, civil affairs. The reporting was built on research Carr Smyth began in 2021 as part of a local government politics beat, looking at national conservative groups’ involvement in school board recruitment and training seminars around the country.

The efforts by these groups included disseminating an increasingly unified message, which organizations are taking to a new level in 2022.

Pac combo

In photo at left, Frederick County (Md.) Board of Education candidate Karen Yoho, left, and Jessica Fitzwater, a Democrat running for Frederick County executive, check early voting results for the state’s gubernatorial primary in Frederick, Md., July 19, 2022. Yoho, a board member running for re-election, said outside groups have stoked fears about critical race theory and other lessons that aren’t taught in Frederick County. In photo at right, Nampa (Idaho) School District student Elizabeth Weitzel, 14, reads “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher during a demonstration outside a school board meeting on the disposal of banned books in Nampa, Idaho, June 16, 2022. The school board voted in May to remove several books from its libraries.

Katina Zentz / The Frederick News-Post (left); Sarah A. Miller / Idaho Statesman via AP

By reviewing campaign finance filings, education reporter Binkley and Columbus, Ohio-based reporter Carr Smyth revealed that one group — the 1776 Project PAC — has spent millions to support conservative candidates in Maryland, Arkansas and Michigan. The reporting also revealed how spending on races has involved national groups that are getting involved in school board races for the first time. The piece detailed how many Republicans are seizing on “parental rights” as a tactic to unseat Democrats at all levels of government.

The pair’s story, capturing how national money and attention has changed the tenor of many of these local races and left some incumbents reeling from coordinated accusations of “grooming” and “indoctrination,” earned strong play with AP members and customers.