Democratic Socialists Are Running for School Board — and Winning

Democratic socialists want a society where robustly funded public institutions ensure that all families and children can flourish. Winning school board seats, as democratic socialists are doing across the country, is a good way to make that vision a reality.

Schoolchildren learn world geography at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Denver, Colorado. (Andy Cross / the Denver Post via Getty Images)

Whenever the far-right gains political traction in America, it’s usually at least partly due to an unglamorous, relatively inexpensive tactic: running for school board. Throwing their energy into local school politics has often allowed conservatives to stoke panic on hot-button wedge issues — most recently, “critical race theory” and trans acceptance — which can have tremendous emotional power. But socialists have been fighting the Right on this terrain — and winning.

Last summer at its annual convention, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) passed a resolution encouraging local chapters to run candidates for school boards. The group’s focus has already drawn right-wing ire, with a story last month in the New York Post alleging that “DSA educators spread far left ‘poison’ in America’s schools.” That sterling work of journalism was based on “DSA’s Long March Through Our K-12 Institutions,” a lengthy report from a conservative group called Parents Defending Education. These are hostile framings, to be sure, but the reason DSA is drawing such attacks is that for socialists, this strategy makes so much sense.

In a way, last summer’s convention resolution was less an expression of a new strategy than an intention to expand and deepen work that is already happening in DSA chapters. In Los Angeles, DSA holds several seats, with more campaigns underway. More surprisingly, in 2021, DSA won a seat in Suffolk County, Long Island, where Donald Trump prevailed in 2020 by a couple hundred votes and where Republicans made huge gains in the last local election. Over the past six years, DSA members have also been elected in East Bay (California), Denver, Jefferson County (Kentucky), Las Vegas, Syracuse, Parkland (Pennsylvania), Austin, Pasadena (Texas), Milwaukee, and elsewhere.

Rose DuBois, a member of Maine DSA and of DSA’s National Political Committee, coauthored the convention resolution on school boards for strategic reasons, she says. One of these is to fight the far right. “There’s a big debate within DSA,” she explains, “over how we should approach presidential elections. We’re not going to endorse [Joe] Biden and we don’t have the capacity to make a difference in a presidential race anyway.” The interesting question, then, is “where can we as an [organization] have an impact on stopping fascists?” School boards make sense, since while ultraconservatives have been using them to build power, they’re also small-scale enough that grassroots organizing — DSA’s forte — can swing them.

Another strategic reason to engage in school board battles, says DuBois, whose mother is a public school teacher, is that teachers are one of the most robustly unionized and vilified workforces, and the right-wing attacks on schools have become a labor issue. DuBois says her mother “will complain that her school is dealing with so many crazy right-wing people, and a lot of teachers are quitting because of it.” The “fearmongering on race and gender, the idea that teachers are plotting to turn kids trans,” and heightened suspicion of educators, is “making it hard for teachers to focus on teaching.”

Diving into school politics is key to protecting public institutions from bipartisan austerity — and it also seems likely to bring new people into the socialist movement, including middle-aged parents, who have typically been underrepresented in DSA, partly due to the group’s past disengagement with matters of family and education.

Of “the family,” says NYC-DSA’s Danny Valdes, the far right “has claimed it because we’ve ceded it.” Yet because they benefit from public education, one of the few truly socialized services in this country, while needing so much more, including universal childcare, “parents are primed for socialism,” he argues.

Valdes is one of the founders of a group in NYC-DSA called Comrades with Kids, which has been putting together political education on New York City’s notoriously undemocratic and complex school politics and gearing up to run candidates in its 2025 Community Education Councils (CECs) elections. The CECs are a less powerful, less democratic version of a school board, but worth contesting nonetheless since they do make some policy decisions and in the last elections, a right-wing slate, backed by outside money, gained significant power due in part to slapdash progressive organizing and the opacity of the process.

By connecting with other progressive groups that have been working on education issues in New York for decades, each in their own silos, DSA might be able to cut through the antidemocratic structures and confusing messages by organizing parents around a broader vision of robustly funded public institutions that ensure all families and children can flourish. Valdes points out that last summer’s convention resolution passed unanimously, which is rare consensus in a famously fractious socialist organization. These efforts offer hope that, as Valdes says, “we could have a truly family-friendly society.”

That’s a vision far more compelling than the hate fueling the Right, and it’s a vision that could win.