For many years, school board elections in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania’s most affluent suburb, have been genteel, predictable affairs. Republican challengers would raise a fuss about high school taxes, and they would lose in a diverse, highly educated community that reflects the 21st century Democratic Party.

So it’s jarring in 2021 to see signs sprouting from Lower Merion’s fine-trimmed lawns: “Education Not Indoctrination” — that same slogan that well-funded GOP candidates in Virginia and elsewhere are also using in a strategy to make hay in an “off-year” election by riling up already angst-ridden parents about the way racism is taught in public schools.

Lower Merion, on Philadelphia’s western border, might seem like an unlikely front line in this war. But one of its generals is a once mostly apolitical Gladwyne mother of three who now appears on shows like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson to tout her No Left Turn in Education crusade, and who angrily mocks her critics by embracing the term “domestic terrorist” on her Twitter feed.

Elana Yaron Fishbein said in an interview this week she can trace her activism to an exact date — June 9, 2020, or exactly two weeks after the police murder of George Floyd — and an email from the principal of Gladwyne Elementary School about stepped-up anti-racism teaching. That includes books such as Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, which she believes teaches white kids to hate themselves. “We were horrified at this message,” said Fishbein. Jump ahead just 16 months, and her No Left Turn in Education group has chapters in roughly two dozen states, and is backing laws to place cameras in classrooms to monitor what is being taught to kids.

The radicalization of a white parent in a corner of Lower Merion where the median home price is roughly $1.4 million is an extreme example of the trend that’s coming to dominate on-the-ground politics in the Biden-Trump era: School fights — sometimes literally — over both the tortured realities of teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic but, even more heatedly, over how race or sexuality is dealt with in the classroom.

In Tuesday’s neck-and-neck Virginia gubernatorial election, the GOP multi-millionaire political newcomer Glenn Youngkin is betting that fanning the culture-war flames is the key to victory in what might be the most-watched race of this year’s midterms. The Republican is closing his campaign against Democratic ex-governor Terry McAuliffe with an ad featuring a mom who fought school officials, claiming her then-high school senior son experienced nightmares from explicit scenes in an assigned book: Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Critics have justifiably blasted the ad as both a step toward book banning and as a not-remotely-subtle racial “dog whistle,” invoking one of America’s most iconic Black authors to trigger white suburbanites.

But those with big money are betting that this is a winning political strategy. Here in Pennsylvania, a wealthy Doylestown tech investor and national GOP donor, Paul Martino, has sunk at least $500,000 of his own money into a Back to School PA PAC in an unprecedented effort to elect school board members (many, but not all, Republican) statewide. In Lower Merion, a leading Republican candidate for the 2022 U.S. Senate nomination, Jeff Bartos, hosted a fundraiser for the GOP school slate attended by Fishbein and the director of the Martino-funded PAC.

Ironically, the school board fight in Lower Merion is something of a white-gloved version of the national fight waged by Fishbein and others. Brendan Sammon, a St. Joseph’s University professor who is one of the three Republican candidates, told me that he does support the “Education Not Indoctrination” slogan, but added that it’s “a fine line” as to what constitutes indoctrination. He said he supports some anti-racism teaching as long as the approach is balanced, explaining that he fears “reducing a person to their skin color and holding them to account for historical sins, which throughout history has never led to anything good.”

Elsewhere in the state and the nation, 2021′s nasty school board politics have resulted in screaming matches, brawls, and an obscene number of death threats or other harassment of board members and their families. In the Harrisburg suburb of Camp Hill, residents with yard signs for Democrats were shocked to get anonymous flyers accusing the party of “racism” and attacking support for transgender athletes. The school board race in Central York is becoming a rehash of the battle over banning kids’ books about Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

» READ MORE: In Central York, kids rose up to save books on MLK, Rosa Parks from their parents | Will Bunch Newsletter

In Lower Merion, Democratic leader Jonathan Shapiro said the GOP slate’s cries of “indoctrination” seem unlikely to make inroads into the district’s 9-0 Democratic majority, but the real agenda may be to jack up turnout to elect Republicans in key statewide races, such as a fight for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “To me, it’s all a red herring,” Shapiro said, noting that “critical race theory” — a law-school construct — isn’t even being taught in Lower Merion schools and adding “that white men did bad things to Indigenous people or Black people over 500 years ... that’s a fact.”

Indeed, a growing number of teachers around the country — in states like Texas that have enacted laws banning the teaching of “critical race theory,” or in districts like Central York where book-ban controversies have occurred — say they’re now terrified to discuss even once-safe topics like King’s 1960s’ activism, for fear of sparking community outrage.

In the interview, Fishbein was indignant at any suggestion that her group wants to ban the teaching of American history around slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or civil rights. “We want teaching to be as truthful as possible. We don’t want to rewrite history,” she insisted, explaining that she has no issue with schools teaching about King but not about the pro-Black Panthers 1960s’ radical Angela Davis. She argued that because of today’s laws “there is no such thing as systemic racism” — only racist individuals.

A native of Israel who’s lived in the Philadelphia region on and off since earning her doctorate in social work at University of Pennsylvania, Fishbein sometimes invokes the fight for her homeland’s survival in the Middle East as to why she’s now brawling over classroom instruction. Indeed, her first beef with the Lower Merion schools was to complain about what her oldest son was being taught about Islam at Harriton High School. Her issues with classroom instruction also extend to other topics, such as man-made climate change.

“We believe in the ‘3Rs’ and that science is science and not whatever you make it out to be,” said Fishbein, disputing the views of almost all of the world’s leading climatologists on global warming. She had already been planning to withdraw her two younger boys from Lower Merion schools and enroll them in religious school even before her beef about the antiracism curriculum.

When she posted her initial complaint about Lower Merion’s approach on several Facebook groups, Fishbein said she was met with almost unanimous public vitriol from parents she now calls “the butchers” and “the lynchers” — but she says she started getting private messages of support. Still, Fishbein’s crusade might have been a lonely one were it not for support at the highest levels of the right-wing media-industrial complex, including an article in the Washington Free Beacon that led to her appearance with Carlson, the most-watched show on cable news. Membership in No Left Turn in Education went from the a few hundred to thousands after the boost from Fox News, which over the last year has frequently focused on classroom controversy as a way to boost the broader conservative movement.

Her group’s main goal is to change how racism and other issues, such as LGBTQ rights, are taught through parents investigating school curricula, including voluminous freedom-of-information requests, and promulgating what they learn. In that mission, she says No Left Turn in Education backs a growing movement on the right — endorsed by Fox News’ Carlson — to install cameras in classrooms to allow for closer scrutiny of teaching.

The notion that parents have some say in their child’s education is enshrined in the thousands of school board elections that will be taking place this upcoming week — but cameras inside classrooms would have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas, and feel like a dangerous step into to a Joe McCarthy-styled brand of Big Brotherism.

I know some will question offering a platform to Fishbein’s extremist — and when it comes to subjects like climate change, factually challenged — views. But in this high stakes, not-quite post-Trump era, ignorance of what’s at stake in matters as seemingly small as school board races could lead to dangerous apathy, or complacency. This is hardly the moment. On Tuesday, issues as important as academic freedom and whether the truth still has currency in our public schools will be on the ballot in many jurisdictions. There’s no such thing as an “off-year” election.

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