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Opinion | The Tennessee Law Making School Board Culture Wars Even Worse

Jim Garrett is the chair of the Davidson County Republican Party, which is holding primaries for its candidates running for the Metropolitan Nashville school board. Nashville is among Tennessee’s bluer regions, where Democrats have an electoral edge. Even so, with the new system, he says, more Republicans are running, and they are raising more money. “It looks like the cost of a campaign is going to be about double what it used to be,” he estimates.

The local G.O.P. is also investing more in these races. For the first time, Davidson Republicans are arranging training sessions for school board candidates. These races weren’t a focus in previous elections, says Mr. Garrett. “They are a focus now.”

There hasn’t yet been special training on the Democratic side. But the county party is happy to connect candidates to campaign vendors and other resources, says its chairwoman, Tara Houston. The party has also tasked a special committee to come up with a platform outlining its basic values on public education, which Democratic school board hopefuls will be expected to support.

In Williamson County, where having a D next to one’s name is a scarlet letter of sorts, most of the primary action has been on the Republican side. In multiple districts, more conventional conservatives are facing off against contenders from the party’s Trumpier wing. Outside groups have lined up behind their champions, providing financial and other support. The most prominent of these is Williamson Families, a political action committee dedicated to protecting the county’s “conservative roots” and “Judeo-Christian values.” The PAC is led by Robin Steenman, who also heads the local branch of Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit based in Florida that champions parental rights and “liberty-minded” leaders nationwide. Williamson Families has endorsed a slate of superconservatives — after weeding out the RINOs, of course.

Multiple parents and teachers in Williamson complain that, as predicted, some of the campaigns and contenders seem focused less on concrete education issues than on culture-war talking points. One middle-school teacher vents to me that some candidates are bragging about their love of Donald Trump and decrying the decline of traditional families and the godlessness of today’s youth.

Meagan Gillis, whose two young daughters attend county schools, says the whole situation has turned to “chaos.” She points to a social media post by a conservative candidate promoting the child furries myth: the wacky online claim that teachers are being forced to cater to students who identify as cats, to the point of putting litter boxes in classrooms and meowing at the children. “I’m like, are you kidding me?” Ms. Gillis marvels. Things are getting so absurd, she says, that her family is seriously considering moving out of the area.

Similar concerns and complaints can be heard from other corners of the state. Virginia Babb has loved her time on the Knox County school board and was planning to run for re-election — until the shift to partisan races. Now she will step down at the end of her term rather than get sucked into the slime. She initially ran for the board as “a very involved parent” without strong partisan leanings, she tells me, noting: “I don’t like either party. They are too much controlled by their extremes.”

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