Meet the new organization getting involved in Tazewell County school board races
The Student First Principles Coalition, founded just two months ago, aims to produce candidates for Tazewell County's school boards who stand against politically-charged issues like critical race theory and COVID-19 mask mandates.
It's one in a wave of similar organizations based on a handful of specific education-related issues across the country.
The organization was started in October by Virg Cihla and Suzette Swift. Both are officers in the Tazewell County Republican Party, but Cihla claims their group's intentions are nonpartisan.
“Children have been kept at home for a long time, because of COVID,” he said. “Parents saw some education when they were being home-schooled, or remote learning from the school districts, they saw some things from the classes they were not happy with.”
Cihla says those parents went to school board meetings to voice their concerns and were “not warmly received.”
“The whole circumstances of the way our children have been treated became a hot topic,” said Cihla. “Since the party didn’t have any specific role in these elections, we felt a separate organization made sense. That’s why we started Student First Principles.”
The organization provides interested parents and community members with all the tools to make a run for their school board. Literature provided by the group includes all the documents and instructions needed to get on the ballot.
It also provides a breakdown of current board members by election date and their political party affiliations. Cihla says he ascertains the affiliations by looking at school board members’ primary voting records. School board races are considered non-partisan races in Illinois.
As Jack Schneider, an associate professor of education from the University of Massachusetts Lowell points out, this model is similar to those used by right-wing groups across the country.
“It’s a strategy that really is based on the idea that if you get people engaged in culture war and outrage at the most local forms of government, that will eventually build power that can be translated into political victories at the state and the national level,” said Schneider.
The Students First Principles website calls for turning back "the progressive liberal socalist agenda from our Tazewell County schools.” Suzette Swift cites one example of what it means to "put students first."
“One of the big concerns is the changes, or the change, in the school district about allowing students to do social things, instead of academic,” said Swift. “And the parents and grandmas and grandpas are very concerned about that.”
The "students first" slogan is what drives all of the organization's policy stances. Cihla says it comes from a comment made by Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis used the phrase in a tweet from August 23rd, naming 30 endorsed candidates as "committed to the student first principles of the DeSantis Education Agenda."
The DeSantis Education Agenda, published online by political group Friends of Ron DeSantis, is a ten point platform including things like "Keep Woke Gender Ideology Out of Schools" and "Reject the Use of Critical Race Theory in the curriculum." Parental rights are mentioned in three of the ten points.
“He said those were people who won because they had student first principles,” said Cihla. “So we thought that was a worthwhile phrase.”
Cihla couldn't lay out exactly what the Student First Principles are, saying they are still "working on a lot of things." But he did reference an article on their web site listing "10 Questions Every Parent Should Ask".
Some of those questions include: "Are there any books that contain gender ideology or sexual orientation themes in the elementary and/or middle schools?" and "Do you allow your students to choose their preferred pronouns?"
“While those may not be exactly the same ten questions we’d have, we embrace those ten questions,” said Cihla.
An organization called Courage Is A Habit made the 10 questions document. The group's website states they "create actionable tools & strategies for parents to defend their child from indoctrination in K-12." Some of those resources include a three part series called "Exposing School Counselors" and ways to counter "transgender poison."
Making these topics tent poles for school board candidates is concerning to professor Jack Schneider. He sees them as extensions of panic over gay and lesbian teachers from as far back as the 1970's. Schneider says the rise of current issues like COVID masking, remote learning and Critical Race Theory also contributed to the creation of these groups.
He believes some political leaders took this as an opportunity to channel fear and confusion.
“One way that they could encourage people to translate their anger into political power would be by trying to convince people their public schools had been hijacked by leftist ideologues,” said Schneider. “Well, that’s just not true.”
COVID and Critical Race Theory are newer, but Schneider sees a common goal in those issues as well: generating outrage.
“This is a concerted effort to try to gin up resentment and anger,” he said. “It’s not an effort to try to solve real problems. Because, if it were, the conversation would start with very clear evidence of what the problems are and where they are.”
Schneider says that, whether concrete evidence of these issues exist in public schools or not, buzzwords like CRT staying in the news means a victory for the political right.
When asked for specific examples of problems in Tazewell County Schools, Swift shared anecdotes from parents she says she knows. She doesn't currently have any children in school.
“I know many parents that have pulled their children out and are homeschooling,” said Swift. “I’m not saying that’s good or bad, that’s just another option. If the school was handling these situations the way they should be, that wouldn’t even be a question.”
Swift also cited issues with bullying and discipline, claiming the same parents tell her that children in some Tazewell County schools aren't expelled, disciplined or scolded for bad behavior.
Cihla also blames teacher's unions for issues in the schools.
“Unions have been a very dominant force in education,” he said. “Their priorities seldom have the children as number one. The children are third or fourth, in our opinion.”
Cihla claimed he had four or five anecdotal examples of issues from parents in the county, but couldn't share them because he hadn't personally confirmed them. He did cite an international example that went viral on conservative media: a story from Canada where a shop teacher allegedly wears large, fake breasts while teaching.
“I don’t think anything that drastic is happening in Illinois,” said Chila. “But you don’t have to dial too far back from that and there is things happening like that in Tazewell.”
Schneider says he's concerned that stories like these draw institutional focus away from critical issues in the education system.
“I love that suddenly there’s all this energy behind improving schools and attending school board meetings and running for school board,” he said. “I would just encourage people to actually try and solve real problems, rather than get all worked up over what is largely just a narrative used to manipulate people.”
Schneider also worries about the long-term effects of entwining school board positions with partisan politics. He says there was a very conscious effort to decouple school boards from party issues in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“Introducing partisan politics into local school board elections has the potential to create the kind of churn that we see in other partisan politics,” said Schneider. “Where each party is essentially trying to undo the other’s political activities.”
He says stalemate and irrelevant issues may also plague increasingly partisan school boards.
The conservative partisan lean of Student First Principles is also concerning to Marilyn Leyland, a former school board president for East Peoria District 86 schools in the late 70's and early 80's.
She says candidates who are educated and well-rounded are important for a functioning school board.
“You want people who have a heart for kids,” Leyland said. “And who have a broader concern, as well, with community and who can function well in a group. You know, not just a single issue candidate.”
In her years serving as a school board member, Leyland can't recall the existence of any similar organizations.
“It’s just sobering to realize how schools have changed and the challenges have changed,” she said. “I used to say it’s a fireman’s job, you never know what’s going to flare up.”
Though many of the group's stances trend right, Cihla says the Student First Principles Coalition is concerned foremost with candidates who agree with them on the issues, rather than their political party affiliations.
“If a school district has voters who are strong Democrats, but their priority is students first as opposed to unions first,” he said. “God bless them, we’ll support them.”
Swift also says they've taken extra measures to impose a firewall isolating the group from the operations of the Tazewell County GOP.
Student First is run by a five-member board, including some who Swift says aren't board members of the local Republican organization. The meetings are held separately from the party, and the literature each group distributes is unique.
“That is our plan, our accounts, everything we can possibly have, we’ve got our own identification through the organization,” said Swift. “We do not want them connected. We want conservatives on the school boards that have the children in mind, regardless of their party.”
Schneider is skeptical of the nonpartisan nature of the group and the effectiveness of candidates recruited by programs like these to enact policy and effectively govern a school district. He also thinks some of the candidates elected will find themselves handling very different issues than they expected.
“A lot of them think they’re going to be rooting out corruption. They’re going to be rooting out Marxists and brainwashers and groomers,” Schneider said. “But in fact they’re going to be doing things like setting the school bus schedule, approving the superintendent’s compensation, figuring out who the vendor for school lunches is going to be.”
There's still a lot that Cihla and Swift are figuring out about Student First Principles.
“We are literally flying the plane while we’re still building it,” said Cihla. “So there’s a lot of things that aren’t fleshed out the way we’d like them to be and we’re still working on a lot of things.”
Fleshed out or not, their message is still resonating with some people in Tazewell County. Cihla says two candidates have filed, with a third one planning to do so based on the groups' web site and literature alone, without attending any meetings.
Whatever the outcome of this year's elections, Cihla and Swift see it as a kind of test run and hope to increase their candidates and expand to other counties for the future.
“Opening up the communication between the students to the parents to the school board, if we can do that, we will help every child in the school system,” said Swift. “They don’t know what’s out there, they don’t know the rules, they don’t know what’s possible.”
Looking at a handout from Student First Principles called "Already In A Classroom Near You...", Leyland questions whether some of the topics covered are even present in schools in Tazewell County.
“Parents as domestic terrorists, does that strike fear into you? Indeed,” she said. “The larger words: Marxism, indoctrination, critical race theory. These are not things that are happening in your schools.”
The “Already In A Classroom Near You…” pamphlet from Student’s First disagrees, saying in part: “It is happening here, it is happening now, it is happening to your children and grandchildren.”
The filing period for school board candidates ends Monday, December 19th. Election Day is April 4, 2023.