Ahead of a recent debate for the local school board, the Frisco Chamber of Commerce made rules to ensure that candidates running for the three open seats did not derail the event. As the forum in the northern Dallas suburb commenced, hosts Tony Felker, the president of the business organization, and Christal Howard, the Dallas–Fort Worth publisher of Community Impact Newspaper, set clear guidelines: each candidate would be allowed to respond to opponents only with “civil” challenges.
The debate for the first open seat on the seven-member board, contested between Angela Dunford, a conservative pharmaceutical research contractor, and incumbent Gopal Ponangi, a liberal information technology consultant, adhered to the guidelines. The event appeared to be progressing in a civil manner.
But then Marvin Lowe, a candidate for the second open seat whose four children are students in the Frisco school system, took the stage. In his opening statement, the real estate broker made clear that he believes the school district, consistently ranked as one of Texas’s top fifteen, is on “the wrong trajectory.”
Lowe’s campaign has a distinct focus: ending what he contends, without evidence, is the influence in Frisco schools of critical race theory, an academic and legal framework used in higher education that emphasizes systemic racism. That Governor Greg Abbott already signed two bills, in June and September, banning the teaching of CRT in Texas public schools was apparently of no comfort to the candidate. Though CRT is not taught in schools, opponents such as Lowe typically use the term to mean the teaching of anything uncomfortable about the racial history of the country, which they perceive as blaming white Americans for the sins of the past. Lowe argued that CRT’s influence is so deep that it continues to inform the way teachers educate the district’s students. To root out this influence, Lowe proposed that the district remove “politicized” and “sexually explicit” educational materials from classrooms.
Three candidates are vying for the second open seat: Lowe; incumbent Natalie Hebert, a former teacher; and Kelly Karthik, a culture coach in the technology sector. But the debate soon became a two-way argument. Lowe looked to Hebert and accused her of ignoring his emails asking for board members’ personal thoughts about critical race theory, then added that he “couldn’t get a straight answer from any of them.” Some in the crowd at Frisco’s Grace Church cheered. Hebert shook her head and swiftly challenged Lowe, stating that she replied to his email a few hours after he sent it with a message explaining that she did not believe in uplifting any specific group or race.
Lowe interrupted. “But that wasn’t my question,” he said. “The question,” Lowe snarked, “was what do you think about CRT.” Hebert declared, “I think that is not taught within the K-twelve classroom, period,” to which others in the crowd responded with thunderous applause.
The rest of the forum remained tense, with Lowe, who moved to Frisco in 2007, and Hebert, who has lived there since 2005 and has served on the board for three years, arguing over which of them knew the district better. The chippy atmosphere wasn’t new. Most meetings of or about the Frisco school board over the past few months have been tense, as anti-CRT protesters and those seeking to ban books from libraries have squabbled with educators. Indeed, the Dallas–Fort Worth suburbs have become an epicenter of book-banning and opposition to most teaching about issues related to race or gender identity.
As Frisco, population 200,500, has become one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, it has become less Anglo and less conservative. It went for Mitt Romney by 31.5 points in the 2012 election but for Donald Trump by only 4.3 points in 2020. And agitation about what students are taught in schools about racism has exploded. Jennifer Keys Adair, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies how racism affects the learning experiences of young children, says the two developments are related. She observes that fearmongering over critical race theory, despite its not being taught in Texas public schools, has risen as some non-Latino white Texans believe they are being displaced from their traditional position at the center of society.
Lowe, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview, certainly isn’t alone in his fight. In the race for the third open seat on the Frisco school board, Stephanie Elad, a corporate human resources officer, offers a nearly identical platform. She has framed her candidacy around rooting out CRT-influenced teaching. She also advocates that parents be given more influence on the schools’ curriculum. Elad’s biggest competition is the Dallas Morning News–endorsed Dustin Paschal, an employment lawyer who argues against politicized education and who believes CRT is a moot point.
Lowe and Elad have the support of a group of political action committees from Frisco and outside the state that have sprouted specifically to funnel money into school board races. According to Adair, PACs have been backing candidates in school board races for years, but recently their expenditures have grown larger. National PACs have entered the Frisco races, running phone and text campaigns for both Lowe and Elad. One example is the New York–based 1776 Project, which says it funds school board candidates who promote “patriotism and pride in American history,” and to which Californians and Texans are leading donors.
National groups have started to realize that funding like-minded candidates in school board races can offer better returns than donating to other types of campaigns. School board races in Frisco, much like in the rest of Texas, generate relatively low voter turnout; in 2018, only 7.5 percent of eligible voters participated in city council and school board elections. “As you can imagine, it takes little financial investment to swing a smaller local election, such as school board elections, which have typically not seen large campaigns,” said Huriya Jabbar, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on charter schools. “The danger of this ‘nationalization’ is in part that national politics are often more divisive and polarizing than local politics.”
In Frisco, local PACS have entered the fray as well. Families 4 Frisco, founded in 2021, markets itself as a champion of “parents’ rights” and of the fight against CRT. Its website offers examples of books in Frisco school libraries it says are politically indoctrinating students, such as Blue Is the Warmest Color, a graphic novel about a young queer relationship, and The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, a novel that covers themes of drug use, misogyny, and racism. The PAC endorsed both Lowe and Elad.
There’s been more money in school board races in Frisco over the past two years than ever before. Paschal, Elad’s main opponent, who is campaigning on expanding mental health resources for students and improving teacher retention, has spent more than $15,000 on the race, and Elad more than $12,000. In 2015, average candidate political expenditures were less than $2,500.
Hebert and Paschal said they are worried about the influence of PACs, many of which have connections to charter-school advocacy groups that have peddled anti-CRT panics as a means of sowing broader discontent with public education. In Dallas, the Star Patriots PAC, another right-wing group whose executives are largely the same folks involved in Families 4 Frisco, explicitly prioritizes “expanding the number of charter schools” on its website.
All the money flowing in to support polarizing candidates has made serving on a school board difficult for longtime advocates of public education. Hebert says her email inbox is so filled with copied-and-pasted complaints about subjects such as the alleged teaching of critical race theory that it’s difficult to find and respond to important fact-based messages about the district. The board’s decision to limit public comments at meetings to one minute per individual, in an effort to speed up unprecedentedly long lines of speakers, also makes it difficult to hear out those with what she describes as “legitimate complaints.” Even if she wins, she’s not hopeful that the tension will abate. But she persists, in part because she feels the push for book bans and other forms of censorship is “not fair to the kids.”