How Progressives Won the School Culture War—in New Hampshire!

How Progressives Won the School Culture War—in New Hampshire!

How Progressives Won the School Culture War—in New Hampshire!

An upset victory last week in a red state suggests that the Republican Party’s game plan for attacking public education may not be a winning strategy.


It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. For months now, Republican Party leaders have trumpeted their intention to run hard on parent grievances en route to routing the Democrats in the midterms. According to this narrative—partially based on the 2021 elections in Virginia, then endlessly echoed by Democratic pundits—parents frustrated over school shutdowns, Covid restrictions, and the focus on race and social justice in schools are the new swing voters, poised to flee the Democratic Party.

But in New Hampshire, where bitter debates over school masks and “critical race theory” (CRT) have dominated local politics for more than a year, the season of parent rage ended in a stunning sweep of school board elections last week by progressive public school advocates. “It was a complete repudiation of the GOP’s attempt to drive a wedge between parents and schools,” says Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress. Of 30 candidates designated by the group as “pro–public education,” 29 won their races—many in traditionally “red” regions of New Hampshire. Across the state, culture warriors and advocates of school privatization lost to candidates who pledged to protect and support public education.

Instead of resonating with voters, the right’s efforts to weaponize cultural grievances appears to have alienated them. With the GOP poised to make the education culture wars a central focus of its midterm appeal, New Hampshire offers some clear lessons for Democrats.

Extreme repellent

Michael Boucher chalks up his decision to run for the school board in the southern New Hampshire town of Atkinson to a single word: extremism. Last year, he watched as the debate over local schools grew steadily more rancorous, first over CRT, then masks. Boucher became a regular presence at board meetings, where he noticed that many of the loudest voices weren’t actually from the district. “Suddenly there were all of these groups coming in—the Government Integrity Project, Moms for Liberty, Americans for Prosperity. I realized that if I didn’t step up, one of their people would,” says Boucher.

Boucher, who works as a data analyst for a government contractor, says that he set a goal of talking to as many people in Atkinson as possible about the rising climate of extremism. He found a receptive audience. While the community has long leaned Republican, many voters remain what Boucher calls “classic” GOP. “They want to see tight budgets—but they also want to see opportunities for all kids and a welcoming culture in the schools. There are actually a lot of people who feel that way,” says Boucher.

He campaigned on the need to teach history honestly against a candidate who ran on opposition to CRT. Boucher won resoundingly, claiming nearly three-quarters of the vote.

And Boucher wasn’t alone. Thirty miles north, in Bow, first-time candidate Angela Brennan, the subject of a Republican mailer calling her “anti-parent” and a “Biden-like progressive,” was the top vote getter in a five-person contest for two seats on the school board.

“All of these attacks on public education really backfired at the local level,” says Molly Cowen, a member of the select board in Exeter, which has also seen acrimonious debates over mask and vaccine mandates and school district diversity policies. In the lead-up to the election, a conservative parents’ PAC spent an estimated $20,000 on mailers making the case that the district’s focus on racial equity had led to a precipitous decline in academic achievement.

Voters in the district, which covers five towns, responded by booting two conservative members off the board and electing a number of pro-public-education candidates.

Cowen, who has two kids in local schools, recounts talking to her neighbor, a Republican, whose own kids are long grown. He told her that he was glad that all these outside groups were sending mailers telling him whom to vote for. “He held onto one just so that he’d know who to vote against.”

A season of censorship

In Bedford, long a GOP stronghold, teacher and first-time candidate Andrea Campbell ousted a conservative school board member by a wide margin in an election that saw record turnout. Campbell, an elementary school teacher whose two children attend local schools, told a local newspaper that her decision to run was spurred in part by concerns over calls to ban books.

Bedford, like many communities, has seen the hot-button topics morph from Covid mitigation policies to how matters of race and racism are handled in schools, and then to the “reconsideration” of books on race, gender, and LGBTQ issues.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have enacted sweeping restrictions on what teachers can and can’t talk about in the classroom. Over public outcry and objections from the business community, New Hampshire banned discussion of so-called “divisive concepts.” Last fall, the state’s education chief set up a website that allows parents to report violations of the state’s new anti-discrimination law. A proposed teacher loyalty law, meanwhile, threatened teachers who presented negative accounts of the nation’s founding with official sanctions. While that bill was voted down amid intense public backlash, proponents say they plan to bring it back in a future session.

For Bill Politt, concerns over a rising climate of censorship were enough to spur him to run for office for the first time, at age 75. Politt declared his candidacy for school board in Weare just days before the filing deadline.

“I saw a story about book banning in Tennessee and I knew I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines. I know there are people who want to ban books in this community and I just couldn’t stand to see that happen here,” says Pollit, who works as a substitute teacher in a local school.

Polls show that measures to censor speech and ban books remain deeply unpopular with voters. One recent survey found that large majorities of Americans, of both political parties, overwhelmingly reject the idea of banning books about history or race. While concepts like “curriculum transparency”—making school materials publicly available to parents—are broadly popular in the abstract, support craters when voters associate such policies with book banning and censorship.

Politt made his concerns over book banning and censorship a central part of his campaign, speaking out at a candidates’ forum about what he described as a narrowing of viewpoints and a growing unwillingness to accommodate students’ curiosity. “When minds are closed, schools become exceptionally bad,” he warned.

Weare voters apparently agreed, electing Politt and another pro-public-education candidate, Alyssa Smalls, to the school board. Like many communities, Weare saw record voter turnout last week—including a record number of first-time voters. “I take personal pride in that,” says Politt. “A lot of the new voters were my former students.”

Education freedom

The fliers just kept coming. Glossy, professionally printed, expensive, the mailers made what might seem an unlikely pitch for a candidate for school board. With fewer kids enrolling in the local schools, and a growing number of school choice alternatives, did Sunapee actually need its schools any more?

“People didn’t buy it,” says school board member Jesse Tyler. “Communities that have K-12 schools are going to be the only communities anywhere that regenerate, with families, youth, workforce. Once these schools go, that’s it. That sense of home and place is broken. Where is the sense of community and comradery?”

The candidate’s pitch for a school-free Sunapee fell flat—he lost, along with another conservative contender. But the argument that New Hampshire no longer needs public schools increasingly counts as mainstream GOP thinking here. Leaders of the Free State Project, a libertarian movement that wields growing power within the Republican Party, openly acknowledge that their goal is to end state-provided public education.

Last year, New Hampshire lawmakers enacted a controversial “education freedom” program that redirects education spending to parents who can use the funds for private religious schooling, homeschooling, or other education expenses. The state has also embraced what are known as “micro schools,” in which unlicensed guides operate schools in their homes for just five to 10 students. Lawmakers are now considering a measure that would limit what state schools are required to teach, removing art, music, and computer science from the list of core academic subjects.

The perception that lawmakers and state officials are actively working to undermine local public schools added an urgency to local school board races, says Norm Goupil, who won reelection to the school board in the central New Hampshire town of Hopkinton by a substantial margin.

“There’s a threat to public education that’s coming from the state. I made that clear throughout my campaign and I think people here understand that,” says Goupil. On election day, Goupil stood outside the polls for 13 hours. All day, he says, people came up to thank him. “They saw the vote as being about saving public education.”

A midterm message

Robin Skudlarek was keeping an anxious eye on the election returns. A Democratic Party activist who got her start organizing during the Obama campaign, Skudlarek had been advising two first-time candidates for the school board in the southern New Hampshire town of Londonderry. Amanda Butcher, a behavior specialist in the local schools, and Kevin Gray, a software engineer, had decided to run out of concern over increasingly toxic school politics. In school board meetings that were growing ever more raucous, parents rights activists, joined by Republican legislators, demanded an end to mask orders and denounced what they described as indoctrination in the local schools. “The message coming from them was basically that ‘we don’t care about anybody else but our own kids,’” says Skudlarek.

Skudlarek saw the candidacies of Butcher and Gray as part of a grassroots movement to defend not just the local public schools but a vision of education itself as a public good. But would voters in this Republican town agree?

“When the results started coming in, I was over the moon,” says Skudlarek. Butcher and Gray defeated candidates who campaigned on parent rights and tighter spending. Voters also rejected a measure that would have prohibited the school district from ever imposing mask orders in the future. And in communities across the state, a similar story was unfolding.

“My first thought was that this could really help the Democrats in the midterms.”

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