Throughout this election cycle, right-wing activists have fomented local unrest over race and education in hopes of riding an anti–critical race theory wave into the 2022 midterms. Whether or not they’re succeeding is complicated.
While several closely watched Board of Education races across the country saw the defeat of anti-CRT candidates this week, some Republicans hoping to dial back diversity and equity programs were triumphant, as in this high-profile race in Southlake, Texas, the subject of a popular NBC News podcast, where a video of students chanting the n-word surfaced in 2018. Meanwhile, in Colorado, another major front for the CRT wars, the results were more mixed: In many larger districts, candidates won their elections with the support of teachers unions, while newcomers backed by right-wingers at local and national levels ousted more moderate incumbents in smaller districts across the state.
Glenn Youngkin, the projected winner of Virginia’s gubernatorial race, made parents’ choices in their children’s education a centerpiece of his campaign; the former private equity executive has pledged to “ban” critical race theory from the state’s public schools on “day 1” of the job. While there’s some evidence his messaging succeeded — according to exit polls, about a quarter of Virginia voters said education was the most important issue facing the state — a more significant amount, about 1 in 3, said they were concerned overall about the economy. In any case, Youngkin’s vocal anti-CRT stance didn’t hurt his ascension to the governorship.
This fight isn’t only about winning elections; it’s about what this generation of children and the next will learn about US history, and the extent to which systemic racism is a part of the stories we tell ourselves about our country.
And in Guilford, Connecticut, a small seaside town where a hotly contested board of education race drew national attention and scrutiny, it was the grassroots efforts of parents, students, alumni, and educators who prevented right-wing extremism from taking hold in their schools. Republicans had mounted a campaign in opposition to new diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the district. They tried to get the superintendent fired, and the conservative Truth In Education campaign manager recently came under fire for saying “helping kids of color” hurts white kids. But after beating more moderate Republicans in both a caucus and primary earlier this year, the TIE candidates were ultimately defeated in the general election on Tuesday by a 2–1 margin.
School board members are typically unpaid volunteer positions. In most districts, elections are nonpartisan. Connecticut is one of few states that ties Board of Education elections to political parties, and local bylaws require either party to hold only a slim majority. That’s why the Fusion slate in Guilford cobbled together Democrats and independents in an attempt — now proven victorious — to prevent a single anti-CRT candidate from having a place on the board. According to Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, Guilford reported the highest voter turnout in the state, with just over 50% of eligible voters casting a ballot in what’s normally a sleepy and relatively uneventful local election.
“I am so happy and relieved,” said Kara Fitzrig, one of the Guilford High School alumni who organized for the Fusion slate. “But I don’t view this as the end of the story. Over 3,000 people in our community voted for candidates who spread misinformation and division. There is a lot of work ahead.” She also pointed out the “lies and fearmongering about CRT proved a successful tactic in other communities,” and she hopes that Guilford “can serve as a model for how to overcome that hate.”
Jennifer Scoggin, one of the parents who started Guilford Voices for Unity and Equity to promote diversity efforts in the district and beyond, told me that she’s thrilled. “It is inspiring and motivating how so many came together in our town to send a clear message about the value of inclusion, equity, and social justice in our schools,” she said. “And once we have all taken a breath, I’m hoping we can come together again to learn from this experience. There is more work to do, but we have uncovered a lot of community strength and momentum to keep us going.”
“Our five republican candidates lost the BOE election,” wrote the Republican Truth In Education slate on their Facebook page Tuesday night. “But the those [sic] that lost the most are the dear children of Guilford.” In a lengthier post on Wednesday, the anti-CRT Republicans added:
"We are disappointed that a campaign by machine politicians and faux Independents deceived Guilford voters in the Board of Education election. … Their ugly and baseless accusation of racism and their illegal absentee ballot application mailing show their fear of an honest discussion of education policy.
"Our Republican team of candidates and volunteers will continue to stand for sound, effective, and affordable education, and against political indoctrination in our classrooms. These issues won’t go away—parents are waking up to the radical agenda being pushed in our schools, and they are pushing back throughout the country."
The Truth in Education candidates are correct to point out that debates over diversity in education aren’t likely to end any time soon. Guilford is still in the process of self-auditing its curriculum with the goal of eventually diversifying its educational materials — a process kick-started by the high school’s alumni petitioning for changes in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. (Other districts, including that of Southlake, experienced a similar trajectory, with students and alumni calling out racist incidents and whitewashed curricula, then education officials vowing to take action, and, finally, some parents taking umbrage with those actions.) Anti-CRT candidates throughout the country might have had major outsider funding and a mandate to stoke moral panic from Republicans on high, but they were also responding, in many cases, to real changes being proposed or implemented in their children’s classrooms. This fight isn’t only about winning elections; it’s about what this generation of children and the next will learn about US history, and the extent to which systemic racism is a part of the stories we tell ourselves about our country.
“I’ve held a degree of love and mistrust for Guilford for a long time, and it is deeply relieving to have a coalition of the town meet my love and not my mistrust,” said Emily Breeze, one of the Guilford High School alumni who organized for the Fusion slate. “I’m not letting go of my skepticism, because I’m a pessimist — and if racism could be stopped with a single election, it probably would have happened already.” Still, she added, “I’m hopeful.”
Chris Moore, another parent who’s been vocal in his support of the Fusion slate in Guilford, told me that “it is really interesting that there are certainly moderate Republicans out there that want nothing to do with this,” noting that “Republicans have essentially made themselves irrelevant on the Board of Education.” There’s only a single Republican incumbent left on the board in Guilford, which Moore thinks is a shame, since it’s important to have different viewpoints represented. “But by putting forth this ridiculous slate of inexperienced and vindictive candidates,” Moore said, Republicans no longer have much say in the future of Guilford education — at least, until the next election. “I hope it is a lesson that you can lose a voice entirely by trying to put in candidates that are too extreme.” ●