Defeating the CRT moral panic, one school board election at a time
Sarah Darer Littman | February 24, 2022
Photos: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Heritage Images via Getty Images
The first inkling Guilford resident Meg Teape had that last fall’s school board race was different came in January 2021. That was when the annual education budget meetings took place over Zoom. Specifically, Teape noticed some loud voices complaining about the “Teaching Hard History” initiative that Superintendent Paul Freeman had announced in September 2020.
By March, when the Board of Finance held open forums on school budgets, one voice stood out: that of Republican Danielle Scarpellino, who opposed the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Teape was concerned about the rhetoric. “Social Emotional Learning was on a list of words that were ‘Euphemisms for CRT,’ ” she said. “We saw the racism very clearly from the beginning…but then the budget passed by a 3-1 margin,” with the DEI outlays intact.
Most Guilford residents didn’t realize that the budget dustup was just the opening salvo in the big culture war to come. In June, Truth in Education (TIE) a group linked to No Left Turn in Education, organized a rally against critical race theory (CRT) in Guilford featuring Michael Breen, the group’s state director for New Hampshire. Founded just months earlier in 2020, No Left Turn described its mission as the mandate to “use all forms of media to expose the radical indoctrination in K-12 education, its perpetrators, the resources and methods employed and the resulting harm it inflicts.”
Breen inflamed the crowd with false allegations that critical race theory was taught in Guilford schools, arguing that it was anti-capitalist, rooted in Marxism, and “racist” to white people.
Jennifer Scoggin, cofounder of Guilford Voices for Unity and Equity (GVUE) was in the audience of around one hundred people. She called the rhetoric “aggressive and angry” and noted that “a number of people who were coming to rally were not from Guilford.” Indeed, some Guilford residents, including Scoggin’s husband, were blocked from entering.
In late July 2021, a slate of five TIE candidates defeated the three moderate Republican incumbents on the board, sending shock waves through the town. TIE’s website featured a picture of Adolf Hitler, together with a quote from a speech he gave on November 6th, 1933, to suggest that the promoters of racial equity in the schools were orchestrating a fascist putsch: “When an opponent declares ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already…What are you? You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in a new camp. In a short time, they will know nothing else but this new community.”
The more centrist Republican incumbents gained enough signatures to remain in the primary, but in August, they were roundly defeated by the insurgents in a low-turnout primary election.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans were on their own quest to exploit anti-CRT sentiment on the right for electoral gain. They had already weaponized a broadly written recall statute to promote recall elections against 36 school board members in 16 districts since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, in part to protest Covid-related school shutdowns. But as the national right-wing assault on critical race theory gained traction, the recall campaigns followed suit.
However, the only district where the recall effort garnered enough signatures was in Mequon-Thiensville, north of Milwaukee. Like Guilford, the district became a focus of nationwide attention—and Republican fundraising.
Becky Schaeffer, a leader of SupportMTSD, a group formed to oppose the recall, summed up the views of many district parents. “Disagreement doesn’t justify a recall,” she said. In the same vein, a bipartisan group of former Mequon mayors wrote:
Recall elections are an important tool in a democracy. There must be a way for voters to remove elected officials who have used their office for personal gain, who have committed crimes, fraud or some other malfeasance or misconduct, or who unambiguously lied to achieve office. There have been none of those allegations. Instead, the recall organizers have raised policy concerns. Policy differences, even those that are serious, should be resolved at regularly scheduled elections.
If these sagas of school takeovers from the right in Connecticut and Wisconsin—and the rhetoric deployed behind them—sounds familiar, there’s good reason: last June, an NBC News analysis highlighted a network of 165 conservative organizations and dark money groups working to stoke parental outrage around a number of issues including masking, vaccine mandates, “CRT,” and books. Ballotopedia tracked 84 separate recall efforts in 2021—a 320 percent increase since 2019.
Many of these groups use the same inflammatory language, citing “Evil” “Marxist”, “Racist,” “anti-American” ideology. And in line with the tactics of Christopher Rufo and other conservative figures targeting CRT for book bans, loyalty oaths and the like, they blatantly misappropriate the language of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, obscuring his own extensive and detailed discussions of systemic racism and its legacies in the United States.
The CRT crackdown on the right is but the latest installment in a decades-long effort to weaken—with the intent of privatizing—the nation’s public schools. The late Benjamin R. Barber warned of what this campaign could end up achieving: “America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.”
Fortunately, the right-wing replacement slates in Guilford and MTSD both lost, in an election cycle that saw three-fourths of CRT-baiting school board candidates prevail across the country. What allowed the electorates in both jurisdictions to stand up to the outside forces keen to stoke a full-scale CRT culture war in their midst?
The CRT crackdown on the right is but the latest installment in a decades-long effort to weaken—with the intent of privatizing—the nation’s public schools.
To begin with, they were well organized. For the most part, residents on the ground put in extensive work in organizing at the grass-roots level and getting out the word that the moral panic around CRT was grossly exaggerated—and indeed fabricated for maximum political gain. Many of them were volunteers associated with parent-teacher organizations, who’d collectively spent thousands of hours in the schools, and knew first-hand that the claims opponents were making about CRT were false. They also had relationships within the local power structure.
So community-level engagement was key. What about other strategies—and messaging appeals? Of course, the dynamics of every school district are different. But here are some strategies that worked in both Guilford and Mequon-Thiensville:
1. Keep it nonpartisan
Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network called the Support MTSD effort “clear, focused, and belligerently nonpartisan.”
The Republican party, meanwhile, was actively working for the recall candidates and their group, Restore MTSD, as were the Wisconsin Young Republicans and the gubernatorial campaigns of Rebecca Kleefisch, and Jonathan Wichmann.
Schaeffer says the contrast resonated with voters: “This should be nonpartisan. School boards are intentionally nonpartisan. It’s in all our best interests for them to remain nonpartisan so they look at what’s best for the kids and our district.”
DuBois Bourenane agrees. “Centering the way that politics is getting in the way of doing what’s right for kids has been a key component in every winning argument.”
Bill Bloss, who retired as Guilford BOE Chair in 2019 after serving 20 years on the board, said, “I served…with two out of three [GOP incumbents] and they are smart, experienced, thoughtful…there was never a moment where I thought any one of them didn’t have good ideas and the best interests of the schools at heart.”
2. Educate voters
“I’m the father of a young child and I’d be hanging out with friends…who live in Guilford and had no idea this was happening,” said State Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-Guilford/Branford). “A lot of candidates, campaign managers, and people in politics… live in this bubble: ‘Everyone must understand how important this is, because I do.’ ”
Jennifer Scoggins, a founding member of Guilford Voices for Unity and Equity, said the defeat of incumbent Republican BOE members on primary night galvanized the community. “Between 8 pm and midnight that night, [our Facebook page] went from 100 members to over 500 members…people were getting more involved, asking ‘What can we do?’ It became very clear that people were now engaged who hadn’t been previously.”
The decimation of local newsrooms over the last two decades is part of the problem. John Norcross, a Wisconsin activist, says that’s why it’s important for groups to educate voters using multiple channels —“voter outreach, door-to-door engagement, hold events/Q&As, and of course, be active on social media.”
This includes instruction on ballot mechanics, especially where voters are asked to do something new. “We [asked] people to vote for two people on row A [Democrats], skip a line, and then three people on row C [Independent Party],” Bloss said. “It was a…complicated ballot …We had to show people that you could vote for multiple people in a row, and multiple people in a column.”
Protect Guilford Schools used the graphic on mailers and social media. It worked—with only a 0.6 percent drop off in votes between lines A and C.
3. Create Toolkits
Give people small, specific actions they can take on a regular basis to keep them energized. What worked for GVUE was “a short-term, action-oriented, specific goal, that was hyperlocal,” Scoggin said. The group sent out an email every Monday with one or two specific actions residents could take.
Support MTSD likewise had downloadable PDFs with facts supporters could use to help educate neighbors and friends.
4. Focus on Turnout
“People…support their local schools. They will go to the ballot box and vote in support of referenda over 70 percent of the time in [Wisconsin],” Bourenan said.
Turnout in Mequon was 51 percent of registered voters; Thiensville was even higher at 57 percent.
Guilford had the highest turnout in the state of Connecticut—61 percent, an unprecedented number for a municipal election, especially in a non-gubernatorial election year.
5. Remind people of the truth
Both Guilford and MTSD have high-performing schools. Paul Freeman, who has helmed Guilford schools for the last decade, was named 2021 Superintendent of the year by the Connecticut Association of Public School Principals (CAPSS).
Yet last year Danielle Scarpellino—the Republican candidate who started fomenting anti-CRT sentiment at those Guilford board meetings in the spring—started a Change.org petition demanding his “resignation or dismissal,” after receiving Freeman’s “Teaching Hard History” email.
Mary Beeman, campaign manager for the Truth in Education slate, said in one public forum, “Helping kids of color to feel they belong has a negative effect on white, Christian, or conservative kids.”
“We’ve got this fabulous district with excellent administrators and excellent faculty—why run the risk of blowing it all up; scaring off qualified faculty?” Bloss said. “One of the Republican proposals was to put cameras in classrooms to monitor…in messaging, [we highlighted] some of the things Republicans wanted. Their proposals were outside the mainstream…that drove turnout in our favor.”
They also worked to debunk GOP claims. “It’s simply not true that all of our teachers are ‘Marxists’ and are teaching that ‘white children are oppressors,’ ” Bloss said. “We asked parents if this was consistent with their experience.”
Protect Guilford Schools also sent out a mailer highlighting a comment that Mary Beeman, campaign manager for the TIE slate, made in a UCONN education forum: “Helping kids of color to feel they belong has a negative effect on white, Christian, or conservative kids.” As Maya Angelou said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
6. Focus on the “outsiders meddling in our business” message
In Mequon-Thiensville, recall proponents outraised SupportMTSD by $47,000 to $27,000, but much of that money came from outside the district, including a $6000 donation from Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein, who doesn’t even live in Wisconsin. SupportMTSD refused money from political parties and PACs.
Similarly, 43 percent of the contributions to Parents for Guilford Schools Committee, the group behind the TIE slate, were from outside Guilford. By contrast, the Protect Guilford Schools slate received only 8 percent of its donations from non-residents.
“People don’t want to elect people to school boards who are running because they have a grievance,” Bournenan said. “People want to elect people to school boards who care about kids.”
The most important thing people can do is stay informed and engaged. Becky Schaeffer describes the recent election in Mequon-Thiensville as “one battle in a longer war.”
So as the GOP seeks to leverage the broader gains from this year’s elections into a successful campaign to retake Congress in 2022 with a heavy emphasis on anti-CRT messaging, the defenders of our public schools should take the motto of the Boy Scouts to heart: Be prepared.
Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist and an award-winning author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, will be published in November by Scholastic Press.