Progressive candidates prevail in school board elections despite passionate campaigns on right

By: - March 10, 2022 5:37 am
A school board table with microphones

Hanging over many of the local races this year were debates with national or statewide themes. (Getty Images)

In Bedford, teacher Andrea Campbell unseated a conservative school board member, as town officials recorded a 36 percent increase in turnout. 

In Exeter, five left-leaning candidates held off challenges from opponents on the right, many by slim margins.

And in Londonderry, voters opted against a warrant article that would have stripped away the authority of school officials to impose future mask mandates and made the wearing of masks optional for children and families.

New Hampshire’s 2022 school board elections were supposed to be proving grounds for conservative frustrations around school policies, from spending to COVID-19-related restrictions to teachings about racial justice and diversity.

Instead, Tuesday’s local elections appeared to deliver broad victories for progressive public school advocates, who argued against what they characterized as threats to traditional public schools from the right. In total, 29 candidates designated by progressive organizers as “pro-public education” won Tuesday night, many in traditionally conservative towns like Brookline and Londonderry. 

The results have been hailed by progressive organizers, who say they demonstrate the limits of political strategies that seek to capitalize on irritation or distrust of public schools.

“These pro-public education candidates were very vocal about the fact that we need to put our students first and that some of these attacks on public education on an honest education are a distraction from allowing teachers to teach and our students to learn,” said Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress, a progressive group that helped recruit and fund many of the candidates for school board. 

And they cap a campaign season that had seen unusual levels of involvement from advocacy groups on the left and right for what have historically been locally organized affairs.

Hanging over many of the local races this year were debates with national or statewide themes. Two years of intermittent periods of remote learning and mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic helped fuel a “parental choice” effort on the right, voiced by angry parents at school board meetings and championed by many conservative school board candidates.

Opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion policies at public schools from some right-leaning activists – and accusations that administrators have applied concepts of  “critical race theory” in K-12 schools – made a mark on some New Hampshire campaigns and ballot initiatives.

And a statewide school choice movement among Republicans that has led to the creation of an “education freedom account” program to allow public education funding to help pay for private school tuition for eligible families appeared to play a role, too. Many school board candidates on the right zeroed in on public schools’ student achievement results, district budgeting approaches, and school transparency as key focuses of their campaigns.

That combination of issues has worked for conservatives in other states’ elections in recent years, drawing in parents and voters anxious over pandemic-related restrictions. But in New Hampshire, even amid higher than usual turnout Tuesday, the approach appeared to fall short.

Instead, Rice Hawkins argued, a majority of voters this week were motivated to vote against those views.

“We’re at a point right now where we have so many people struggling at the State House who want to completely abolish public education … that we are building a broad coalition to go back to where most people in New Hampshire have been, in politics and among the public, which is we support public education,” she said. 

Fran Wendelboe, managing director of the conservative organization 603 Alliance, said the results were a “mixed bag” for the organization, which arranged a series of candidate trainings in the months ahead of the elections. 

But she argued that the results speak to scare campaigns by progressive organizers against conservative candidates.

“I suspect that there was a big time whisper campaign going on,” Wendelboe said. “Like: ‘They want to take the masks off our kids and be unsafe at school, and they’re just going to slash the budget.’ When that really wasn’t factually true.”

Instead, Wendelboe said, right-leaning candidates for school board were more interested in traditional budgeting and accountability issues than they were in hot-button national issues around teachings of race and equity or COVID-19.

“I don’t really think they did (factor in),” she said. “Our candidates talked about the quality of education, transparency, and respecting parental rights. Those were the big issues.”

Some conservative candidates were attacked due to their alliance with the Free State Project, a libertarian movement in the state, their recent decision to move to the state, or due to the fact that they had no children in the school district, Wendelboe said. 

Others, she added, were impugned for positions many conservatives would view as reasonable. 

“One of our candidates that we were supporting made this statement about our proficiency scores and how bad they are,” Wendelboe said. “And they said that, you know, perhaps we should focus more on core curriculum like math and English and science. And let things go, like art and music. 

“Boy, they were ranting about, ‘He’ll take music away, and art from our schools, just to save money.’ He was saying: ‘Put that money into more teachers’ salaries, and more remedial reading and math, because that is more important,’” she said. 

To Wendelboe, the dismal results for conservatives are a function of the built-in loyalty and history that many voters have with incumbent school board members – and the power of rallying parents with children in the school to defend the district. 

For now, 603 Alliance will be pivoting to organize campaigns for the New Hampshire House in November.

“This is the first time that we really concentrated on nonpartisan elections,” she said. “And I think next year, it’ll be back bigger and better and stronger.”

But to progressives, the results give hope that the legislative campaign season this year could be more favorable to Democrats in New Hampshire than has been assumed. 

“Tonight’s results prove that when young people run, they win, and that a little bit of encouragement and focused investment go a long way in building the next generation of leadership,” said Tim Peltier, the leadership development director for 603 Forward, a progressive group focused on electing young candidates in the state. 

Rice Hawkins agreed.

“This is really the first time Granite State voters have had an opportunity to weigh in here,” she said, noting that the school elections came after a recent spate of laws and bills that would penalize teachers who teach banned concepts around race or oppression. “Part of the reason our organization is so excited is we knew that the public was in a very different place than some of the politicians on this, and that is turning out to be true.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]