Karin Cevasco was keeping a wary eye on the voting returns. For months ahead of this spring’s election, the school board of the southern New Hampshire town of Milford had been the site of intense acrimony. Conservative parents pushed to remove a gay-themed memoir from school libraries and demanded that bathrooms and locker rooms be segregated by sex, not gender identity, all in the name of parental rights. After the school board, dominated by conservatives, banned some students in the town’s middle and high schools from using urinals or shared spaces in locker rooms, more than 100 students walked out in protest.
Now local voters had a chance to turn the tide. For months, Cevasco, the mother of two children in the Milford schools, had been organizing parents and community members to fight back. What started as a lonely effort by a handful of parents was ballooning. When Cevasco put together an event to show support for the district’s LGBTQ students last fall, parents came from all over the state to participate. And in the run-up to the election, Cevasco and other parents spent weeks organizing and canvassing, trying to translate the backlash against the school board’s controversial policies into votes.
It worked. Voters turned out in robust numbers for an election that had been pushed back for two weeks because of a blizzard, selecting an incumbent and a newcomer who’d run on the need for safe, affirming schools for all kids. More important, says Cevasco, voters said “no thanks” to a former GOP state senator and member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council who’d sought to cement the board’s conservative direction. “This was really a statement by our voters about the kind of schools and community we want,” Cevasco says.
After the town moderator announced the results of the vote, the conservative board members, who’d been huddled together in the Milford High School gym, slunk out. The scene was an apt metaphor for the state of the right’s wide-ranging bid to wage a school culture war for political gain. Instead of luring disaffected suburban voters back into the GOP fold, the increasingly extreme rhetoric about schools, teachers, and even kids appears to be having the opposite effect. An issue that was supposed to usher in a political realignment is not just falling flat beyond the GOP base—it’s galvanizing opposition. Now, as Republicans double down on their incendiary claims about schools, Democrats and progressives have an opportunity to turn the issue against them, winning over a key voting bloc in the process.
Stoking fears about the imperiled parental control of children has been second nature on the American right for more than a century. The first time parental rights emerged as a rallying cry was in response to the Progressive Era effort to ban child labor. Conservative industry groups tapped into parents’ unease over what they saw as state encroachment into the private realm of the family. Variations on this theme would play out again and again over the decades, always fueled by the same combustible mix of political opportunism and parental anxiety about the pace of social and cultural change. In the 1970s, the newly created Heritage Foundation would rush to West Virginia to fan the flames of a battle over textbooks, again warning parents about indoctrination in the schools (secular humanism! cannibalism!) to spur alarm over liberal-minded education. In the 1990s, the GOP included a parental rights plank in its Contract With America, and Patrick Buchanan promised that he would be the president of the parents.