fb-pixelThe GOP has decided the path to victory at the ballot box goes through the nation’s school committees. Even in Massachusetts. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

The GOP has decided the path to victory at the ballot box goes through the nation’s school committees. Even in Massachusetts.

More than 200 people attended the Academic Principles Advisory Committee debate and public hearing on a new proposal that would establish a new advisory panel of parents, students and teachers that would have sweeping influence over the city's school system in Newton North High School Cafeteria.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/Matthew J. Lee

For the most part, Massachusetts is mercifully resistant to Critical Race Theory hysteria and other attempts to dictate education policy by conservatives bent on turning back progress in this country.

That doesn’t mean they’re not trying here, though.

On Wednesday night, the Newton School Committee unanimously voted down an effort to give a group of parents and teachers critical of the district’s racial equity policies an outsize influence over the city’s schools.

Right-leaning groups like Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education — supposedly grassroots operations, but connected to well-funded GOP power-players — keep bringing suits against Massachusetts schools, and harassing educators, for policies they deem unfair to white students and antithetical to their values. They claim efforts to improve equity in schools come at the cost of academics, and undermine parents’ rights. These groups, whose regressive stances have utterly captured states like Florida, Texas, and Virginia, have targeted Wellesley, Milton, and other districts here for lessons and books they claim divide students, promote homosexuality and expansive notions of gender, and make white students feel ashamed. Candidates sympathetic to those arguments are running for school committees.

“This is white backlash politics,” said Maurice Cunningham, a retired UMass Boston politics professor and author of “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization,” who has been following these groups since they burst onto the scene a few years ago. “They’re clearly coordinated, with right-wing money.”

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Of course they are. Whipping suburban parents into a frenzy has become a winning GOP campaign strategy in much of the country.

The party’s leaders have been open about this. Conservative activist Chris Rufo, who almost single-handedly whipped up the controversy over critical race theory — an academic theory based on the notion that racism is systemic — has said his goal was to make the term a catch-all for any classroom discussion that he and his fellow travelers dislike.

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“The path to save the nation is simple,” Trump adviser Steve Bannon said in 2021. “It’s going to go through the school boards.”

On April 8, we’ll find out if Dedham’s School Committee will be one of them.

There, a local activist named Susan Butler Walko — who appears to have swallowed the GOP culture war talking points whole, and whose Facebook posts show she’s affiliated with a local chapter of No Left Turn in Education — is campaigning hard for a seat on the seven-member body. She has long been active in town politics, serving a stint on the school committee about a decade ago.

On the trail, and in a statement provided to the Globe, Butler Walko says she is just concerned that too much focus on diversity and equity may be harming academics in Dedham schools. But a spin through her social media feeds reveals more strident stances.

“This is outrageous! Why do Dems hate women?” Butler Walko tweeted, in response to a 2021 article headlined “Transgender Athletes in Women’s Sports See Ally in Biden.” In another tweet, she called the fact that a trans woman competed on the UPenn swim team “Sick! Pathetic! Degrading!”

In July 2021, she urged people at the local level to fight “CRT — or whatever they are calling this political idealogy [sic] BS these days!” Neither post, of which the Globe has copies, remained on her feed on Saturday.

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At school committee meetings, she has spoken of “the harm CRT causes kids” and parroted the false claim that Attorney General Merrick Garland classified concerned parents as domestic terrorists.

“We have a moral obligation as parents to protect our children from propaganda and political indoctrination,” she said in 2021.

It all worries parents like Steve Davey, whose child is a student in Dedham. Far right voices like Butler Walko’s “are degrading the whole idea of equity and inclusion, and trying to create division,” he said. “I don’t want the things that are happening in Florida and Texas to be happening in Dedham.”

Voters in other Massachusetts cities and towns have generally rejected candidates like Butler Walko, but she does appear to have solid support in Dedham. If it’s enough to get her on the committee, she’ll be a distinct minority. But she’ll still be in a position of authority.

That’s troubling enough.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.