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Culture Wars

Are Republicans Winning the War on Public Schools?

GOP figures like Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis believe “parents’ rights” rhetoric has made education a winning issue—but its potency may not last forever.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin

While Democrats have traditionally claimed education as a motivating issue for their base, bolstered by long-lasting support for public schools and deep ties with teachers unions, the ground has, in recent election cycles, started to shift. Republicans on the state and federal levels have recently seized some territory for themselves, transforming it into a winning topic for their own voters.

Naturally, education has long been a cultural flashpoint, with politicians capitalizing on fears of youth indoctrination for decades. But a maelstrom of modern factors—among them discontent instigated by the coronavirus pandemic, backlash to a recent reckoning on racial injustice and transforming concepts of gender identity, and savvy political attunement to the electoral power of grievance—have given the idea of parental rights renewed salience.

“At the root of this, parents’ love and concern for their kids is the most powerful force in education,” said Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute. “That can be used for good, or it can be exploited.”

Public schools are particularly susceptible to political attacks because of their massive reach, and because it is nearly impossible for adults to truly know what is occurring within school walls, said Jack Schneider, associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Schools are places where we are both literally and metaphorically making the future,” Schneider said. “So if you want to make an argument about the American way of life being under threat, then saying, ‘These evildoers have a plot to use the schools to turn young people against America,’ that’s a pretty frightening prospect for people.”

That prospect has shaped American politics from as far back as the nineteenth century, when debates over which version of the Bible should be taught in schools erupted into violence. In 1925, the infamous Scopes trial centered on whether the principles of evolution could be taught in public schools. As the twentieth century progressed, some parents feared Communist infiltration in schools at the height of the Cold War; later, conservative Christian parents in particular resisted the implementation of comprehensive sexual education.

“This idea of parental rights, and you’re seeing it emerge again right now, is one that has long been with us on the conservative side,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who wrote a book about the Christian right’s influence in school board elections at the end of the twentieth century.

Those parental anxieties have been rekindled in part by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw many schools across the country closed for an extended period of time. Anger over lengthy school closures crossed party lines, making Democratic politicians reluctant to “engage on issues of education,” said Valant, as the party feared political backlash. Republicans gained ground during this period, in large part because they successfully portrayed themselves as the party that wanted to return kids to in-person schooling.

Ideological disagreements about the pandemic curdled political rhetoric on education and invited heightened discourse over what is being taught when schools are open. Critical race theory, an educational framework for understanding how racial discrimination is embedded in American social and political systems, has increasingly become a boogeyman of the right and a purported example of indoctrination in public schools. “In no way is [critical race theory] inherently connected to pandemic school closures, but the shutdowns have changed the settings in which politics are happening in schools right now,” said Valant.

The election of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin in 2021 was a sign of how education issues could factor into politics. Youngkin had highlighted the idea of parental rights in his campaign, a deliberately vague yet useful framework for earning support from generally disgruntled parents.

Controlling public education has remained a rallying cry for other Republicans, perhaps most notably Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who successfully established the idea that something nefarious was happening in public schools under a nebulous aegis of loosely connected political concepts—parental rights, the cultural backlash to the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, and the increased acceptance and visibility of transgender Americans among them. Outrage, politically manufactured and otherwise, regarding mask mandates and school closures snowballed into the larger “politics of grievance” that Schneider argued has characterized Republican politics.

“It’s like a diet entirely made of sugar,” said Schneider. “There’s a kind of instant rush of feeling like you are finally being heard and that you get to give voice to your outrage and your anger. The problem is, it just doesn’t actually lead to anything, at least not anything positive and substantive for those who are aggrieved.”

Social media has also played a mobilizing and radicalizing role in the fight over what is taught in public schools. In the battles over school boards in the 1990s, Deckman said, conservative Christian parents became invested through their churches, whereas now “social media has galvanized people on the far right” to become involved.

The annual PRRI American Values Survey, released this October, found that 92 percent of Americans believe that their children should be taught the good and bad aspects of American history, as opposed to omitting portions that might make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. The poll also found that while 66 percent of Americans think public school teachers provide students with appropriate curricula that teach the good and bad of American history, 29 percent overall believe that teachers and librarians are indoctrinating children. But the majority of Republicans, 54 percent, believe that teachers and librarians are indoctrinating students with “inappropriate curricula and books that wrongly portray America as a racist country.”

That divide is even starker in red states. In recent months, several Republican-led states have considered or approved legislation education purported to expand parental oversight and protect children, but which would also limit what is taught in schools and determine how vulnerable populations of children are treated. These bills range from preventing transgender students from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, to notifying parents if their children begin using different pronouns or expressing questions about gender identity, to barring transgender athletes from participating in girls’ or women’s sports. DeSantis’s administration is moving to expand Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, initially prohibiting discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms through third grade, to also apply to fourth through twelfth grades.

Florida’s Department of Education also rejected an advanced placement class on African American studies, and the state’s laws restricting lessons about racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity have led to teacher confusion and the removal of books from school libraries and classrooms. Twenty-six states banned or opened investigations into more than 1,100 books between July 2021 to March 2022, amid the spate of state laws restricting lessons on race and racism, sexual orientation, gender identity.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives narrowly passed a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” last week, which would increase parental oversight of their children’s public education. The bill would require local school systems to provide information on book lists, curricula, incidents of violence, and whether their child uses another name or pronouns within school walls. Representative Julia Letlow, the bill’s sponsor, argued that it was “not an attempt to have Congress dictate curriculum, or determine the books in the library,” but instead “aims to bring more transparency and accountability to education, allowing parents to be informed.”

It squeaked through the House with opposition from a few Republicans and all Democrats, and is unlikely to be considered in the Democratic-controlled Senate, making the legislation primarily effective as a messaging document. Approving the bill had been a key campaign pledge for House Republicans ahead of the 2022 midterm elections as part of their “Commitment to America” platform.

But it is unlikely that such ideologically tilted legislation regarding parental rights could be implemented in blue states or on the federal level. Moreover, there is danger of overreach and backlash. The Parents’ Bill of Rights did not earn universal support from Republicans in the House largely because it would involve such direct federal government involvement in education, which is theoretically antithetical to the conservative view of education.

Moreover, policies such as removing books from school libraries could ultimately invite backlash from parents. “If left to the logical conclusion that you want to completely remove anything talking about race or gay people from schools, I just don’t think it’s possible in the twenty-first century,” Deckman said. Views about gender and sexuality in particular have changed dramatically since the ’90s, and the social media trends that have galvanized the right have also mobilized the parents of LGBTQ children who do not want to see their children targeted.

And while targeting gender-affirming care for children may be red meat for the Republican base, it may not gain purchase among the larger American public. DeSantis was reelected by wide margins, but other candidates who emphasized education-related battlefronts in the culture wars were less successful. (Indeed, many of the candidates that Youngkin endorsed and stumped for—highlighting his own victory as champion of parental rights—fell in their elections.)

Schneider also argued that traditionally Republican constituencies might eventually be frustrated by policies that divert funding from their own public schools in favor of vouchers for private institutions. “Rural white people who overwhelmingly vote for Republicans, and who were and remain majority Trump supporters, those folks are not going to be pleased when their local public schools disappear,” Schneider said. “It also won’t be very appealing to conservative white suburbanites when the schools that they often are quite proud of for a variety of reasons begin to suffer, because funding begins to be slashed.”

Polling also shows that while Americans may be pessimistic about the state of public education in general, they are often pleased with the schooling that their own children are receiving. According to an NPR/Ipsos survey released last April, 88 percent of respondents said “my child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic.” Strikingly, 76 percent of respondents agreed that “my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.” A September Gallup poll found that, although only 42 percent of Americans were satisfied with the country’s education system, 80 percent of parents with children are completely or somewhat satisfied with their oldest child’s education.

Voters have traditionally trusted Democrats more on issues of education, although that gap narrowed in the wake of the pandemic. Valant argued that, as anger around the school closures fades into memory, education will become less of a salient issue for Republicans. “We very rarely have a sort of extended period where it seems like Republicans see more political advantage in education nationwide than Democrats do. And I do think that is a product of our immediate situation, and I don’t think that’ll last forever,” Valant said. A poll released by the National Parents Union last week found that parents trust Democrats more than Republicans to formulate a parental “bill of rights.”

In the short term, however, Republican-led states will likely continue to champion their concept of parental rights, and implement policies that fall within that framework, even if they are unable to gain traction nationwide. “I think there will be five years of real political victories for the right that come at a very steep cost once Americans catch on to what the real consequences of that will be,” Schneider said.