Republicans race to outdo each other on education

Former President Trump says parents should elect principals and the Department of Justice should be involved in school discipline for troublesome students.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem have moved to curtail the teaching of critical race theory.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis drew widespread criticism for what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — but former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley thinks it should be even stricter.

For Republicans seeking or eying the White House in 2024, the only wrong move on education is not going far enough.

Youngkin, who in many ways fired the starter pistol for the race to the right on education two years ago during his successful gubernatorial campaign, held a CNN town hall on the issue Thursday, fielding questions on critical race theory, school safety and parental rights in education.

He doubled down on positions such as banning transgender students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity, as well as his willingness to sign legislation that would create guidelines for removing books from school libraries.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R)

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in many ways kicked off the GOP fight around education that has become critical to the party’s national message. (Greg Nash)

“I do believe there are moments where we have to make decisions about what’s age-appropriate and what is appropriate,” Youngkin said. “What books should be in an elementary school library? Should they have explicit pictures in them or not? Well, I don’t think they should be there. And these are decisions that I think we should take on, as opposed to run away from.”

Although the 2024 primary season hasn’t even officially begun, the declared and potential presidential candidates are already ensuring education will be a major battleground leading up to the election.

“There’s always going to be some one-upmanship between candidates about trying to appeal to the electorate and slices of the electorate that they care most about. And I think education is no different as an issue,” Robert Blizzard, a veteran Republican strategist, told The Hill.

Trump, DeSantis and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all gave speeches last weekend where education was a highlighted topic.

DeSantis spent much of his address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California touting his accomplishments in Florida, such as ranking No. 1 in “parental involvement in education” and in “education choice” in the 2022 Nation’s Report Card.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. DeSantis has quietly begun to expand his political coalition as he releases a book, “The Courage to Be Free.” (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

“What is the purpose of having a school system? You know, the left thinks the purpose is to use your tax dollars and use public institutions to impose an ideological agenda […] We believe the purpose of education is the pursuit of truth, academic rigor and to give students the foundation so they can think for themselves and be citizens of our republic,” he said. 

DeSantis, the only potential 2024 candidate who occasionally rivals Trump in GOP primary polls, has a record on education few Republicans can rival. He made Florida one of the first states to reopen schools during the pandemic, has taken steps to give political leaders more control over colleges and supported a law to limit the teaching of LGBTQ issues and identity.

“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said when he signed the Stop WOKE Act to ban teaching that could make students feel “personal responsibility” for historic wrongs. “We also have a responsibility to ensure that parents have the means to vindicate their rights when it comes to enforcing state standards.”

Blizzard said that governors have an inherent edge on the issue of education because of their position as state executives.

“I think that the track record and experience of working with the legislature to get things done and working with local teachers and administrators probably gives them a leg up,” he said.

Haley, a former South Carolina governor who launched her White House bid last month, said talk of gender and sexuality should be banned in classrooms for longer than what is prohibited in Florida’s Parental Rights in Education measure. 

“Basically, what it said was you shouldn’t be able to talk about gender before third grade,” she said at a town hall. “I’m sorry, I don’t think that goes far enough.”

“When I was in school you didn’t have sex ed until seventh grade. And even then, your parents had to sign whether you could take the class,” she added. “That’s a decision for parents to make.”

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley

Former U.N. Ambassador Haley, who launched her 2024 bid in February, has said that all talk of gender and sexuality should be banned from the classroom. (Greg Nash)

Jason Bedrick, a research fellow in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, believes pushing back on gender ideology in classrooms is a winning move, even outside the Republican base.

“I think a lot of these issues are actually 80/20 or 70/30 issues among independents. And that, you know, the Democrats right now are very often catering to a pretty radical wing of their party,” Bedrick said.

“Independents are much more likely to side with conservatives on a variety of these issues than they are with those who are pushing for getting rid of the gender binary and understanding that gender is a spectrum and that children at very young ages should be taught this — and these are not popular among parents,” he added.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the importance education has gained in the GOP is the attention it’s getting from Trump, who on Monday will give a speech in Iowa focused on the issue. Trump’s visit to the early-voting state will come just days after one from DeSantis.

“I think it’s interesting how President Trump has had now to focus more on the education issue,” Blizzard said, adding, “I don’t remember him talking at all about education during the presidency in his previous campaigns.”

“You know, he was much more focused on the economy. He was much more focused on immigration, on national security, which were the issues of the day. I think the fact that the former president is talking more about education now, I think it’s just shows how important and how much of a driving issue that is with the rank and file among the Republican base,” he said.

The former president has worked to tie his “tough on crime” stance with education, announcing in January that he would order the Department of Education and Department of Justice to rework guidelines for disciplining “troubled” students.

Former President Trump

Former President Trump is planning to give a speech in Iowa about education next week. (Greg Nash)

“I will order the Education and Justice departments to overhaul federal standards on disciplining minors, so when troubled youth are out of control — they’re out on the streets and they’re going wild — we will stop it. The consequences are swift, certain and strong, and they will know that,” Trump said.

During his address at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he easily won the straw poll as he seeks to return to the White House, Trump said he would be pushing for “universal school choice” and repeated an earlier call for parents to elect school principals. 

“I will fight for parents’ rights. Can you believe that here we are and I’m saying I’m going to fight for parents’ rights? Who would think that you would ever have to say? … But you do, because they took the rights away including universal school choice and the direct elections of school principles by the parents,” Trump said. 

While Trump, who has a history of floating sweeping reforms that don’t become actual policy, is bringing new ideas to the education arena, he could always risk overshooting.

“I think that there is an appetite for change. But I think that the change has to be within the guardrails of something that’s a pragmatic way of improvement. I think that there has to be a demonstration of something that’s worked” Blizzard said.

“I think a lot of the potential candidates right now, especially for president, but also for other races that have, you know, executive-level experience in states or in other places, where they’ve demonstrated a positive optimistic way to change and reform, are better suited than just throwing something up at the wall and seeing if it sticks,” he added.

Tags 2024 Republican Primary 2024 Republicans Critical race theory Donald Trump Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Kristi Noem LGBTQ Mike Pompeo Nikki Haley Nikki Haley Republican primary Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis school choice

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