Schools are emerging as the latest battleground for both parties ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Debates over coronavirus restrictions and curriculum in the classrooms have dominated campaign messaging, forcing candidates to address the issues head-on in key areas like the suburbs.
It’s also left parents and experts concerned that kids are on the front lines of a political battle that has turned highly contentious over the past year.
The battle has also turned highly personal for families and educators debating how much of a role parents should play in their students’ education.
Republican candidates have seized on conservative complaints about issues like critical race theory and LGBTQ issues in school curriculum, while Democrats have zeroed in on the importance of coronavirus restrictions in classrooms.
Both parties are looking to use the education-related issues to appeal to parents on issues that impact their children’s day-to-day lives.
“When it comes to issues like education, you can view that as a quality-of-life issue,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.
While schools and classrooms have been at the center of some of the country’s most hot-button issues in the past, including racial integration and prayer in the classroom, the coronavirus pandemic has reinvigorated the education debate in 2021.
Republicans say conservative enthusiasm around education reached a fever pitch during the pandemic, when parents became more aware of their children’s curriculum when they were home during lockdown. The party also pushed back against coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, arguing it negatively affected the learning environment.
Democrats, on the other hand, have argued that coronavirus restrictions are needed in schools to keep children safe and to stop the spread and mutation of the virus.
While the debate over critical race theory and coronavirus restrictions raged at school board meetings during the summer, the issue appeared to somewhat fade from the national coverage toward the end of summer.
However, comments from Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D), in which he said at a debate he did not believe parents should tell teachers what to teach, served as a lightning rod for Republicans.
“That is appalling to a lot of parents, and I think that is a really great mobilizer to help get out the vote,” said one Republican National Committee (RNC) spokesperson.
Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin was out with an ad less than 24 hours after McAuliffe made the comment, and a number of outside groups, including the American Principles Project PAC and the Republican State Leadership Committee, later ran ads on the comments.
McAuliffe has dismissed the attacks as “a dog whistle.”
“Why are we doing this to our students? All we want to do is give them quality education,” McAuliffe told CNN. “They’re desperate. This all goes back to critical race theory, which is not taught here in Virginia.”
The RNC spokesperson argued that the former governor’s comments reflect the entire Democratic Party’s view that “politicians and unions and labor unions know better about how to teach children than parents themselves.”
But Democrats and their allies are choosing to lean harder into the issue of coronavirus restrictions at schools, arguing that the safety of children, teachers and staff should take priority.
“If we do not do what it takes to keep them safe, children could potentially die,” Seawright said.
And on the debate over critical race theory — an area of legal academia that argues systemic racism is rooted in the nation’s founding — Democrats argue that conservatives are spreading a false narrative.
“You have the exploitation of the anxiety and the misinformation that leads to a very toxic brew,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “You see that over the issue of masks, you see that over the issue of vaccines, you see that over the issue of teaching history,” she continued, adding that critical race theory is not taught in public schools.
The debates over masks and critical race theory, in particular, have led to contentious and at times potentially dangerous confrontations in school board meetings and on school property.
Two people were arrested in June at a Loudoun County School Board meeting when a discussion over critical race theory and transgender rights in schools got out of hand. Meanwhile, anti-mask protesters were seen yelling at students and parents walking to school in Beverly Hills, Calif., earlier this month, telling them not to wear masks.
“It’s terrible for kids,” Weingarten said. “To walk into school and see big signs saying ‘don’t mask,’ when masking ... is protecting each other.”
“They see people yelling and screaming at school board meetings, many of whom are not their parents,” she continued.
The Department of Justice announced last week that it will work to address rising criminal conduct “directed toward school personnel.”
But conservatives and Republicans argue that they and parents are ready to stand firm in the face of the announcement from the Justice Department.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away, especially with this announcement. I think folks across the country are alarmed and rightfully so,” said the RNC spokesperson.
Additionally, conservatives argue that school boards have acted in a way that is politically motivated and that parents are simply calling to have a seat at the table.
“You’ve seen school boards engage in politics at a consistent level that really gives away their veneer of nonpartisanship,” said Ian Prior, the executive director of Fight for Schools, the conservative group that is leading the effort to recall school board members in Loudoun County.
Prior, who previously worked in the Trump Justice Department and for conservative super PAC American Crossroads, added that the national amplification of school board meetings and the conservative protests will likely change the scene at future school board elections, which typically experience low turnout.
“It’s tough to tell, but I can say with some degree of confidence that school board elections in Loudoun County going forward are not going to be the low turnout affairs that they have been in the past,” Prior said.
Youngkin referred to education as a top issue in the Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, and national Republicans say the trend will continue into other races in 2022.
“People used to say that they voted with their pocketbooks and now I think that parents are voting with their kids’ futures in mind,” said another RNC spokesperson.