State Watch

The Memo: Democrats struggle to beat back GOP attacks on education

Republicans are lining up to take potshots at Democrats over education — an issue on which President Biden’s party used to enjoy a sizable advantage.

The line of Republicans rushing to embrace the issue shows just how sharply the political dynamics have shifted.

On Thursday evening, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin spoke at a CNN town hall on the topic.

Education was central to Youngkin’s 2021 election win over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, which in turn has fueled buzz about Youngkin as a potential 2024 White House candidate.

On Monday, former President Trump will give a Davenport, Iowa speech on what his campaign is billing as an “America First education policy.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — Trump’s most serious rival for the GOP’s nomination, if he enters the race — has made fights over education central to his political brand, whether in regard to the teaching of sexuality, critical race theory (CRT) or Black history.

Other leading figures in the party have also championed a vigorously conservative approach.

The early days of former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign have featured claims that a controversial Florida bill advocated by DeSantis, which bars the teaching of sexuality or gender identity through the third grade, doesn’t “go far enough.”

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed an education overhaul in her state into law on Wednesday. Though the Arkansas measure boosts teacher salaries, it also takes aim at many of the same issues as DeSantis has done, including the teaching of sexuality and CRT.

Just before the signing, Sanders celebrated on Twitter that “CRT and all forms of racism and leftist indoctrination in our schools will be outlawed.”

The barrage of Republican attacks, which has been going on at least for a couple of years, has clearly had a political effect.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll back in November 2021 showed Democrats enjoying only a three-point advantage, 44 percent to 41 percent, when voters were asked which party they favored on education.

Post reporter Aaron Blake noted at that point that “the last time the Post-ABC poll surveyed this issue was in the mid-2000s; at the time, Democrats led by more than 20 points.”

Last year, some polls even showed the GOP had an edge on the topic.

A 2022 poll from the pro-charter school group Democrats for Education Reform found a 3-point edge for Republicans among voters in swing districts.

Whatever the specifics, the big picture is that education has become much more friendly political territory for Republicans than used to be the case.

“There was once a Democratic stranglehold on education and now it seems there are self-inflicted wounds that are hurting them,” said Republican strategist and pollster Glen Bolger.

Democrats see the issue very differently, contending that the GOP has cynically weaponized education

“What I see on the Republican side is a party using the issue as part of its culture wars,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “I don’t think they give a whit about education. They are just dragging the school libraries and the teachers into their culture wars.”

Whatever the truth, it seems plain that the COVID-19 pandemic was a pivot point when it comes to voters’ attitudes on education.

School closures, debates over masking and vaccination for young children, and in-home learning created a febrile atmosphere.

That, in turn, appears to have led parents, especially those of a more conservative worldview, to get more involved in school boards and discussions over curriculum.

“Post-pandemic, it’s an issue that people care about — and it’s a great way to stir people’s emotions,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Zelizer also contended that the emotional potency of the topic could distract from other, less favorable subjects for the GOP, such as economic policies that he said were at odds with the party’s populist rhetoric.

In the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial contest, Youngkin’s team wrung a political dividend from McAuliffe’s comment at a debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

But education has also become a nexus for big national discussions about race and sexual identity.

When DeSantis pushed back against a proposed Advanced Placement course in African-American studies in January, for example, he cited its proposed teaching of “queer theory” as part of the evidence that the course had been designed “for political purposes.”

Democrats like Longabaugh worry that their party hasn’t been forceful enough in firing back at some of the GOP attacks.

He contended that “parents and the public at large are outraged at [Republicans’] notion of book-banning. Democrats ought to lean into those issues and call them out on it,” he said.

But, he added, “If we get pushed back on our heels and allow the Republicans to play culture war issues inside the schools, we are just on defense and we lose.”

Right now, it’s clear that the politics of education are in flux. And Democrats haven’t yet found a way to halt the GOP’s momentum.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Critical race theory Donald Trump Education Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Nikki Haley Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis

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