The Republican challenge: Make this issue one for your base
Democrats demonstrated the ability to strategically use issues — abortion and climate change — to drive voters to the polls in key races and avoid a “red wave” in 2022. Exit polling reported by Brookings showed a 28 percent spread, with voters ages 18-29 favoring Democrats. With women, “The new exit polls show that 47 percent of female voters felt angry about that decision [Dobbs v. Jackson] and 83 percent of those women voted for a Democratic candidate.” And since abortion and climate change as issues are not going away anytime soon, Republicans need to develop their own set of issues that can motivate voters.
In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia by emphasizing the need to empower parents. His rallying cry was that critical race theory and gender fluidity were being taught to children without schools informing their parents. Youngkin was able to drive the education issue nine points in his favor in the closing months of the campaign, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. The issue was perfectly framed and timed to propel him to victory.
Success in Virginia, however, does not mean that Republicans own the parental empowerment issue going forward. Issues are not things that can be stored and used when needed. Issues need to be nurtured and adapted to a constantly changing environment. Democrats were fortunate that the Supreme Court decided the Dobbs v. Jackson case in an election year, but this should not diminish how adept the party was at using it to create political advantage — in the same way that they have used hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters to reinforce the need to abandon fossil fuels and save the planet from climate change.
Republicans evidently are not as adept at issues management. They can ride the wave of an issue’s popularity, as Younkin did in Virginia, but once the wave has crested, they tend to not understand how to maintain issue momentum.
Republicans should own the education issue and reframe it to broaden crossover appeal. According to Pew Research Center, “The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.” These data are pre-pandemic. Brookings reported data measuring up to 2021 that show “test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20 percent in math … and 15 percent in reading.” McKinsey looked at the economic impact and reported, “All told, we estimate that the average K-12 student in the United States could lose $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (in constant 2020 dollars), or the equivalent of a year of full-time work, solely as a result of COVID-19-related learning losses. These costs are significant — and worse for Black and Hispanic Americans.”
Add to the mix that, as a nation, we are abandoning standards. Reuters reported, “The arm of the American Bar Association that accredits U.S. law schools on Friday [Nov. 18, 2022] voted to eliminate the longstanding requirement that schools use the Law School Admission Test or other standardized test when admitting students.” The LSAT measures “analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and the ability to read and comprehend difficult prose.”
According to an analysis in Higher Ed Dive, “The ABA proposal comes as a national campaign to demolish testing-related barriers for underrepresented college applicants has swept undergraduate admissions. Proponents of nixing LSAT requirements say doing so could similarly help diversify applicant pools.” The article goes on to report, “ABA remains the only accreditor among those for law, medical, dental, pharmacy, business and architecture schools still requiring an admissions test.”
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) cited that more than 1,800 colleges and universities will be test-optional in 2022-2023 and SAT test-taking is down 21 percent. In many quarters, testing and assessment are considered instruments of racism. In an article published on the FairTest website, Henry Feder reported that UCLA will reject a student who tries to “slip in” SAT scores to boost an application.
And that’s not all. Newsweek reported on a letter sent to parents by Cherry Creek School District in the Denver area, informing parents: “The role of the educator is to teach all of our students, not to rank and sort them. The practices of class rank and valedictorian status are outdated and inconsistent with what we know and believe of our students. We believe all students can learn at high levels, and learning is not a competition.”
The education issue, properly framed, presents a threat to America’s future as a world leader and the quality of life we will leave to our children, one that may be as great as climate change. The focus on public policy toward homogenizing our society by remodeling our view of achievement will undermine the American Dream that is objectively based on merit. Republicans need to own issues that they can use to build diversity within their base, and education is there for the taking.
Dennis M. Powell, the founder and president of Massey Powell, is an issues and crisis management consultant and the author of the upcoming book, “Leading from the Top: Presidential Lessons in Issues Management.”