Are Democrats losing their advantage on education?

Going back a half-century or more, Democrats have generally enjoyed a substantial advantage on education. The party’s broad support for more education spending, outspoken embrace of public education, and close ties to teacher unions and the education establishment have generally yielded a hefty advantage.

Today, though, Democratic stances on education appear to be playing differently amid fierce debates over school closures, school masking policies, critical race theory (CRT) and gender policy, and student loan forgiveness. According to recent polling from Morning Consult, the Democratic lead on education shrank from 20 points in January 2021 to 7 last November, and according to even more recent polling from The Wall Street Journal, the Democratic lead on education shrank even further after that, from 9 points in November to 5 this March.

It’s not just the polls. In liberal San Francisco, over 70 percent of voters supported a recall that ousted three school board members who were seen as overly focused on promoting a woke agenda rather than reopening schools and managing the budget. Likewise, in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest last fall — a race many pundits treated as a referendum on approaches to school masking, parents’ rights, and CRT — Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state that President Biden won by double digits in 2020. 

Ruy Teixeira, political scientist at the Center for American Progress and coauthor of “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” has warned that “Democrats are losing the plot relative to the median voter.” On the issue of education, Teixeira argues that too many influential voices on the left have grown uncomfortable with notions of merit, high standards, and personal responsibility. He cautions that even in deep-blue Massachusetts the polling shows that such discomfort is very much at odds with public opinion.

These data points may be interesting, but is there evidence of a meaningful shift in public opinion when it comes to education? Since 2003, New Models and Winning the Issues, both using the same pollster, have regularly asked voters, “Which party [they] have more confidence in to handle the issue of education, the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?” Together they polled this question 78 times over the past 20 years.

This consistency over a span of two decades makes this question a terrific tool for spotting any trends. So, what trends can we see?

Well, as I explain in a new AEI report, during the past 20 years, Democrats have consistently led the GOP on education. Between 2003 and 2022, the average Democratic lead was 15 points (51-36) and there was never a year in which Republicans led.

More recently, though, there has been a noticeable shift. 2022 is the first year since 2003 in which confidence in Democrats on education has fallen below 45 percent. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ worst five years in the past 20 have all come since 2014.

As a result, the Democratic lead on education has withered. Between 2003 and 2019, the Democratic lead dipped into single digits just once, in 2014 at the height of the Common Core backlash. During the last two years, however — as school closures, school masking, and debates over critical race theory and gender policy have come to the fore — the Democratic lead has fallen into the single digits.

Eroding confidence in Democrats has not yet, however, translated into substantial Republican gains. When it comes to education, confidence in the GOP hovered between 32 and 40 percent in all but two years between 2003 and 2019, and it remains firmly planted in that same range now (though it has recovered from Trump-era lows).

When it comes to education, the share of voters rejecting both parties has jumped sharply in the past five years. A substantial chunk of voters (nearly one in five) currently expresses confidence in neither party.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Democrats are losing the confidence of voters who don’t obviously trust the GOP. For Democrats, this suggests there’s a chance to win these voters back. For Republicans, it suggests an enormous opportunity. If the GOP can win the confidence of the voters whom the Democrats have pushed away, it could close the education-support gap — or even turn a perennial weakness into an area of strength.

There’s a question as to how permanent any shifts may be. During the Obama years, big GOP gains on education fueled by the Common Core clash wound up melting away as the Common Core faded from prominence. To the extent that today’s shift has been fueled by voter frustrations with Democratic stances on school closures or critical race theory, it’s an open question whether those shifts will prove transitory or more lasting.

Given education’s substantive and symbolic import, whether Democrats can staunch the bleeding will matter not just for influencing voters in November but for shaping the contours of 2024.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the new AEI report “Democrats Have Lost Public Confidence on Education, but the GOP Hasn’t Gained It.

Tags 2024 campaign Common Core Critical race theory Democratic Party Education education standards Gender identity Merit system personal responsibility public education Public opinion Standards-based education teachers teachers unions Wedge issue woke politics

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