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The GOP is strengthening its grip on education. Parents say Democrats are to blame.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/27/2022 Alia Wong, USA TODAY

The video starts as many attack ads do: an ominous voice invoking fear. In this case, though, the video doesn’t target any particular candidate but an entire political party: Democrats. And the subject isn’t one that typically induces terror, like crime, but education.

“Kids are back in the classroom, and Democrats? They’re back to their propaganda, pushing woke ideology like gender fluidity, mandating vaccines, enforcing masks on our children,” warns the video, produced and shared on social media by the Republican National Committee in September. Images of Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris fade in and out of view, accompanied by scenes of a teacher reminding her students that gender isn’t binary and another taping a mask to a child’s face.

“Back to school should be driven by parents,” the narrator concludes. “Not Democrat indoctrination.”

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Democrats have long been seen as the country’s “education party,” enjoying most voters’ trust on such issues. But public perceptions have shifted since the onset of the pandemic.

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Last year, conservatives secured seats on dozens of school boards across the country on campaigns targeting critical race theory. More could soon join them, with their campaigns now targeting LGBTQ+ lessons, too. One poll this summer of likely voters in 62 congressional battleground districts suggests Republicans now have an advantage over Democrats on education. 

The tide continues to turn in the GOP’s favor as Democrats struggle to mobilize and appeal to voters. And the implications could be vast, including greater privatization of public education, less federal involvement in schools and more restrictions on what students read and learn.

“Parents want a say in their kid’s education, and because Democrats don’t want that, (parents) are walking away,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action, a conservative lobbying organization. “There’s a new burst of energy and enthusiasm” for the Republican approach to education.

Parents more engaged, polarized  

Virginia “Ginny” Gentles is a long-time conservative and school choice advocate but that advocacy got especially personal in the summer of 2020, when her children’s public school district in Northern Virginia reneged on a plan to start the fall semester with a hybrid schedule involving just two days a week of in-person learning. 

“I had to come up with a completely new plan because I knew it wasn’t going to work for my kids to do remote education,” said Gentles, who now serves as the Independent Women’s Forum’s recently formed Education Freedom Center. Both of Gentles’s daughters have special needs; the district’s teachers, Gentles said, weren’t equipped to teach them in a remote setting. The children now attend faith-based private schools.

In the time since, Gentles said she’s heard from parents throughout her community and the country complain of curriculum that veers too much into social-justice activism, of educators more familiar with "gender ideology" than the science of reading. Yet decision-makers always seemed to brush off the critiques. 

“I have realized in the last couple of years that districts refuse to be responsive to anyone who’s not part of the system, and that (system) includes unions,” Gentles said. “Something needs to be done to wake them up.” 

The pandemic gave parents unprecedented insight into what happens during the school day, forcing many to play a primary, if temporary, role in their kids’ education. And with greater insight came greater scrutiny: A recent Gallup poll found that Americans' satisfaction with K-12 education is lower than it typically is, with nearly one in four "completely dissatisfied"; another 32% expressed some dissatisfaction. 

Many parents no longer view their role in their kids’ education as temporary, Pew data shows, expressing growing frustration – especially among Republicans – with school boards’ and other governmental officials’ perceived influence over what happens in classrooms.

Conservative strategists hope those frustrations will drive parents to the polls. While issues such as the economy and health care tend to be voters’ top concerns, 83% of voting parents say education has grown in importance for them, according to a Harris Poll conducted in May on behalf of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

The trend, which has been pronounced among Black parents as well as those whose children have special needs, has made parents and others with strong education views a critical voting bloc. Eighty-two percent of parents said they’d be willing to vote for someone outside of their political party if their education platform aligned with their views. 

A separate poll from the National Parents Union, released just last week, surveyed registered voters across the country who are also parents of children in K-12 schools. Most respondents – roughly six in 10 – said they are more motivated to vote this year than they were in past midterms, 82% saying they’re highly likely to cast ballots in the upcoming elections. 

“The education voter is the new swing voter,” said the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’s Nina Rees in a June statement announcing her organization’s poll results. 

The role of the parent vote feels especially high stakes these days amid growing partisanship when it comes to education issues.

Polling data from Education Next, which for years has been surveying parents on education issues, suggests that attitudes toward topics such as charter schools and vouchers increasingly correlate with one’s political party affiliation. (Republicans are far more favorable to such models than Democrats.) New issues, such as mask mandates and critical race theory hysteria, have also contributed to the widening rift, Education Next’s data shows.

“There has always been a feeling that education was something everybody could support, a feeling that schools deserve everybody’s support,” said Paul Peterson, a government professor and education policy scholar at Harvard who serves as senior editor at Education Next. Peterson has been following Americans’ education attitudes for more than 40 years. “We don’t quite have that anymore, and that’s definitely a concern.”

The lack of consensus, however, has created an opportunity for Republicans, who have been more proactive about appealing to parents, tapping into their fears about curriculum and educational quality. 

Democrats, meanwhile, have struggled to resonate with parents, in some cases altogether alienating them. That’s been especially true with their ambivalence on school choice and allegiance with teachers’ unions, whose push for extended closures during the pandemic have made them especially unpopular among conservatives. 

“It was this very potent combination of school closures, mask mandates, (critical race theory), gender ideology,” Gentles said, “and in all of that the theme was: The school district was unresponsive to parents expressing concern.”

Even Democratic strategists have acknowledged the imbalance. “We need to get out of our crouch here,” Guy Molyneux, a pollster at HART Research, told NBC News in July. HART had just released the results of a survey it conducted on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers finding Republicans had a slight advantage over Democrats with regards to voters’ trust on education issues. 

“Democrats should be focusing on parents and really paying attention to what they need,” said Ailen Arreza, a mother in North Carolina and the co-director of ParentsTogether, a family advocacy organization – things like economic security and paid leave and subsidies to help with child care. “Your identity as a parent really defines a lot of the decisions you make, from the cereal you buy to where you live. Voting is one of those decisions.”

Arreza said conservatives are distracting and dividing parents with their culture war claims. But they’re also resonating with voters in their emphasis on educational liberty. More than 1 million voters in 43 states have likely switched to the Republican Party since last summer, according to reporting published in June by the AP – a shift especially evident in suburbs.

“Conservatives have caught the liberals totally flat-footed,” said Jack Schneider, an education historian and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “This is a story of how the Democrats lost education. Not to say I think the right will ultimately come out the winner here, but for the moment, they’ve certainly seized the momentum.” 

Both parties are mobilizing their bases – but GOP doing it better

What Heritage’s Anderson might describe as a “school choice takeover,” Race Forward’s Dennis Chin describes as “attacks on our public schools.” 

“Stoking fear and resentment of the other – communities of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people – is the playbook that has been in place for the past 60 years,” Chin said, describing these efforts as a veiled attempt to undermine democracy. “Learning about the history of inequity – why society produces different outcomes – is actually an act of unity.” 

In an effort to better equip community members with the tools needed to promote inclusive curricula and more equitable school funding, Race Forward, a racial-justice advocacy organization, has been hosting training sessions since April. As part of the H.E.A.L. Together initiative, educators, parents and students learn about the science and history of organizing and how they can confront bigotry in the classroom. 

Other groups such as the left-leaning Red, Wine and Blue are also training folks, while teachers unions have been doing their own get-out-the-vote pushes.

But they are far outmatched by the outreach happening on the right – including by groups that have for the most part avoided the culture-war messaging and focused more on concepts more palatable to independent voters including improved student achievement, greater parental engagement and expanded educational options.

Observers predict the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which confirm the pandemic’s sobering effects on student achievement, will become fodder for GOP campaigns over the next few weeks.

State breakdown: Reading and math test scores fell across US during the pandemic

Back in September 2021, then-Democratic nominee for Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said something that helped cost him the election: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The gaffe came to represent, for many parents in the state and across the country, the Democratic party’s posture as a whole toward families and their diverse educational needs. 

Celeste Garrett, a mom of three in King William County in Virginia who identifies as libertarian, had read about the comment on social media, and the sentiment behind it infuriated her. Garrett has had to fight to get her children, all of whom have special needs, the basic services they need. Those experiences have underscored for her the consequences of too much bureaucracy and government control in education. 

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory over McAuliffe has been seen as a testament to education’s importance in today’s elections. He ran largely on a “parents’ rights” platform, and made education his No. 1 priority upon getting elected. 

But Virginia’s legislature, with one house still controlled by Democrats, hasn’t done much to advance a Youngkin goal: school choice. The state is home to just seven charters, for example – and it’s in that area where local conservative groups are now focusing much of their energy. (Enough Democrats did sign on to legislation banning mask mandates to get a measure to Youngkin’s desk.)

Garrett was one of the attendees at an early October training in Richmond, Virginia, hosted by the Virginia Education Opportunity Alliance, a coalition formed in November 2021 by groups including the Family Foundation and Heritage Action “to promote parental rights and education opportunities.”

After settling in against a soundtrack featuring the U.S. Air Force Band, an audience of roughly 15 Virginia residents listened for several hours as speakers explained the mission and process of lobbying for educational freedom in the state.

One of the first speakers, Craig DiSesa of the Middle Resolution, a local conservative advocacy group, shared an anecdote about a student whose teacher allegedly quizzed his class on the term for people who don’t identify as queer but stand up for the LGBTQ+ community. The correct answer was “ally,” and the implicit message, according to DiSesa, is that “if you don’t align with this, you’re on the outskirts.”

“We have to create a statewide movement and put pressure on legislators” to protect parents’ rights and provide them options besides public schools, DiSesa explained to the crowd. “I’m not trying to be partisan, but all the Democrats are opposed to this.”

Another speaker delved into how to adapt the language of your advocacy based on the political stance of the person you’re talking to. When trying to convince a liberal of school options, he advised, use terms like “fairness” and “caring”; for libertarians, try words like “loyalty.” 

In the audience: a patchwork of community members with different stakes in and attitudes toward education. They included Wayne Boese, a retired American history teacher from South Dakota who in the 1960s worked as a union representative but today bristles at the direction of public schools. Critical race theory is “a form of neo-Marxism,” Boese said, alluding to a popular but false Republican talking point.

But there were also people with views like Garrett’s, who isn’t fazed by the claims of woke curriculum and agrees “with a lot of the values that Democrats tend to promote but never, ever with their tactics.” 

Garrett hadn’t heard that school choice was on the table in Virginia until the training. “Now that I’m aware of it it’s absolutely something that I’m going to promote,” she said. And now that she knows Youngkin is a champion of school choice and has opened the door for alternatives, she said she looks forward to “holding him to it.” 

Parents: take politics out of schools

Democrats entrenched themselves as the party of education in the mid-20th century, according to the University of Massachusetts’s Schneider, with their platform of spending more on schools and colleges. But Republicans have intervened at points throughout history. 

Still, education has generally managed to transcend the most bitter of political divides, according to Ross Wiener, a vice president at the Aspen Institute, which has convened leaders from across the aisle to tackle partisanship in schools and last month published a bipartisan framework for education policy.

It wasn’t until recently that education became the subject of caustic campaign rhetoric, he said, the pandemic bringing with it an inflection point that prompted trends such as declining satisfaction with public schools and growing partisanship on education issues. 

“Schools were left holding the bag on too many public health decisions without adequate expertise or political cover,” Wiener said. “Education has been dragged into the political context.”

'We are war moms': Moms for Liberty dominates school board politics across US

This year, according to an analysis by the literary and free speech organization PEN America, legislators in 36 states introduced 137 bills seeking to restrict instruction about topics such as race, history and LGBTQ+ identity. Since 2021, at least 19 such laws have passed.

“Parents’ rights” activists such as Moms for Liberty, meanwhile, have gained national attention for their claims of “leftist indoctrination” in schools and successful book-banning efforts.  

But the GOP has made subtler gains as well, most notably in the school choice realm. Most states now have publicly funded choice programs, including roughly 45 with charter school laws and eight that actively provide what are known as Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to pay for private school tuition, homeschooling, tutoring and other forms of education. 

Just last month, a sweeping voucher program went into effect in Arizona after a petition failed to get enough signatures to force a vote on the measure. The program subsidizes private-school tuition for any family that wants it. Conservative observers hope – and think – it will be a bellwether for the rest of the country. 

Republican Blake Masters, a U.S. Senate candidate in Arizona, holds a press conference with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence at a school choice event earlier this month. © Rob Schumacher Republican Blake Masters, a U.S. Senate candidate in Arizona, holds a press conference with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence at a school choice event earlier this month.

Amid Democrats’ wavering on such policies, the GOP may have found its sweet spot in the many parents unconcerned with the culture war stuff but intent on securing more educational options. And that includes parents of color, who consistently tend to rank education as higher priority than white parents and generally favor school choice. 

“Those ‘I’ve never voted Republican in my life but I voted for Youngkin’ parents are also like, ‘Oh, I thought school choice was something else. Now I get what it is and I’m on board,’” said the Independent Women’s Forum’s Gentles. A number of Republican governors have also led efforts to raise teacher salaries and expand access to early-childhood education. 

But these days the Republican approach to education is a package deal: more private school options as well as more restrictions on what children read and learn. 

A survey of roughly 1,500 parents and guardians published last December, notably, found that the biggest education concern for more than two in three respondents wasn’t their children’s mental health or COVID-related safety but rather “politicians who are not educators making decisions about curriculum.”

Some parents remain unconvinced that either party is committed to children and just want politics out of the classroom.

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The GOP is strengthening its grip on education. Parents say Democrats are to blame.

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