Politicians and others trying to draw on anxiety and dissatisfaction with schools on a variety of issues pushed education to the center of the political stage this election season, and will likely try to keep them there through midterm elections next year.
Whether such efforts succeed depends on many variables. But Virginia’s gubernatorial election results, where GOP winner Glenn Youngkin made schools the emotional core of his message to voters could serve as a springboard for candidates looking to make inroads among key voting blocs. The razor-thin win for incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey could also lead some to search for school-related tension in states more generally.
The impact could be felt most keenly in the states, even though a closely divided Congress could flip to GOP control through next year’s elections. Democratic governors in states with GOP-run legislatures, for example, could face a steady wave of criticism about their handling of everything from controversial classroom lessons to COVID-19 rules and the pandemic’s lasting impacts on students. Outgoing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is a Democrat, and the state went for Biden by 10 percentage points last year, but neither helped Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe win in this year’s election.
Governors and other Democratic officials in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin already operate on slender political advantages. Voters in those three states, for example, backed former President Donald Trump in 2016 before helping President Joe Biden win the 2020 election.
Democrats will already be facing the general political disadvantage of belonging to the president’s party during midterm elections, headwinds that McAuliffe also faced to a certain degree. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are eligible to seek re-election, although fellow Democrat, Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, is ineligible to seek a third term.
Republicans in Washington are also keen to make the case not just for school choice, but for the kind of public transparency around curriculum that became an issue in the Virginia race—something that could feed any durable discontent about public education.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced Nov. 3 that his party will introduce a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” Explaining his view, McCarthy said in a press conference that, “Once you have a child, it is no longer what you become, it is now what opportunities your children will have. You have the right to know what is being taught in school. You have a right to participate.”
A range of public officials, from local education administrators to governors like Evers and Whitmer should now be concerned about the role schools could play in upcoming election politics, said Joshua Starr, a former district superintendent and the CEO of PDK International, a professional association of educators.
While disputes over specific cultural divisions have often played out in schools before, he said, schools themselves and their day-to-day operations and decisions are now at the center of that tug of war, even beyond people who don’t speak at school board meetings and make themselves the center of attention on TV news.
Starr said that makes education riper for political attention and exploitation than before, he said, even though many parents of color and those from low-income backgrounds often don’t get lauded as “parents” in the same way by opportunistic politicians, especially Republicans.
Those overseeing equity plans in districts should be on high alert, Starr noted, as well as those who are mulling changes to things like gifted and talented programs.
“Most people are silent but reasonable,” Starr said. But in the current environment, they could easily hear about issues in schools through national and highly polarized news outlets or social media, not well-grounded sources in their local communities. “They have no other information that tells them: Wait, that’s not what’s really going on, here’s the real deal,” he added.
What’s on the horizon for elections
Next year, there are 36 races for governor. North Carolina and Kansas also have Democratic governors and Republican legislatures. In addition to Pennsylvania, gubernatorial races without an incumbent include Arizona, which also went for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, and Arkansas.
There are also seven elections for state school superintendent slated for next year, including six partisan ones.
Betting on education to get extended national political attention like it has in recent weeks is a very risky business. If the pandemic eases and masks disappear from faces in classrooms, for example, frustrations about how schools handled it might be less of a factor by next fall. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that U.S. adults are much more likely to think schools nationwide are “too politicized” (69 percent) than their own local schools (39 percent). The federal government’s role in the daily life of schools also remains extremely limited, which has traditionally made it less appealing as a big issue for congressional candidates.
Disagreements have already emerged about not just the extent to which Youngkin’s win hinged on public schools in general, but whether various education issues played out in a way other candidates can easily copy.
Exit polling for the Associated Press in Virginia indicated voters who said their top issue in the race was critical race theory, which became a hotly disputed shorthand for how local schools are approaching and teaching students about structural racism in society, broke for Youngkin in a big way, while those who prioritized how schools approached the pandemic favored McAuliffe by a significant margin. Those two issues combined constituted the top election priorities for roughly half of voters.
Further down ballot, however, local school board election results from across the country indicate that opposing critical race theory and mask mandates to win over voters is far from a surefire winner.
The vast majority of educators do not teach critical race theory in their classrooms, according to EdWeek Research Center survey data, and many say those attacking it are disingenuously trying to undermine schools’ efforts to promote equity and provide students with an accurate portrayal of American history.
Whether education should have been a bigger advantage for McAuliffe, given how many Democrats traditionally consider it one of their keystone issues, is up for debate.
Youngkin’s poll numbers also surged late in the campaign, at the same time that arguments over school curriculum and other local controversies got big headlines in a way school closures largely did not. And the fact that the AP exit poll found that a quarter of voters said their top issue was critical race theory, which until recently the vast majority of the public had no familiarity with, might strike especially strong fear as well as frustration in some educators and elected leaders.
‘Making an emotional appeal’
Regardless of why parents are frustrated, Tommy Schultz is eager to sign them up.
The president of the American Federation for Children, a nonpartisan group that supports vouchers and other school choice policies and which counts ex-education Secretary Betsy DeVos as its former chief, said his group is intrigued by the political possibilities for its favored candidates next year in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio, in addition to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Schultz, whose organization focuses in large part on state legislative races, said his group is also making plans to expand the number of states where it’s politically active next year from 15 to 25.
Youngkin’s actual policy platform for expanding education options, which focuses mainly on increasing the number of charter schools, might surprise if not disappoint some school choice backers. Yet Schultz isn’t concerned, pointing to a big expansion in school choice programs in states since the pandemic started. And he said the appeal to parents, whoever it reaches, resonates in a way that other strategies often don’t.
“The best candidates that are out there are articulating an emotional appeal,” Schultz said, noting that prior campaign lines from Republicans about wanting to abolish the U.S. Department of Education, for example, don’t resonate in the same way. “I think that’s where we saw Youngkin run a textbook, replicable campaign.” (DeVos herself lauded Youngkin’s victory.)
On the stump, McAuliffe talked up increasing teacher pay and boosting school funding. But it was his comment in late September that downplayed the role parents should have in what schools teach that struck a nerve.
Since some politicians are already effectively playing defense on schools, Starr said, “Without really effective communications about what they have done for schools and what they will do for schools, they’re going to be fighting this fight in a big way,” Starr said.
But should it matter what issues drive interest in empowering parents? For Tafshier Cosby, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
The national organizing director for the National Parents Union who lives in New Jersey, Cosby said Murphy’s extremely narrow re-election victory in her state should alarm people who assume traditional public schools have weathered the pandemic without much damage to their standing.
Murphy’s decision not to permit schools to offer remote learning options this year, she said, underscores how many politicians in general have refused to listen to various parents’ concerns over the last several months. In her view, they could pay a price for that indifference very soon: “I pray that this is a wake-up call for everyone.
Parents are distressed about a host of practical and urgent issues, ranging from how federal stimulus funds are being spent, to feeling unsafe in schools, Cosby said. Those are the issues that she thinks will hurt children and families, and disadvantaged children and families in particular, if people with power over schools don’t hustle to address them.
Cosby correspondingly feels frustrated by the attention she thinks critical race theory in particular has received. “I’m disappointed that it’s getting all the oxygen, because I think it’s a distraction,” she said. “COVID itself is going to go away at some point [but] the trauma that it’s placed on families is going to be with them for years.”
Wielding critical race theory as an electoral weapon
Republican lawmakers are eager to wade into disputes over classroom content and set up disputes with Democrats in governors’ mansions. The Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill that would ban critical race theory from schools in September, while Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill prohibiting race or gender stereotyping. Both would likely be vetoed by Evers and Whitmer, respectively.
Rebecca Kleefisch, Wisconsin’s former lieutenant governor who could be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to oppose Evers in next year’s race, has prominently said she would ban critical race theory in schools because, she said, it teaches that American institutions are inherently racist.
“Our schools aren’t supposed to be laboratories to create new social justice warriors,” she wrote in a column. “They need to be preparing students to be part of the 21st Century workforce.”
And in an August 2021 statement opposing masks in schools, Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock was not afraid to tag school administrators with political labels, saying parents should resist “delusional behavior from liberal administrators.” That sort of sentiment could translate into election politics and school board meetings even if mask requirements end; recent polling indicates Michigan is split on such mandates.
Different types of political turmoil affecting schools amounts to “a reaction against the education establishment,” said Will Flanders, the education research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which supports school choice and limited government. “There are few politicians who better represent that establishment than Tony Evers,” he said. (Evers is Wisconsin’s former state superintendent of public instruction.)
Evers shut down schools statewide in early 2020 but did not issue a similar order for the 2020-21 year, saying local districts were best positioned to make such decisions. But Flanders said the subsequent disruption of everything from standardized tests to traditional classroom lessons has put him and others under the spotlight.
“A year ago, I might have said, by the fall of 2021, no one’s going to be talking about this any longer,” Flanders said, noting how that view did not stand the test of time.
Starr of PDK International said when making decisions about difficult issues in today’s climate, educators should prioritize “making sure that you have allies and proxies that are going to support you, and that you’ve considered every single argument you could possibly have. Because you know it’s coming.”