Federal

Broad Calls to Ax Education Department and Take On Teachers’ Unions at 1st GOP Debate

By Libby Stanford — August 24, 2023 4 min read
Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stand at their podiums during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.
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Republican presidential candidates slammed teachers’ unions and called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, reading acceleration, more curriculum transparency, and expanded school choice in the first official debate of the GOP nominating contest Wednesday night.

The debate, which was hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, provided the first opportunity for most candidates to answer questions about education.

Missing from the debate stage was the leading GOP candidate, former President Donald Trump, who spoke to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in a prerecorded interview streamed on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Education did not come up in their conversation.

Education took up a small portion of the two-hour debate, with a question on the topic coming in the last half-hour of the event.

Candidates’ responses were dominated by calls to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, expand school choice, and take on teachers’ unions, common Republican positions. The next president won’t have much direct control over what happens in K-12 schools, as states and local school boards make the most decisions about school governance. But the president’s stance on education can influence how other politicians approach the issue.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has staked much of his governorship and presidential candidacy on his education record, highlighted laws he’s enacted that Republicans in other states have emulated. He touted the Parental Rights in Education Act—also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—which prohibits lessons or mentions of gender identity and sexuality in the classroom, and a state ban on the teaching of critical race theory. He also touted his decision to keep schools open to in-person learning in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, we stood up for what was right.”

DeSantis, as well as businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, called for enhanced civics education.

Ramaswamy suggesting that every high school graduate be required to pass the same civics exam that immigrants take when applying to become citizens. DeSantis touted revisions to Florida’s civics education standards that have happened under his watch; the revised standards highlight patriotism and American exceptionalism as well as religion’s role in the nation’s founding.

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Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, on Aug. 18, 2023.
Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, on Aug. 18, 2023.
Ben Gray/AP

Four of the candidates—North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and Ramaswamy—said they would eliminate the U.S. Department of Education if elected.

“Let’s shut down the head of the snake: the Department of Education,” Ramaswamy said. “Take that $80 billion [and] put it in the hands of parents across this country. This is the civil rights issue of our time.”

Pence also made a point to promote school choice, an issue he has advocated for throughout his career as a politician, especially in his years as governor of Indiana, which has some of the most robust private school choice policies in the nation.

“We’ll give choice to every family in America when I’m in the White House,” Pence said.

Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, called for “reading remediation” in K-12 schools in addition to “transparency in the classroom, because parents should never have to wonder what’s being said or taught to their children.”

“We can talk about all of these things—and there’s a lot of crazy woke things happening in schools—but we’ve got to get these kids reading,” Haley said.

Haley also called for career and technical education, which she called “vocational education,” and for policies that ban transgender athletes from playing sports that align with their gender identity.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Ramaswamy took big shots at teachers’ unions.

“The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers’ unions,” Scott said. “They are standing in the doorhouse of our kids, locking them in failing schools, and locking them out of the greatest future they can have.”

When asked a question about how he would approach the issue of UFOs, Christie turned his answer around to discuss education and criticize teachers’ unions and boast about his fights with him as New Jersey governor.

The unions are “putting themselves before our kids,” Christie said. “That is the biggest threat to our country, not UFOs.”

While Republican state leaders in recent years have spoken at length about schools indoctrinating kids, Burgum, the North Dakota governor, said that isn’t happening in most schools and that the “vast majority” of teachers are working hard and are underpaid. He also touted steps North Dakota has taken to allow districts to innovate as well as a state law there he signed to prohibit transgender girls from playing girls’ sports.

“Some school districts are doing a fantastic job, some less so,” Burgum said, “but the idea that every school district, state, and every teacher is somehow indoctrinating people is just false.”

Burgum added that educators will be better able to innovate “when you cut loose the red tape.”

“Teachers in this country, the vast majority of them care about those kids,” Burgum said. “They’re working in low-paying jobs and they’re fighting for those kids and their families.”

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