For decades, Democrats have enjoyed a big partisan advantage when it comes to education. The party’s support for school spending, energetic embrace of public education, and close ties to teachers’ unions and higher education have played well with a public that’s historically felt warmly towards its teachers, schools, and colleges.
More recently, though, things may be changing. Amid debates over school closures and masking, critical race theory, parental rights, campus speech, and more, polling (like this and this) suggests that the party’s close association with schools and colleges may be hurting Democrats more than helping them. In much of this, Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, has fretted that, “Democrats are losing the plot relative to the median voter.”
This discussion is familiar to anyone who’s been around education of late. For instance, it was inescapable last fall after Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign gained national attention for the back-and-forth over parental rights and pandemic school policies. So, it seemed worth putting on my political science hat to see if there’s evidence of real movement in public opinion—or if this is just another overhyped media narrative.
Fortunately, since 2003, public opinion researchers 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 a total of 78 times over the past 20 years.
The time frame, uniform question, and consistent pollster make this question a terrific tool for spotting any trends. So, what do we see?
Well, as I explained the other week in a new report, between 2003 and 2022, Democrats have consistently enjoyed a sizable advantage in public confidence 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’s been a notable shift. From 2003 to 2013, Democratic support usually hovered around 55 percent or higher.
Now? Well, the Democrats’ worst five years in the past 20 have all come since 2014, and 2022 is the only year in the last 20 in which confidence in Democrats on education has fallen below 45 percent. Given all that, it’s not too surprising that, in 2021 and 2022, the Democratic lead over Republicans fell into the single digits.
This is a remarkably poor showing for the Democrats. Prior to the pandemic, 2014 was the only year since at least 2003 when the Democratic lead touched single digits (that was at the height of the Common Core backlash).
But Democrat losses haven’t yet turned into commensurate Republican gains. Voter confidence in the GOP on education sat in the mid-30s for pretty much the whole of the past two decades, and it remains firmly in that same range now.
In short, lots of voters are saying they’ve lost confidence in the Democrats on education—but aren’t yet ready to say they have gained confidence in the Republicans.
For Democrats, this suggests there’s a real chance to win these voters back. Of course, that would be more likely if the party could check the impulses that have been causing it to bleed moderate and left-center voters.
For Republicans, there’s an opportunity to close the gap on an area of perennial weakness. That would be a whole lot more likely, though, if the GOP were doing more to offer practical solutions to meet the needs of students and families.
There’s also the question as to how permanent any of these observed shifts may be. During President Barack Obama’s second term, big Republican education gains melted away as the Common Core faded from prominence. If today’s shifts have been driven by frustration with Democratic stances on school closures or critical race theory, voters could drift back to the status quo as these fights recede.
What happens next on this count matters. That’s true not just for high-profile education fights in state capitals and Washington, but the outcome will also assuredly play a role in crucial national elections this fall—and, quite likely, in 2024.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.