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WATCH: 5 Key Takeaways on Education From the 1st GOP Presidential Debate

By Libby Stanford — August 24, 2023 8 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 on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.
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Republican candidates vying for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination took shots at teachers’ unions, denounced critical race theory and gender ideology, called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, and pushed for expanded school choice at their first official debate of the primary season on Wednesday night.

Education was the subject of an approximately 15-minute segment during the debate, which Fox News hosted in Milwaukee. Fox News host Bret Baier introduced the segment by outlining a “crisis in education,” following a pandemic-induced slide in academic achievement. (Watch the full debate on the Fox News website.)

Education isn’t often a winning issue in presidential elections in part because the federal government has a limited role in governing schools. States and local school districts have the most control over decisions about curriculum and standards, school choice policy, and teacher pay.

Still, the president has a major influence over their party’s platform, which can reverberate across states and local communities. So the eventual nominee will likely influence how conservative politicians approach K-12 education.

Here are highlights of what the candidates had to say about K-12 schools during the debate.

1. DeSantis shied away from ‘woke’ but still warned of indoctrination

With former President Donald Trump absent from the debate stage, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the frontrunner among those present in Milwaukee.

As governor, DeSantis has made waves by passing policies that restrict teaching about curriculum related to race, gender identity, and sexuality—policies that Republicans elsewhere have emulated. His administration has also revised African American history standards to teach that “some slaves developed highly specialized trades from which they benefitted” and sparred with the College Board over Advanced Placement Psychology and African American Studies courses. Revisions to state civic standards have also highlighted American exceptionalism and patriotism, and religion’s role in the nation’s founding.

In the presidential race, DeSantis has used his policy wins in Florida to position himself as a defender of parental rights, but that strategy hasn’t translated into the governor providing real competition to Trump, who currently leads the race in polls by a wide margin.

During the debate, DeSantis touted his education record in Florida, highlighting how the state has “eliminated critical race theory” and “gender ideology” from classrooms.

“We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country,” DeSantis said, repeating a frequent line.

But notably, the governor did not use the word “woke” to talk about education, which he’s used repeatedly to characterize efforts to make schools more inclusive of LGBTQ+ students and teach history that acknowledges white supremacy’s role in contributing to systemic racism.

His use of the term hasn’t been limited to education, but he’s also conceded that many don’t know what it means. A New York Times-Siena College poll last month showed Republican primary voters weren’t particularly motivated to support a candidate focused on defeating “woke” ideology.

2. Candidates pledged to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education

Four candidates—North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy—called for the end of the federal Education Department, a policy position that has been commonplace among conservatives since the department’s origins in 1980.

“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.” (The department’s fiscal year 2023 budget is just under $80 billion.)

Shutting down the department would not be as simple as issuing an executive order or presidential mandate. It would take an act of Congress, and conservative members have tried multiple times to pass such a bill with no success.

If the department and all its functions were to go away, schools would lose 7 to 8 percent of their funding each year, from programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While state and local sources account for the vast majority of education budgets, some districts depend on the federal government for a significantly larger proportion of their revenue.

It would also change how the federal government investigates school-based violations of students’ civil rights under laws like Title IX, IDEA, and the Civil Rights Act, which aim to ensure that all students receive an equal education, as such complaints currently go to the Education Department’s office for civil rights.

The candidates didn’t touch on how they’d replace these resources during the debate. Ramaswamy suggested giving the department’s funding directly to parents to spend on their child’s education, mimicking state efforts to give public per-pupil funds to families so they can cover the costs of private school tuition and other expenses, usually through education savings accounts or vouchers.

Pence also called for an expansion of school choice, pledging to “give choice to every family in America when I’m in the White House.”

3. Burgum disputed that teachers and schools are indoctrinating students

Burgum, the North Dakota governor, used his time to call for innovation in schools while challenging claims that schools and teachers are working to “indoctrinate” students with “liberal” or “woke” ideologies. The statement was a stark departure from the rhetoric that has become common among Republicans.

“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.”

While Burgum sounded different from some of his rivals, he’s signed legislation prohibiting teaching about critical race theory; barring transgender athletes from playing sports that align with their gender identity; and allowing teachers and other state government employees to ignore transgender students’ pronouns while requiring teachers to alert parents if their child identifies as transgender.

Burgum didn’t mention those policies during the debate—he’s tried to avoid emphasizing culture war issues in his campaign. Instead, he referred to teaching as a “low-paying job” but didn’t go so far as to suggest that the federal government work to raise teacher pay.

“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.”

4. Haley called for reading remediation “all over this country”

Former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley didn’t use her time to tackle “indoctrination” in schools, a departure from much of her rhetoric on the campaign trail. Instead, she called for efforts to accelerate student reading.

Students’ reading achievement plummeted after the onset of the pandemic and has continued to drop in subsequent years. Haley paraphrased research showing that kids who aren’t reading at grade level by 3rd grade are four times less likely than peers to graduate from high school on time.

“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.

Another former governor on stage, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, also focused squarely on student achievement and the United States’ competitiveness with China. He pledged to expand the availability of computer science classes to all schools.

Haley also called for more transparency in the classroom “because parents should never have to wonder what’s being said or taught to their children,” and argued for more career and technical education, which has become a bipartisan priority in many states in the post-pandemic landscape.

She also called for laws that prohibit transgender students from playing sports that align with their gender identity, which she has previously called “the women’s rights issue of our time.” Such prohibitions have passed in 23 states, though some bans are held up in court, and the Biden administration has proposed rules that make such categorical bans illegal under Title IX at any school receiving federal funding.

5. Scott and Christie took shots at a familiar GOP foe

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie identified a clear enemy when it comes to K-12 schools: 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.”

Conservative politicians have long been at odds with teachers’ unions, and tensions have escalated as of late.

Earlier this year, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, endured a congressional hearing in which Republican House members accused her organization of conspiring with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to keep schools closed during the pandemic. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to Weingarten as “the most dangerous person in the world” last year. And a handful of Republican-backed state laws this year have prohibited automatic payroll deductions for teachers’ union dues.

Christie accused teachers’ unions of “putting themselves before our kids” during the debate. After he was asked a question about how he would respond to UFO sightings, Christie flipped his answer back to teachers’ unions.

“That is the biggest threat to our country, not UFOs,” he said.

The conservative attacks on teachers’ unions will likely continue as the election cycle heats up. President Joe Biden will likely use his platform to call for higher pay and better working conditions for teachers.

The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions have had a close relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. And First Lady Jill Biden, a community college professor, is a member of the largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, something her husband has often noted in speeches.

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