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What Education Issues Did Voters Care About Most? Hint: It Was Not Critical Race Theory

By Libby Stanford — December 20, 2022 5 min read
People fill out ballots to vote at Benjamin Banneker Middle School during Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Silver Spring, Md.
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Critical race theory, LGBTQ issues, and “political indoctrination”—hot topics in the national media over the past year—did not rank as the most pressing issues for voters in the 2022 midterm elections, a new poll suggests.

But the political divide over those issues remains significant. More than 40 percent of voters still labeled fears of indoctrination, critical race theory, and LGBTQ agendas as a major factor in their election decisions, according to results from the poll.

The National Education Association surveyed 1,200 midterm voters—including an even share of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, from Nov. 10 through Nov. 19—about the education issues that were most important to them.

Forty-three percent of respondents identified the statement that “too many schools are teaching critical race theory to be politically correct” as a major factor in their voting decisions, while 42 percent identified “students are being indoctrinated by radical left-wing teachers” and “teachers are grooming students and pushing the radical LGBTQ agenda” as major factors.

Those concerns, however, did not rank in the top five of major issues for voters. The most pressing issue was school shootings, with 60 percent of voters identifying it as a major factor. Fifty-five percent of voters identified students not receiving “a complete, honest history of our country, including on topics like slavery, the civil rights movement, and Native American history” as a major factor in their vote. And 55 percent of voters also said concerns about school funding and book bans were major factors in their votes.

The NEA is the largest national teachers’ union and overwhelmingly supports Democratic political candidates and issues. The union views the poll results as an indication that issues like school safety and funding are more important to voters than issues promoted in the campaigns of politically conservative candidates.

“We ended up seeing that voters voted for candidates and for issues that … supported strong schools, that supported working families, that wanted people to support our students, their children,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in an interview. “I’m not surprised that’s what ended up happening.”

But education advocates who are politically conservative also see the results as an indication that their issues are resonating with voters.

Poll suggests split over critical race theory

In both statewide and local elections, people who were worried about critical race theory were not significantly more motivated to vote than those who were not afraid of it.

Sixty-two percent of people who identified themselves as having an “unfavorable” view of critical race theory said they were more motivated or enthusiastic to vote in the midterms. On the other hand, 60 percent of people who identified themselves as having a favorable view of critical race theory also said they were more motivated or enthusiastic about voting in this election.

The numbers showed similar trends in school board elections. In total, 40 percent of respondents said that school board elections were more important this year than in past years. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents in total voted in school board elections.

Of those in favor of critical race theory, 33 percent said school board elections were more important than in past years and 80 percent actually voted in the school board elections. At the same time, 48 percent of people who were worried about critical race theory said the school board elections were more important than in past years, and 79 percent actually voted for school board members.

Pringle views the poll results as a clear signal that voters rejected the idea that critical race theory was a reason why people would vote for more politically conservative candidates.

“It went to that place of, ‘that’s not what we want,’” she said. “We want our kids to learn about each other and to know each other so they can grow and learn and be in a cooperative space with each other.”

But some education advocates disagree.

Lindsey Burke, director of the center for education policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank, said the results show that “the values schools are disseminating to students matter greatly to parents, and that a perceived misalignment in those values continues to motivate many parents at the ballot box.”

"[Policymakers] should work at every turn to empower families with transparency around what is being taught in public schools,” Burke said in a statement.

The poll results are in line with what the NEA saw in its own campaign efforts during the midterms.

Seventy-one percent of the thousands of candidates endorsed by NEA and its affiliates, who are often liberal-leaning, won their elections. Conservative-leaning organizations, like the 1776 Project and Moms for Liberty, didn’t see the same levels of success, with only about a third of the school board candidates endorsed by the 1776 Project and half for Moms For Liberty winning their elections.

Voters expressed support for teachers and public education

Fifty-seven percent of respondents to the NEA poll said they support public schools in their community and 65 percent said they support local teachers. The results come at a time when education advocates have expressed concerns that politics are driving a wedge between educators and their communities.

The support for teachers is especially high among parents and Democrats. Seventy-one percent of parents said they view local teachers favorably and 84 percent of Democrats said the same. Sixty-one percent of independents and 48 percent of Republicans said they view teachers favorably.

At the same time, most of the respondents—62 percent—view themselves on the same side as teachers when it comes to making decisions about local schools and education policy. Eighty-five percent of those who voted for Democrats said they are on the same side as what most teachers want while 40 percent of those who voted Republican said the same.

“It showed us that parents and educators are united in wanting to see every student succeed,” Pringle said. “They understand it’s not only about their child, it’s about all children.”

The poll showed that politicians should listen to educators, parents, and education experts if they want to win over voters, Pringle said.

“If you listen to the people who are impacted by the policies and those who have dedicated their lives to educating America’s students, then you not only will develop good policy and a vision for what public education can and should be, but people will hear it and they’ll vote for you,” she said.

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