Education has emerged as a major subject for candidates and prospective candidates ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
It remains to be seen what the accompanying rhetoric actually means for educators, but the focus on schools stands out. It isn’t common for education to figure so prominently in national campaigns.
Four Republicans so far have announced their intention to run: Former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
A handful of others, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, are expected to run but have not made formal announcements.
Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are the only Democrats who have indicated plans to run, but President Joe Biden is expected to run for re-election as well.
As the election ramps up, educators can expect to hear a lot about schools, particularly from the Republican side.
Pushes for expansive school choice policies will be commonplace, as well as calls for schools to limit how they address topics such as race, gender, and sexuality, following a number of state laws that do this. Republican candidates are also likely to be vocal proponents of “parents’ rights,” a term that’s come to represent the ability for parents to insert themselves into school curriculum decisions, examine learning materials, and withdraw their kids from lessons with content to which they object.
But it’s important to distinguish rhetoric from reality, said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“It’s still the case that education policy is more driven at the state and local level than at the national level, so there’s less expectation that presidential candidates are going to be strong and clear on that,” Henig said. “That said, there’s a difference between policy and rhetoric and there have been some indications that the Republicans may be more likely to play up education than they have in the past in presidential elections.”
Here’s some of what educators might hear as election season ramps up.
‘I will fight for parents’ rights’
Trump made this statement during the 2023 Conservative Political Action Committee conference in March.
“Can you believe that here we are and I’m saying I’m going to fight for parents’ rights?” Trump said during the speech. “Who would think that you have to ever say, ‘Parents’ rights?’ … But you do because they took the rights away, including universal school choice and the direct election of school principals by the parents.”
(Universal school choice and direct election of school principals have never legally been considered rights.)
He went on to propose that parents elect school principals and said parents should be able to fire principals who “aren’t getting the job done.”
It remains to be seen how Trump’s indictment in New York on 34 felony charges will affect his presidential run, but he’s not the only candidate or potential candidate to push for parents’ rights.
DeSantis has built his national reputation in part on his state’s Parental Rights in Education bill that the governor signed into law last year. Otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, it prohibits discussions of gender identity and sexuality in kindergarten through 3rd grade. He’s now backing legislation that would expand the prohibition to all grades.
The governor has also touted parents’ rights in signing a law last month that expands school choice programs in Florida and removes eligibility restrictions.
Parents’ rights emerged as a popular policy platform for Republican politicians after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin won his 2021 campaign on a parents’ rights platform.
At the district level, some school boards have passed policies under the parents’ rights label that have banned sexually explicit materials from instruction, allowed parents to opt their children out of instruction with themes they consider sexually explicit, and restated rights parents have long had to voice their opinions at school board meetings and examine district budgets.
A national Parents Bill of Rights that recently passed the GOP-controlled U.S. House states that parents have the right to know what their children are being taught, be heard by school leaders, and see school budgets and spending.
It remains to be seen how successful the parents’ rights platform will actually be, Henig said.
“The elections this past November really didn’t provide a lot of support for the notion that this was going to be a consistent winner for Republicans,” Henig said.
‘We have to have school choice all over this country’
Haley pushed for an expansion of school choice in a February speech in Urbandale, Iowa, in which she praised Gov. Kim Reynolds for the state’s new Education Savings Account program, which will ultimately allow any family in the state to use public money to attend a private school.
Trump, DeSantis, and Pence have all called for and supported expansions of school choice. Iowa is among a number of Republican-led states this year that have passed policies creating education savings accounts that allow parents to access public education funds and use them to cover private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, and other education-related costs.
The issue often falls under the umbrella of parents’ rights, said Elizabeth DeBray, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies the politics of federal education policy.
“The GOP sees this as an opportunity to really engage parents and get them to support their vision of a two-part agenda of, on the one hand, get more control of what’s taught and learned … and then also call for deregulation and the right to portability and vouchers on the other,” DeBray said.
But school choice is a policy that would be difficult to pass on a federal level, as it’s hard to win over rural and suburban voters who worry about less funding for local schools, Henig said.
The Republican “base really likes the language of markets and choice and the idea of vouchers when they’re thinking about the country, but when it comes to thinking about vouchers in their communities, it’s just proven to not be a winner issue for Republicans,” Henig said.
‘Wokeness is a virus’
Haley decried what many Republicans have labeled “woke left-wing ideology” during her speech at CPAC, pushing against efforts to support LGBTQ+ youth and teach about race, gender, and sexuality in the classroom.
“On Biden and Harris’ watch this woke self-loathing has swept our country,” she said. “It’s in the classroom, the boardroom, and the back rooms of government.”
The attacks on “wokeness” in schools range from claims that schools are “indoctrinating” students with critical race theory to claims that schools are forcing students to come out as gay, nonbinary, or transgender. House Republicans vowed to fight against “woke ideology” and “political indoctination” in a February hearing during which a Republican witness claimed schools were pushing young children to pursue gender-affirming care behind their parents’ backs.
The concept of pushing against “wokeness” or “indoctrination” has also played out in debates over whether transgender athletes can join sports teams that align with their gender identity. The Biden administration proposedaTitle IX rule changeThursday that would prohibit blanket bans on transgender youth playing sports but still allow schools to bar transgender athletes in certain circumstances.
DeSantis also signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act in 2021, which makes it illegal for schools and workplaces to teach that people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive based on their race or sex, or that a person’s moral character or status “as privileged or oppressed is determined by race, color, national origin or sex.”
“In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces,” DeSantis said in a statement after signing the bill. “There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”
Henig expects more of this rhetoric in the 2024 race, but suspects it will be broader in nature and not tied to specific policies so as not to alienate potential voters.
“Neither party has a strong incentive to be specific on education,” Henig said. “Both of them have good reasons to try to stick to kind of broad and fuzzy themes and rhetoric.”