The Democratic Party is increasingly being forced to play defense on education, a dangerous position heading into the 2024 election cycle as Republicans ramp up their rhetoric on the issue.
Democrats have long been vocal advocates of the public education system, defending school budgets and counting on reliable support from teachers’ unions.
But since the beginning of the pandemic, Republicans have sought to brand Democrats as the party that doesn’t care about parental involvement in education, using mask mandates and school closures as a wedge while also leaning into topics such how LGBTQ identity and Black history are taught.
Glenn Youngkin flipped the Virginia governor’s mansion from blue to red in 2021 with a campaign that made school choice and parental rights its signature issue. Since then, both declared and potential GOP White House hopefuls have regularly gone on the attack on the subject.
Giving the official Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union address this month, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that, under Democrats, “our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country.”
“Here in Arkansas and across America, Republicans are working to end the policy of trapping kids in failing schools and sentencing them to a lifetime of poverty,” Sanders said. “We will educate, not indoctrinate, our kids and put students on a path to success.”
Democrats say their platform on education is strong and still reaches voters, but they need to work on messaging to ensure Republican “misinformation” doesn’t define their platform.
“I think that’s the wedge where Republicans have done a better job. They created this narrative that parents no longer have any say in their children’s education, which is not true. But there hasn’t really been anything to counter that,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist.
“I think this is more about Democrats being firm about what they stand for and defending their positions. I think it’s about shouting down and correcting misinformation that the Republicans are putting out regarding our stances on education,” Mollineau added.
The overarching accusation Republicans have made against Democrats on education since the pandemic began is that they don’t respect parents’ rights.
The idea became so popular that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) introduced a parental bill of rights in the House when he was minority leader in 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has aggressively leaned into education issues ahead of a potential presidential bid, was able to pass a statewide parental rights in education bill, known by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay,” last year.
During the first House Education and Workforce Committee hearing this year, multiple Democrats sought to counter the narrative by directly addressing parental involvement in education.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) recently spoke about her own involvement in her children’s education and schools. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) spent most of her time during the hearing highlighting that there are no laws demanding — or anyone advocating for — parents not to be involved in their children’s education.
“I just hope that we put this argument that is not based on the actual facts taking place in our communities to rest,” Omar said.
But Republicans, sensing an advantage, are already trumpeting their education policies ahead of 2024.
Former President Trump, who in November became the first major declared White House candidate in either party, has already put out a video for his education platform almost a year out from the primaries.
In an indication of what could be a race to the right on schools, Trump is making the unusual move of calling for parents to even elect school principals.
“More than anyone else, parents know what their children need,” Trump said in a campaign video late last month. “If any principal is not getting the job done, the parents should be able to vote to fire them and select someone who will. This will be the ultimate form of local control.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who joined Trump in the GOP race last week, dinged DeSantis, saying the already highly controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill in fact doesn’t go far enough.
“I think Ron’s been a good governor. I just think that third grade’s too young,” Haley said after a New Hampshire event on Thursday. “We should not be talking to kids in elementary school about gender, period.”
“And if you are going to talk to kids about it, you need to get the parents’ permission to do that,” she continued. “That is something between a parent and a child. That is not something that schools need to be teaching.”
Glenn Youngkin was the first Republican to win the Virginia governorship in more than a decade. (AP Photo/Mike Caudill)
Should they also enter the race, DeSantis and Youngkin would no doubt put their education moves front-and-center, but some Democrats say their policies have not improved schools and could be easy to combat.
Liam Watson, the spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said there are no recent substantial advances Youngkin has made that he can tout.
“I would challenge anyone to point me towards even a single policy that Republicans have implemented that have actually improved learning outcomes in K-12 schools, where they have improved the experience of teachers and students in public schools. I would challenge anyone to come up with even a single solitary example of a time that’s happened,” Watson said.
“Democrats have shown for decades now that we are the party of parents and students and teachers,” he added. “When it comes time to fund schools, it is Democrats that are out front doing that work. When it comes time to ensure that teachers have what they need in their classrooms, to make sure that student learning outcomes are protected, it’s Democrats that are doing that work.”
At least some voters appear to agree. A poll released earlier this month by the National Parents Union reported that 46 percent of parents say they trust Democrats with primary education policy, compared to 38 percent who favored Republicans.
“The average American family is getting squeezed, we’re watching a mental health crisis unfold before our eyes, and significant barriers to a high-quality education, especially for underserved communities, remain in place. Parent voters have run out of patience for politicians that allow poisonous politics to interfere with delivering on their promise of solutions,” National Parents Union President Keri Rodrigues said of the survey.
The recent Republican energy toward education has particularly gained momentum at the local level, where they have increasingly made school board elections into partisan fights. Last year, DeSantis got directly involved and endorsed numerous school board candidates in his state.
“I’m proud to release my full slate of pro-parent, student-first school board candidate endorsements. Our school board members are on the frontlines of defending our students and standing up for parental rights,” DeSantis said in a statement when he announced his school board endorsements. “These 29 candidates are committed to advancing a bold education agenda in Florida. Parents can rest easy knowing that these candidates will fully support their right as parents to ensure their children reach their full potential in Florida’s K-12 education system.”
In order to push back against some of the Republican education gains, Democrats will also have to look toward local mobilization.
“That’s where the opportunities for Democrats are. That’s why Democrats need to seize on the opportunity and make sure that they are hyper-local. I don’t know that they need to address the issue through specific education and curriculum alternatives. They need to be able to effectively push back on what is being promoted at the local level,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist.
While some Democratic strategists acknowledge that pandemic frustration was a boost to Republicans in education, many believe culture war issues conservatives have clung to such as critical race theory (CRT) in the classrooms could be their downfall now.
DeSantis has become the prime example of the Republican culture wars in schools as his administration has banned CRT, as well as certain books and the teaching of LGBTQ issues for younger children.
Although these actions are highly popular among Republicans, it remains to be seen if they will be on a national level.
“What Democrats believe is parents should have a voice in the classroom and have a role in their children’s education, which we’ve always believed in, but it’s the idea that it’s going to be the likes of politicians who are going to decide what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable for children to learn. I think there will be a significant backlash to that with independent voters as we move forward into a Republican primary and the general election in 2024,” one Democratic strategist told The Hill.