The Democrats are fighting back while the Republicans are pushing education to the suburbs
The Democrats are resisting public education, which has traditionally been a strong political issue for them. But they have to defend their takeover of the suburbs in order to have hope in next year’s midterm elections and possibly prevent a comeback victory for ex-President Donald Trump in 2024.
The question of what America’s children are being taught exploded this week in Virginia with Democratic allegations that Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin turned in a “racist dog whistle” after running a misleading ad alleging a mother’s concerns about a book, that was taught to her son in school. The parent turned out to be a conservative activist, and the book was Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, which portrays the horrors of slavery.
“What bothers me every day is that Glenn Youngkin is using education to divide Virginia. He wants to play parents against parents, parents against teachers-and-heads-races, complicated by Biden’s efforts to survive his comprehensive agenda and declining approval ratings.
Education is not just a political issue. There are few areas as important and emotionally as important to voters of all stripes as the well-being and future of their children. And senior Republicans believe the pandemic – and the frustration of many parents with school closings for much of the past year – means it can be heard by voters who may not always listen.
The emotional impact of schooling is evident in furious struggles for and against wearing masks and mandates across the country. School board meetings have been interrupted by angry Conservative parents who seem to see themselves as the vanguard of a new political movement. At a Senate Justice Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republicans are expected to challenge Attorney General Merrick Garland over a memo instructing the FBI to work with local and state law enforcement to respond to harassment and threats against school officials. Conservatives have accused him of treating parents like “domestic terrorists”. (There is no reference to domestic terrorism in the memo.)
Potential Republican presidential candidates like Govs. Greg Abbott from Texas and Ron DeSantis from Florida studied topics such as transgender children participating in school sports and the way the history of racism is talked about in classrooms to build credibility with pro-Trump To seek voters. And Republicans now believe they see evidence that parents of other political beliefs agree that schools are failing the grip of political correctness.
“Our children can’t wait,” Youngkin said at a recent rally in Burke, Virginia, after anchoring hopes of shock victory in a final argument centered on the culture war for education.
His controversial ad, published Monday, hits McAuliffe for vetoing a law in a previous tenure as governor that would have forced schools to warn parents about such material – but Youngkin may be true for some gone far.
Democratic State Virginia Senator L. Louise Lucas called Morrison a hero for African Americans – a major electoral bloc in Virginia.
“Youngkin has teamed up with people who want to stop teaching their books in our public schools. And people who want to ban books about slavery and racism,” Lucas said Tuesday on behalf of McAuliffe’s campaign.
Youngkins dance between Trump and moderates
Education feuds include broader struggles – over race and the identity of America itself – exacerbated by Trump’s demagogic rise. They draw from a feeling often found among Republican voters outside of liberal coastal cities that the country’s basic culture and history are being threatened by a new diverse population and rapidly changing social customs. This is brewing a “take our country back” mentality that Trump is constantly fueling.
The GOP has agreed on a message asking whether parents or bureaucrats and teachers, who are often viewed as disproportionately liberal, should decide what is taught in schools. The question that arises is whether America’s children should learn only topics and ideas that go well with their own parents’ policies and their view of America’s tortured racial history. Finally, at some level, education is meant to involve learning new facts and perspectives that challenge preconceived notions.
Republican strategists believe the home schooling, imposed on many parents during the pandemic, opened their eyes to the kind of material their children use to learn about race and history. They also believe the charged atmosphere surrounding school closings, masking and possibly vaccination regulations will be beneficial in many of the next year’s congressional elections.
“I think the pandemic exposed all of this, and then we saw the teacher unions control when schools open,” said Florida Senator Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the beginning of halftime. Teachers’ unions traditionally favor Democrats.
GOP leaders believe their message on the matter will reach their constituents and others well beyond Virginia, potentially even spurring a surge in conservative parents running for seats on the school board, which could bring Republicans to the top next year .
McAuliffe inadvertently reinforced the GOP message in a comment in a debate last month that he believed was taken out of context. “I don’t think parents should tell schools what they teach,” he said.
Youngkin, trying to dance between Trump’s extremism and more moderate voters who helped Biden win the state by 10 points just a year ago, pounced on the comment. He also accused the progressive movement of “introducing political activists disguised as school authorities into our school system”. And earlier this year he addressed parents’ fears over two alleged sexual assaults at two schools in Loudoun County – a county where Biden beat Trump by 25 points last year.
If Youngkin can use the issue to woo some independents and capitalize on Democratic apathy in the election, he could trim McAuliffe’s votes by the margin he needs to win a victory that would rock Biden’s White House.
So far, the focus on education seems to be helping Youngkin. A poll by Fox News last week found that when asked which candidate is most trusted, he looked into the matter. In an earlier poll in September, he was 4 points behind on this issue.
Youngkin on Tuesday welcomed the idea of writing a blueprint for Republican campaigns over the next year.
“We hear from parents who write me emails and text messages and call me and say, ‘You, too, stand up for our children,'” he told reporters. “It just goes to show that Virginians have a chance to do something in Virginia that will affect the whole country.”
Gender battles rock schools too
But Virginia is not the only front line in the battle of race and gender in schools.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this year more than 30 states passed laws prohibiting transgender student athletes from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity. Proponents of such bills point out that transgender girls are not biological girls and therefore have a physical advantage in women’s sports. However, trans proponents argue that such views are based on an inaccurate view of sexuality, gender, and biology, arguing that the right to participate in sport like any other child is a fundamental right and vital to mental health.
It wasn’t until Monday that Abbott signed a law in Texas restricting the right of trans kids to play on K-12 sports teams that match their gender identity. The bill requires student athletes to compete in teams that match the gender listed on their birth certificate. In June, Florida-based DeSantis signed a law banning transgender girls and women in public secondary schools and colleges from competing on girls’ and women’s sports teams. Transgender advocates are committed to challenging such laws in court.
Florida and Texas have also been at the forefront of efforts to ban the teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” which, according to critics, is more about using race as a political wedge rather than an honest debate about US history. And both governors have argued with school districts that wanted mask mandates.
CRT has become a predominant issue on conservative talk radio and television, where it is often misrepresented. The concept has been around for decades and seeks to understand and address systemic inequality and racism in the US. But conservative critics claim the CRT is a Marxist ideology and a threat to the American way of life. The extent to which CRT is used and taught is regularly exaggerated – especially since it is mostly an academic discussion that extends well beyond elementary school instruction – and this is especially true of conservative media, where there is an electrical connection directly to the Trump base.
While McAuliffe insists that CRT is not part of the Commonwealth of Education, Youngkin’s promise to ban it anyway is consistently the loudest applause in his speeches. That helps explain why Republicans think they have a fireproof introduction to a subject that could catch fire in the suburbs next year.