Schools are the new battleground in the culture wars. Could it define the midterms?

Robert Neubecker

Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race is seen as a proof of concept by the GOP that pushing for parental rights resonates with voters

Nicole Eidson has thought about running for the school board for a few months now. She’s fed up with what she sees as progressive politics seeping into schools, from race-related curriculums to sex education, from mask mandates to school closures. Now is the time to “get transparency back in the school district along with parental rights,” she says.

Last fall, Eidson, a 50-year-old mother of two, took the leap and decided to run for the Chandler Unified school board, which oversees Arizona’s second-largest school district. She has no political experience, but she’s since received the blessing and mentorship of local Republicans. And as the leader of a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a GOP-backed nonprofit that fields candidates in school board races, she’s striving to persuade more to follow her lead.

Eidson is one of a growing number of parents running in down-ballot races on a platform of “parental control,” from New Jersey to Virginia. “Education has always been important, particularly to suburban parents,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist. “But the pandemic has elevated their importance in our political life.”

Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race is seen as a proof of concept by the GOP that pushing for parental rights resonates with voters. His promise to “encourage critical thinking instead of critical race theory” appeared to play well with independents, as did his affable persona and bona fide corporate views.

Democrats, on the other hand, have struggled to appear attuned to the needs of parents and scrambled to mount a counterstrategy, giving Republicans plenty of hope that expected wins in the midterm elections next year could turn into a red wave.

Until recently, Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Penn State University and co-editor of “The Resegregation of Suburban Schools,” taught her students that education was largely a bipartisan issue.

In the 1990s, Republican and Democratic leaders emphasized the need for testing and accountability in schools. In 2002, George W. Bush shook hands with Ted Kennedy after signing the No Child Left Behind Act, which passed by an 87-10 vote in the Senate. Parents of all stripes agreed on once divisive issues like sex education: Ninety-six percent surveyed in 2014 agreed that discussing sexuality in high school classrooms was somewhat or very important.

But in recent years, conversations revolving around education have soured. School board meetings, mirroring insult-laden brawls on the national stage, have turned into screaming matches over curriculums addressing issues of race and diversity, and, more recently, critical race theory, a complex academic framework used to analyze institutional racism.

This isn’t a surprising development in an increasingly polarized society, says Frankenberg. Schools are “just part of the politicization of every major issue,” she says.

This evolution has taken place against the backdrop of the country’s changing demographics. In 2017-18, white students made up for slightly less than half of students in public schools in the suburbs of the country’s 25 largest metro areas, down from 60% in 2006-07, according to the EdWeek Research Center. This reflects in part a surge in the share of the Black and immigrant population living in the suburbs of metro areas. Newcomers tend to be more racially diverse but also less affluent: The number of suburban residents living below the poverty line grew by 57% between 2000 and 2015.

As a result, school districts have seen their resources strained, says Frankenberg, causing resistance among some white parents who conceive of public education as a private good and a zero-sum game.

“That just really raises the stakes of everything, including, you know, being worried about how your kid is being taught,” she says.

That’s not the only thing that’s changed in schools. When it came to education, school prayer, Bible reading, evolution and sex education used to be the main subjects of contention, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian of education at the University of Pennsylvania. But a decline in the number of Christians and the rise of homeschooling and Christian schools took the most devout believers out of the public school system and, with them, pressure off of school boards, he says.

Now, “history wars” have replaced “religion wars,” he says. “Our ideas of the (history of the) nation and politics have become quasi-religious commitments in their own right,” he says. “And that’s what we’re arguing about in the schools.”

Eidson’s beef with the public school system goes back to 2008. That year, she accepted a job at a semiconductor company and moved her family from Texas to Arizona. They picked Chandler, a park-studded city southeast of Phoenix, for its high-performing public schools.

But a few weeks after her daughter started fourth grade in a gifted program, Eidson was dismayed to find she didn’t have any homework other than having to memorize her address. Later, she was picked on by schoolmates and took to spending recess in the library. “What was going on at the public school?” Eidson wondered.

Her daughter now attends a charter school and her younger son is homeschooled, but Eidson says she’s worried about the area’s public schools all the same. Her concerns go beyond educational standards and discipline.

She’s become a fixture of school board meetings, lambasting diversity related curriculums, quarantine rules and sex education. She also targets critical race theory, which Chandler Unified School District says it doesn’t teach but which Eidson argues informs curriculums. When delivering her broadsides, she sometimes wears a black “Moms for Liberty” T-shirt.

Moms for Liberty, which was founded in Florida, is a grassroots movement but cultivates strong links to the Republican Party. Bridget Ziegler, one of the co-founders, is married to the vice chairman of the Florida GOP and has received plaudits from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Women wearing “Moms for Liberty” T-shirts stood alongside Randy Fine, a Florida congressman and Republican as he gave a press conference denouncing critical race theory last summer.

That an organization focused on hyper-local races would be backed by a national party might seem unusual, says Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College, but it’s not surprising.

“If you can find the cause, and if there’s money behind certain individuals or school board races, then it will be spent there,” she says. Moms for Liberty says it doesn’t receive funding from the Republican Party.

Eidson has received more overt support from the Republican Party. Republicans from District 17, which covers parts of Chandler, have encouraged her to run for school board. She’s also being chaperoned by an Arizona GOP official, she says.

The party’s efforts to galvanize parents such as Eidson have also followed more traditional paths. Josh Hawley, Missouri’s junior senator, has introduced a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” Act which would allow parents to sue schools that don’t respect “rights” such as knowing “what their minor child is being taught in school.” More than two dozen Republican-led legislatures have introduced laws restricting discussions about race in the classroom, and, as of this writing, eight states have passed bills to that effect.

The midterm election has historically seen the party holding the White House suffer losses, and experts don’t expect 2022 will be any different. But whether Democrats lose a few seats in the House or control of the Senate could depend largely on issues surrounding public education.

The GOP is hoping to replicate Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia, a state Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020. His pledge to improve standards in schools and kick critical race theory out of Virginia’s schools, even as multiple school districts denied ever having taught it, drew support from independent voters and helped him defeat his opponent, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

What makes this tactic especially formidable is that education has become a proxy for civil liberties, civil rights and race, but also for state rights and local government, says Davidson College’s Roberts.

“This whole thing about parental rights can get you a lot of constituencies,” she says. “A strong message on education is the route to getting support from suburban parents, especially college-educated women,” says Ayres, the Republican strategist.

To Democrats, the GOP’s messaging aims at firing up its base, not actually pushing for improvements to the public school system. They point out that critical race theory isn’t actually being taught in schools and that Republicans seem incapable of coming up with a definitive definition for what they mean by “critical race theory.”

“These are tactics designed to enrage and engage base voters around problems that don’t exist,” says Jim Margolis, a top adviser to Democratic Party leaders.

That said, Democrats have struggled to counter the GOP’s message, defaulting to criticizing their political adversaries for stoking fears.

“If they only do that, and don’t talk about what we need to do to actually improve the education of our kids, they will pay at the polls,” Margolis says. This may explain in part why Youngkin managed to sway independent voters like Dana Jackson.

Jackson, a resident of Fairfax County and mother of one, voted for Biden in 2020 but voted Republican this time. A private tutor, she struggled to balance her career and family life throughout the pandemic. Making her frustration worse, schools in the county remained closed long after students in Europe had returned to in-person learning.

Youngkin, she says, “just listened to parents and acted like he cared.” On the other hand, McAuliffe, the Democratic incumbent, came across as tone- deaf, stating during a debate against Youngkin that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Rebecca Katz, a veteran Democratic strategist, hopes that Democrats will learn from their defeat in Virginia and work to address the concerns of worried mothers and fathers.

“As Youngkin has been a model of what to do for other Republicans, the McAuliffe campaign should serve as a model for Democrats of what not to do,” she says. “There’s no reason why Democrats can’t campaign with empathy and talk to people.”

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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