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The strategy, which helped propel Republican Glenn Youngkin into the governor's office in Virginia, is playing out in the blue and purple states that Republicans hope to flip this election cycle.
Republican Tracy Cramer is running for the Oregon House of Representatives, ticked off the issues she's focused on this election season: inflation, homelessness and "the insane crime rate around the area."
But education policy is at the top of her list. "We have some things we really need to get involved in and look at,'' Cramer said on a recent podcast hosted by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which recruits, trains and supports Republicans running for state office. "Education is definitely a high priority for me, especially considering I have three young kids’’ and the district is home to “some of the worst-rated schools in the nation.”
Cramer isn’t alone. Republicans seeking seats in statehouses across the nation are attacking public education in a quest to win over suburban voters with promises to give parents more control over the public school curriculum. The strategy is being employed by GOP candidates in the blue and purple states that Republicans hope to flip this election cycle.
The playbook worked for Republican Glenn Youngkin, whose relentless critique of public education in the final days of last year's race for governor of Virginia helped propel him to a narrow victory. Youngkin tapped into the frustrations of parents who had grappled with pandemic-related school closings and the anger of conservatives who object to civil rights for transgender students and the teaching of racism in American history.
"Any success politically is going to be replicated elsewhere so it's entirely predictable that what worked in Virginia will be employed in other purple states around the county,'' said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “Polls show a lot of people are pretty happy with the job the schools do but … a narrative doesn’t have to be true for it to be effective in politics.”
The Republican Leadership State Leadership Committee this week launched a digital ad campaign aimed at boosting GOP candidates in four Democratically controlled states—Colorado, Maine, Oregon and Nevada—along with Minnesota, where the balance of power is split between the two parties.
The ads highlight the toll Covid-19-related school closures have had on learning outcomes and claim the Democrats’ agenda includes less parental involvement, less transparency and fewer graduation requirements. They also assert that Democrats are under the sway of teachers’ unions while Republicans offer more accountability, greater parental input and a “back-to-basics” curriculum that focuses on reading, writing and mathematics.
“Unnecessary lockdowns, catastrophic learning restrictions and a divisive curriculum: Parents across the country have learned the hard way in recent years the consequences of letting Democrats use public education to advance their political agenda,” said the group’s president, Dee Duncan. “While [Democratic] politicians think that they know what is best for students, state Republicans will always give parents a voice instead of vilifying them for wanting to have a say in their child’s education and future.”
Democrats say push for “parental rights” is part of a national Republican strategy to stoke conservative fears that public school children are being taught critical race theory, a college-level academic framework that experts say is not being taught in K-12 schools.
“They are trying to use these terms but let’s look at what their agenda actually is,’’ said Christina Polizzi, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to state office. “They would like to not teach accurate history in schools. They would like to put politics into the classrooms and … they are trying to make it a more hostile environment for LGBTQ youth. That is their actual agenda.”
Polizzi predicted the strategy that worked for Youngkin last year won’t be as successful this cycle.
“The political environment has changed since 2021,’’ she said. “What people are worried about right now is abortion rights. We know that in all of these states that Republicans are targeting, their candidates have been clear that they would try to ban or restrict abortion.”
But Farnsworth, the university professor, said the Republican emphasis on education might resonate with a core of conservative voters who could tip the balance in some low-profile legislative elections.
"The focus on parental rights in education is a great way to ramp up turnout among voters who might otherwise skip elections in nonpresidential [election] years,’’ he said. “Virginia schools didn’t teach critical race theory but it was a very useful way to prime the electoral pump taking advantage of the kinds of fears and anxieties that have been part of political discourse over the past several years.”
Daniela Altimari is a staff reporter for Route Fifty.