Education, Central Axis of the US Political Battle*

Encouraged by their win in Virginia, Republicans plan to make “parental rights” the basis of the 2022 midterms

Pandemic-related restrictions, a politicized debate regarding teaching about racism and other culture wars have escalated conservative activism

“The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.” The phrase was uttered in May by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former adviser and far-right guru. Half a year later, especially after the election of Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia two weeks ago, the idea has become the mantra of the Republican Party, a party that has found in education the central axis through which to wage the battle for political power in the United States.

The day after Youngkin’s win, there were memoranda and promises by Republican leaders spreading among their ranks, addressing the need for a return to “the party of parents,” roll out a “parents’ bill of rights,” and to make education the basis for the plan to win the 2022 midterms and regain control of Congress in Washington.

The Pandemic and Culture Wars

In fact, when they talk about education, Republicans are tapping a vein of magma, with several elements combining and exploding. On the one hand, the frustration building up inside many parents while public schools were closed during the pandemic has become apparent, followed by the opposition of some to mask mandates. On the other hand — and this is something seen as an even more pivotal matter for which Democrats do not have a defined strategy — a new incendiary phase of culture wars has started.

Over the last year and a half — particularly after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, which unleashed a reassessment of what is taught about racism and racial history in the U.S. and the way they are taught — the debate around this has become fiercely politicized. Republicans have managed to merge everything they deem erroneous into critical race theory, a complex academic framework that provides tools to examine systemic racism, even though it is not formally taught in elementary or middle school.

Republicans have also succeeded in galvanizing the opposition of many parents to issues such as acknowledging transgender rights in schools and including initiatives on “equality, diversity and inclusion” or “social and emotional learning” in curricula. And they encapsulate everything into the opposition to ideas such as woke culture, cancel culture or political correctness, which they identify as “indoctrination” of minors by a “radical” and “Marxist” left.

The New Tea Party

Even though there are parents who are independent voters aligning with the protests, conservatives are doing most of the work. And that is where the Republican Party, think tanks, political action committees and conservative donors know that they have a terrific breeding ground. This is because elections and involvement in school boards are seen as a great training ground for activism, where women are often more invested and get mobilized about concerns beyond local ones.

Over the last year, more than 100 groups have emerged, with chapters throughout the country, such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education or Let Them Breathe (against face masks). These activist organizations for education have already been compared, by Bannon and political analysts, to those begun during the 1980s Moral Majority era or with the more recent tea party.

This movement has the microphone of the conservative media ecosystem and is gathering the support of conservative organizations such as The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research or the Center for Renewing America (founded by Trump’s former budget manager), which have created webinars and publications with toolkits for “concerned parents” or for “combating critical race theory in your community.”

Laws and Strategy

In 16 Republican-controlled states, legislation has either been approved or is being considered, and it ranges from banning teaching critical race theory to banning “indoctrination” on matters of race or teaching about “implicit race or gender stereotypes,” protecting the “fundamental rights of parents,” requiring that the “education policy and curriculum should accurately reflect the values” of families or threatening to leave schools without funding if they include certain concepts on race or racism in their lessons.

Democrats, as well as progressive experts in education, warn that what is fundamentally happening is an attack on public education designed to divert funds to private or religious schools. Many people also see something more than dog whistles aimed at stirring up racial tensions. And although, from the White House, one of Joe Biden’s spokespeople reported that Republicans are “cynically trying to use our kids as a political football,” there are Democratic strategists and activists who are warning that the party should prepare a response strategy that is different from the one they have been following so far, in which they have avoided an in-depth challenge to parents and Republicans’ accusations. “[T]his was a big mistake, and it will be in 2022, too,” warned Katie Paris — leader of a group seeking to mobilize women voters — in The New York Times.

*Editor’s Note: The original content of this article is available with a paid subscription.

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