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Schools become flashpoint for Republicans eyeing White House

The focus on issues related to racism, sexuality and education is a way for presidential hopefuls to distinguish themselves in a crowded field

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference on Jan. 26, 2023, in Miami.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference on Jan. 26, 2023, in Miami.Marta Lavandier (AP)

Former president Donald Trump has called for parents to elect and fire school principals. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. And Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador who is expected to announce her White House candidacy this coming week, is among the Republicans taking aim at critical race theory.

In the opening stages of the 2024 GOP presidential race, the “parents’ rights” movement and lessons for schoolchildren are emerging as flashpoints.

The focus on issues related to racism, sexuality and education is a way for potential White House hopefuls to distinguish themselves in a crowded field, suggesting new and deeper ways for government to shape what happens in local classrooms.

But the effort has prompted criticism from LGBTQ advocacy groups, teachers’ unions, some parents and student activists and those worried about efforts to avoid lessons about systemic racism. Democrats have cast the efforts as race-baiting and improperly injecting politics into schools.

“What we’re seeing now, at least in this period, is much more focus on so-called ‘culture war’ issues,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College.

Nowhere is the drive more visible than in Florida, where DeSantis has made an aggressive push against what he calls “woke” policies.

He gained national attention last year for signing the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill into law, barring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for young elementary schoolers, as well as material deemed not age-appropriate, which critics have argued is vague and could stifle classroom discussions. He also signed the “Stop WOKE” act in 2022, a law that restricted teaching that members of one race are inherently racist or should feel guilt about past actions by other people of the same race, among other things.

DeSantis has also extended his political influence to local school board races, endorsing candidates last year in what had been nonpartisan contests and flipping at least three boards from a liberal majority to a conservative majority.

More recently, he blocked high schools from teaching a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies, contending it was a violation of a state law and historically inaccurate. Beyond K-12 schools, he appointed six conservative trustees to the board of a small liberal arts college and he has announced plans to restrict state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory.

Critical race theory, a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism, has been a top target. The theory, which DeSantis has called “pernicious,” was developed by scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, which function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

As DeSantis emerges as the most formidable potential challenger to Trump, who has staked out his own positions on the same issues and recently released a nearly 5-minute video outlining what his campaign called a “Plan to Save American Education and Give Power Back to Parents.”

Declaring that “public schools have been taken over by the radical left maniacs,” and warning about “pink-haired communists teaching our kids,” Trump pledged, if elected president again, that he would cut federal money for any school or program promoting “critical race theory, gender ideology or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content on to our children.”

Trump said he planned to create a national credentialing organization that would certify teachers “who embrace patriotic values, support our way of life and understand that their job is not to indoctrinate children” and would set up favorable treatment for states and school districts that adopt reforms such as allowing parents to directly elect school principals.

“If any principal is not getting the job done, the parents should have the right and be able to vote or to fire them and to select someone else that will do the job properly,” Trump said at a campaign appearance in South Carolina.

Former vice president Mike Pence, who is considering a presidential campaign, is using a group he formed to rally conservatives against transgender-affirming policies in schools. The group’s plans to run ads, hold rallies and canvass in early voting state Iowa comes as a federal appeals court is set to consider a case involving an Iowa school district’s policy to support transgender students.

In the US, public education is run by states and largely paid for by state and local taxpayers. The federal government does not, for instance, certify teachers or regulate how schools hire staff. And Washington also doesn’t control curriculum standards like those DeSantis has backed in Florida. But Congress or the Department of Education can incentivize certain education practices by tying them to federal money.

So it’s not unheard of for presidential candidates to talk about education.

George H.W. Bush declared he wanted to be known as the “education president” and started a push for national standards and goals. His son, George W. Bush, centered his message in the 2000 campaign in part on education reform and during the first year of his administration, signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which ignited a national debate over the proper use of standardized testing in schools.

The more recent divisive shift to social issues in schools is an outgrowth of Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid in 2021 to become the first Republican in more than a decade to be elected as Virginia’s governor. Youngkin, himself a potential presidential candidate in 2024, campaigned on parental rights. He appealed to parents frustrated over school closures during the pandemic and said he would ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.

Once in office, his administration began the process of rewriting the state’s model policies for the treatment of transgender students, issuing guidance for school divisions that would roll back some accommodations and tighten parental notification requirements.

Kristin Davison, a strategist for Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign, said Youngkin focused on education after the pandemic thrust parents into the classroom, leading to frustrations with remote learning to the curriculum itself.

“Voters want their leaders to understand the issues that they’re talking about at their kitchen table,” she said. “Right now, families are sitting at their kitchen table looking at report cards, looking at homework assignments, frustrated at curriculum.”

The debate over education still carried weight during last year’s elections, potentially giving Republican presidential candidates a reason to stay focused on the issue. Half of voters in 2022 said their local K-8 schools were teaching too much about gender identity issues, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate. Only about one-quarter said schools teach too little on the subject.

About 4 in 10 voters said too little is taught on racism in the US, while about one-third said schools were teaching too much on related issues. Roughly one-quarter of voters said the focus on each is “about right.”

There was broad agreement among Republicans – about eight in 10 of whom said gender identity is taught too much in schools. A smaller majority, 56%, said that about racism.

Among Democrats, about two-thirds said there’s too little taught about racism. But there was less consensus around teaching gender identity. About 4 in 10 said too little is taught, about 2 in 10 said too much is taught and about 4 in 10 said schools handle it about right.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist who worked on President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, said the GOP messages about protecting children seem to be aimed at trying to win over suburban women, who have drifted away from Trump and the GOP, particularly after the Supreme Court ended constitutional protections for abortion last year.

“I think it’s getting extra energy because of its appeal or its presumed appeal to women voters,” she said.

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