In the wake of the Nov. 2 election debacle, Democrats have a new homework assignment: to figure out how to combat the Republican strategy of fomenting new education wars and exploiting them for political advantage.
Following the elections, a lead story in the New York Times was headlined, “Republicans Pounce on Schools as a Wedge Issue to Unite the Party.” The Baltimore Sun editorialized that the dramatic victory of a Republican candidate for governor in Virginia was “a referendum on … the public’s broad unease” with public schools.
That’s not to say that the new education wars are all that new. Since the 19th century, school boards have battled over contentious issues, including how to teach history. The raging conflicts over critical race theory (CRT) and COVID protocols are just the latest examples. And as historian Gary Nash observes, such conflicts “are always connected to what’s going on in politics at the time.”
Unfortunately, at this perilous time for our nation, right-wing zealots have a big sack of education hot potatoes to pick from. CRT and COVID loom largest, but there are others, such as aid to religious schools, gender rights and gifted and talented programs. All can be oversimplified, mislabeled and politicized as “parent rights.”
Democrats don’t have much time to come up with a counterattack. The 2022 mid-term elections are approaching, and the Trumpites are already in full campaign mode.
What can Democrats do? First and foremost, we need to get our act together. There’s no easy way to fight back against unprincipled fearmongers, but even if there were, it would be hard to get Democrats — from progressives to moderates to Manchins — to agree on how to do it. Before the new education wars erupted, Democrats were at odds in many of the old wars over, for example, pedagogy, standards, testing, and charter schools.
Finding common ground is further complicated because the parental rights movement is so local. States, red or blue, have trouble corralling around 13,000 local school boards and varying parent grievances. Still, moderation — political compromise — can be both a winning and principled campaign strategy.
Let’s start with COVID health and safety. Science should govern disputes over school openings, masks and quarantines. But science doesn’t have all the answers as the pandemic evolves and conditions on the ground change. This means that teachers unions, Democratic strongholds, will continue to play a pivotal role for better or worse. Republicans demonize them unfairly. The unions have the tough job of balancing the best interests of students, parents and teachers. Nonetheless, they have been slow and clumsy in listening to parents, communicating their messages, and collaborating with school systems and health officials.
Still, COVID controversies pale beside the most lethal weapon that Republicans can wield: CRT. The subject is big, important and extraordinarily sensitive, and Democrats will have to reconcile their own conflicting impulses. CRT, particularly as framed in the lens of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, expresses the horror and lingering impacts of slavery and racial injustice. But the challenge of fitting its content into school curricula has become a fierce battleground for many if not most school boards nationwide.
Some conservatives, including the Republican governor-elect in Virginia, acknowledge that the history of racism has not been sufficiently presented. Most states, including some in the South, have revised their history standards to include more honest portrayals of slavery and civil rights struggles. Yet, other conservatives have sought, because of racism or for Republican political purposes, to weaponize CRT as a wedge issue.
Unfortunately, some Democrats have aided and abetted them with indiscriminate finger-pointing at whites and whiteness. Don’t get me wrong. I am a lifetime liberal activist. I know there is no moral or factual equivalence between the many right-wing opponents of CRT and its proponents who take extreme positions and employ divisive tactics. But the latter must, to put it simply, temper their zeal.
The outlook, however, is not all bleak. The spotlight on elections in Virginia and New Jersey obscured the news that anti-masking and anti-CRT candidates across the country lost numerous school board races, including recalls.
Better still, Democrats can crowd out the noise from the CRT and other cultural warriors if their homework includes a plan for common sense school reform that focuses on the classroom. The Maryland blueprint can serve as a model.
So Democrats, take heart and take action. Let’s get as unified as the Republicans and rescue our public schools from being hijacked by right-wing political opportunists.
Kalman R. Hettleman (email@example.com) is an education policy analyst and advocate. He is a former member of Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education reform and the Baltimore City school board.