Which Party Will Voters Trust on Education?
American attitudes on education-related issues are undergoing historic changes leading up to this year's midterm elections. Typically a tertiary issue for voters, education ranked sixth in a recent Pew Research Center poll on issues voters find "very important." A recent Harris Poll found education to be the fourth-most important issue for parents — behind perennial heavyweights such as the economy, taxation, and health care. At the same time, over 80% of parents said that education had become more important to them than in the past, and just as many said they would vote outside their own party for candidates whose education stances matched their own.
Voters' attention to education issues may be uncommonly high, but an even more momentous shift is suggested by the fact that the political party Americans trust most on education is now a toss-up. Over the past three decades, Hart Research has conducted two dozen polls and found that Americans favored Democrats over Republicans on education issues by a minimum of six points; on average, the Democratic advantage was just under 14 points. But in March 2022, when Rasmussen asked 1,000 likely voters, "[w]hich party do you trust more to deal with education issues, Democrats or Republicans?" 43% reported that they trusted Republicans, compared to just 36% who favored Democrats.
Other polls confirm this finding: A June 2022 poll by Democrats for Education Reform found that 47% of voters in battleground districts trusted Republicans on education while 44% trusted Democrats. Another poll of voters in battleground states by the American Federation of Teachers revealed that 39% of voters trusted Republicans on the issue, giving them a one-point lead over Democrats. It seems that just as education's salience with voters is rising, Democrats' advantage is dissolving.
We have already seen education take center stage as a policy issue in recent elections, most notably during the Virginia and New Jersey races for governor in 2021. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide race since 2009, largely by making education a focus of his campaign. New Jersey's election told a similar story: Republican Jack Ciattarelli, who ran in a state Joe Biden won by 16 points in 2020, put education front and center in his campaign and came within three points of capturing the governorship.
Why is public trust on education shifting away from Democrats and toward Republicans? Two phenomena in particular appear to have driven this change: the parties' polarized handling of school responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, and their active roles in culture-war issues rooted in schools.
Throughout the ordeal, Democrats' embrace of an overly cautious approach kept schools and students on a pandemic footing longer than much of the public was willing to sanction. Meanwhile, Republicans' insistence on reopening schools — especially when the rest of society was opening up and the dangers were becoming more manageable — convinced many that Republicans were the ones more attuned to kitchen-table issues.
At the same time, Republicans' aggressive stance on culture-war issues gave the party an added sheen of moral authority. Marketed as a crusade against critical race theory (CRT) in schools, the GOP successfully pushed back against ideological excesses that few Democrats were willing to check. With Republicans' pandemic response as a backdrop, their anti-CRT rhetoric persuaded many it would not have reached otherwise.
Understanding these two factors — the pandemic response and the culture war — and how they've interacted is key to understanding not only why voters' trust on education issues has shifted, but which party Americans will trust on education in the future.
THE COVID-19 RESPONSE
At the outset, the parties' response to the pandemic in schools was largely non-partisan. It was a Republican governor — Mike DeWine of Ohio — who first shut down schools statewide in 2020. School districts in both red and blue states remained closed for the rest of the academic year while scrambling to provide a half-decent remote-learning program on the fly. My own research suggests that blue states outperformed red states during that first pandemic spring, but the differences were not dramatic enough for the public to notice. By early summer, when it looked like the nation was bending the pandemic curve in the right direction, districts across the political spectrum were optimistically planning to reopen schools in the fall.
But as Covid-19 cases began to surge later that summer, Republicans staked out a bold position on school reopenings. Perhaps sensing a winning political issue, President Donald Trump tweeted on July 6, 2020, "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" He quickly doubled down, threatening to strip federal funding from any school that didn't reopen while asserting that school closure was "causing death." Republican leaders quickly fell into line. Florida governor Ron DeSantis compared the reopening of schools to a Navy SEAL operation, stating, "[j]ust as the SEALs surmounted obstacles to bring Osama bin Laden to justice," so, too, would school systems "find a way to provide parents with a meaningful choice of in-person instruction." In July 2020, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed, "[w]e can't have a normal country unless kids are in school."
In response, Democrats embraced a hyper-cautious attitude to which they would cling for many months. Their first article of faith was that schools should not reopen. While discussing the criteria to reopen school districts in the fall of 2020, New York governor Andrew Cuomo stressed that New York would not "use our children as guinea pigs." American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten advised parents to "scream bloody murder" if schools reopened without proper safety measures. These pronouncements were soon accompanied by striking visuals of D.C. Public Schools teachers lining up body bags outside school-system offices and New York City activists carrying coffins to protest reopening plans.
The dramatic political theater drew clear battle lines in the public consciousness: Republicans were the party of reopening schools; Democrats were the party of extreme risk avoidance.
The parties hewed to their sides throughout the 2020-2021 school year without regard to public-health conditions. Near the height of the Covid-19 threat in December 2020, before vaccines were widely available, fewer than one in five school districts in areas that voted for Trump in 2020 were fully remote, while about 45% of Biden districts were the same. By April, when vaccines were available and cases had fallen dramatically, only about a third of Biden districts had fully reopened, compared to more than 60% of Trump districts.
It would be one thing if Democrats' excessive caution were paired with an obvious, deep-seated concern for children's safety in the public consciousness. No doubt many Democratic leaders were concerned about protecting children's health in schools. Too often, however, Democrats and their teachers' union allies sounded less interested in how pandemic closures were affecting children and families than with how the closures could be used as a political bargaining chip for items unrelated to the pandemic.
Consider the Chicago Teachers Union, which conditioned reopening not only on social distancing and adequate personal-protective equipment, but Medicare for all, a new state tax on the rich, and financial support for undocumented students and families. Along these lines, the Boston and St. Paul teachers' unions joined the Democratic Socialists of America to demand concessions divorced from pandemic concerns — including a moratorium on charter schools, new taxes on the wealthy, and a halt to home foreclosures. School superintendents in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco publicly threatened to keep their schools closed if any school funding were cut, even if public-health officials deemed them safe to reopen.
Given Democrats' ham-handed public messaging, together with their steadfast insistence on keeping most schools closed, it's easy to see why Americans' trust on education began to shift toward the GOP. Republicans' school-reopening push seemed uniquely attuned to families' desire for relief from pandemic constraints — an impression that would increase as vaccines and other treatments became widespread over the course of the pandemic. Republican demands that schools offer in-person learning gave families a choice to either send their children back to class or keep them learning remotely. School closures, by contrast, left families without options or recourse.
By pushing for school reopenings, Republicans also addressed parents' concerns about their children's education. We now know that students suffered dramatic learning losses during the pandemic: A 2021 study by McKinsey found that students were an average of five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Learning loss was especially acute in schools that were primarily or entirely remote: A Harvard study estimated that students who stayed home for most of the 2020-2021 school year lost a staggering 50% of a typical year's learning in math by year's end, compared with 20% for mostly in-person students.
Yet another advantage for Republicans was that parents' pandemic scramble for additional education options dovetailed with Republicans' long-established emphasis on school choice. The familiar Republican refrain that parents need options when public schools don't meet their needs took on a new resonance when so many families were desperately hunting for alternatives.
Parents showed their desire for choice by voting with their feet. During the pandemic, public-school enrollments dropped by over 1.2 million students nationwide. Following the initial spring 2020 closures, enrollment declines were similar in Trump and Biden voting districts — 2.6% versus 3%, respectively. After a year of politically divided school reopenings, however, Trump districts' enrollment rebounded for a net decline of 2%, while Biden districts' enrollment fell to a net loss of 3.8%.
Compounding Republicans' advantage on reopening schools was the fact that, for all the Democrats' pontificating about the dangers of reopening, it turned out that schools were actually fairly safe for children. A North Carolina study found that school-related Covid-19 transmissions were less than one-tenth of what would be expected given community transmission rates. As Duke University pediatrician Daniel Benjamin put it, "it's safer for [students] to be in school than to be outside of school."
Nor were schools especially dangerous for teachers: A March 2021 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in-person teaching carried the same risk of fatality as driving 16 miles alone in an automobile. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague John Bailey remarked, in-person teaching is "not zero risk, but it is an incredibly low-level risk that we accept every day in all sorts of other activities. In fact, it was a level of risk that many teachers took while driving to school-reopening protests."
Of course, none of this is to say that Republicans displayed uniformly wise pandemic governance. But between the two parties, Republicans put more emphasis on reopening schools, did more to make that happen, and suffered fewer unforced public-relations errors in the process — and voters took notice. Democrats implicitly validated Republicans' long push for school reopening in the 2021-2022 school year when, despite Covid-19 case rates being double what they were a year earlier, nearly every school district, blue and red alike, would open for full-time in-person instruction.
School closures in 2020-2021 had high salience in terms of public trust. But if they ended more than a year ago, why would the shift in public trust still be registering in public-opinion polls?
The reason is that political fights over schools didn't end when schools reopened. As cases rose in late summer 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention retightened masking recommendations for schools, calling for 100% masking with no standard for when masks could come off. Former president Trump blasted the mandates, and soon enough, school masking became the next arena for political virtue signaling.
That school year, each political party staked out clear turf: Eleven states — almost all with Republican governors — banned school districts from setting mask mandates, while 18 overwhelmingly blue states required masks statewide.
The results? In September 2021, nearly 78% of students in Biden districts were under mask mandates, compared with just 44% of students in Trump districts. Much as had occurred during the school reopening debate, each party stubbornly clung to its position on masking regardless of the conditions on the ground. Through January 2022 — while Covid-19 cases dropped by half and then rose by a factor of 10 — fewer than one in six students saw their district's masking requirements change.
The debate over masks in schools served only to strengthen and extend the shift in public trust on education toward Republicans. It wasn't that blue districts' insistence on masking was especially onerous by itself; rather, mandatory masking was symptomatic of a deeper issue. Well after vaccines were widely available, social distancing was well practiced, and mitigation strategies were becoming widespread, many schools were still far from operating normally. Los Angeles Unified School District was a prime example: In late February 2022, as remaining mask mandates started to decline dramatically, the nation's second-largest school district lifted its outdoor masking requirement for students at recess — long after we knew the odds of outdoor transmission among children were incredibly low.
These partisan pandemic patterns would have shifted public trust even if Republican governance on pandemic schooling was imperfect — and it undoubtedly was. Several Republican governors banned school districts from issuing mask requirements, which hampered local leaders' ability to respond to changing local conditions. In several red states, governors and state officials not only refused to consider districts' desired exceptions to the bans as case rates surged, but targeted districts that dared institute them with penalties. Yet despite these missteps, Republicans offered a return to normalcy over the course of the pandemic that many voters craved after two years of disruption.
Perhaps this explains much of Glenn Youngkin's appeal in Virginia. In an op-ed published just before the election, Youngkin lamented that "Virginia's excessive and extended school closures [had] ravaged student advancement and well-being." Meanwhile, in deep-blue New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli came within three points of capturing the governorship. Like Youngkin, Ciattarelli was highly critical of school closures and mask mandates.
When Ciattarelli and Youngkin talked about education policy, pandemic response wasn't the only issue on their minds. The other major plank in their education platforms involved schools as a battlefield in the culture war — and in particular, the pernicious influence of CRT.
CULTURE WARS IN SCHOOLS
In September 2020, Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute went on Fox News to talk about what had once been an obscure legal theory. "It's absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every aspect of the federal government," he remarked. Turning to address the man he suspected was watching, he declared, "I call on the president to immediately issue [an] executive order — to stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology."
Sure enough, Trump was watching. Shortly after the segment aired, he summoned Rufo to Washington, D.C., to help craft an executive order setting restrictions on how federal contractors could discuss race during diversity trainings.
That executive order wasn't the end of the firestorm so much as the beginning. Rufo's primary examples of CRT run amok came from schools, and soon right-wing activists nationwide were talking about a conspiracy to indoctrinate children. Fox News's Tucker Carlson mentioned CRT at least 130 times between May 2020 and November 2021, at one point thundering that schools were "teaching that some races are morally superior" and some are "inherently sinful."
Prominent Republican politicians sensed a winning issue. In Virginia, Youngkin made CRT a lynchpin of his campaign. In New Jersey, Ciattarelli frequently referenced the dangers of CRT. Presidential hopefuls like Ron DeSantis got in on the action, too.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, shining the spotlight on CRT in schools coaxed parents into the fray. School-board meetings, which were typically sleepy affairs, turned into barn burners. Parents across the country — from Loudoun County, Virginia; to Fort Worth, Texas; to Douglas County, Nevada — turned out in droves to protest what their children were allegedly being taught about race in schools. In several cases, police were called in to remove unruly participants.
To some extent, the outrage was understandable. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explained in their landmark book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, "critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law." In other words, the core tenets of CRT invite skepticism of the values underlying the American experiment.
But it wasn't just CRT's ideological underpinnings that were alarming: Activists and politicians repeatedly highlighted troubling examples of how CRT-influenced practices were being applied in schools. Teachers in Loudoun County were told that "fostering independence and individual achievement" were hallmarks of "white individualism." Buffalo Public Schools teachers were told to teach students that "all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism." A training session for Seattle Public Schools teachers asserted that the education system was guilty of committing "spirit murder" against black students, and that to atone for their collective sins, white teachers must be willing to reject their "whiteness" and become dedicated "anti-racist educator[s]."
It's easy to see why such examples not only represented red meat for the Republican base, but offended the sensibilities of most American parents as well. At best, they demonstrated clumsy attempts to discuss profoundly sensitive issues and bring about racial healing; at worst, they poisoned the well for reasoned civil discourse by insisting that all white people who aren't on board with the "woke" nostrums of the day are themselves racist.
Instead of denouncing these extremist approaches, prominent Democrats and their allies tried to redefine the terms of the debate. "[C]ritical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools," Randi Weingarten assured attendees at an American Federation of Teachers conference. "It's a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists — and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy." When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the issue, she countenanced it with a sematic change up, saying, "I don't think we...believe that educating the youth and future leaders of the country on systemic racism is indoctrination. That's actually responsible."
For many parents who heard about equity initiatives in their school districts or saw questionable teachings on race crop up in the remote classes piped into their homes, the CRT label seemed apt, while Democrats' careful word games rang hollow. Amanda Litman, founder of Run for Something, a Democratic organization that helps elect school-board members, acknowledged the treacherous path national figures were trying to walk. "We're trying to argue, 'No, you're mis-defining critical race theory,'" she observed, "and that's not the point. The point is that people are scared about what their kids are learning."
In less turbulent times, the furor over CRT in schools may have been less salient to the general public. But during the pandemic, Democrats' tone-deaf responses to CRT concerns played into existing preconceptions among many Americans that the party was prioritizing ideology over responding to voters' concerns. Because they fit the party's broader profile, complaints that might have seemed dubious a decade ago gained credibility.
At the same time, it's hard to deny that the framing and attention Rufo and other right-leaning pundits brought to the CRT debate shaped the public consciousness. Their expansive definition of CRT created an enormous empty vessel, and the leftward tilt of education policy provided a stream of examples to fill it. Rufo, the controversy's principal architect, freely admitted that this outcome was part of the strategy, noting:
We have successfully frozen their brand — "critical race theory" — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think "critical race theory."
As Democrats proved unable — or unwilling — to police the excesses of their progressive flank, their defensive attempts to redefine CRT proved a losing strategy with many voters.
Discussions of CRT likely shifted trust in education toward Republicans to some degree, yet as concerning as some of the more egregious examples of CRT were, they constituted little evidence of a nationwide conspiracy to indoctrinate children. After the national upheaval on race following George Floyd's murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, it was hardly surprising that right-wing activists managed to unearth questionable attempts to handle race across America's 14,000 school districts. What was more surprising was that they found so few.
Consider what happened after numerous states attempted to ban CRT in schools. In the wake of public outcry over CRT in 2020 and 2021, lawmakers in 17 states passed laws or approved other measures that would restrict the teaching of either CRT itself or other "divisive concepts" that fell under the same umbrella. A year later, we can see what those bans uncovered.
In Tennessee, there was only one complaint filed with the state education office for allegedly violating the CRT ban, and it was dismissed by the Republican-appointed education commissioner. In Oklahoma, three complaints reached the state department of education; two of them were dismissed, and one was held over for further review. While the bans may be too recent to surface many complaints, the meager showing so far speaks volumes.
More intensive state-led investigations haven't turned up much, either. Governor DeSantis's textbook review in Florida is a prime example. In April 2022, DeSantis announced that his education department was rejecting 41% of textbooks submitted for review on the grounds that they contained too much social-justice ideology, including CRT.
The catch? The rejected textbooks discussed race, but at a clear distance from anything that might be labeled CRT. One rejected algebra textbook highlighted on the Florida Department of Education website contained a bar graph showing "the differences among age groups on the Implicit Association Test that measures levels of racial prejudice." A rejected high-school statistics book discussed "racial profiling in policing," "discrimination in magnet school admission," and an implication there were "too many" white NYPD officers relative to the racial makeup of the New York population. One can debate the merits of analyzing implicit bias or racial profiling in high-school math texts, but these examples fall far short of CRT indoctrination.
Perhaps because of the paucity of concrete CRT content in schools, advocates have taken aim at targets preposterous enough to demonstrate that their own excesses can rival those of CRT adherents. In June 2021, the education advocacy group Moms for Liberty filed a complaint regarding the second-grade curriculum being taught in Williamson County, Tennessee, which included multiple books about Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old black student who was among the first to integrate an all-white school in 1960. The complaint lamented that students would have to "repeatedly focus on" the "racist images" of a white mob opposing Bridges. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Frederick Hess wrote at the time, it's "[h]ard to occupy the moral high ground while countenancing complaints like this."
With increasingly scarce evidence of CRT in schools, activists seem to be moving on to other culture-war fights to maintain the moral high ground. As of this writing, Tucker Carlson has mentioned CRT only 26 times in 2022; he recently released a new documentary not on race, but on masculinity. Rufo has likewise moved on from CRT, announcing instead a 10-part investigative series on "radical gender theory" in American schools. Grassroots advocacy groups also seem to be pivoting from CRT: In 2021, Parents Defending Education reported that nearly all the complaints they received about schools involved race; more recently, they report that most complaints deal with gender theory.
It's easy to see why activists and pundits are moving on from CRT: Any cultural outrage requires fuel — a continual drip of new information — to keep it going. With CRT, aside from the initial burst of stories, there was never much fuel to keep the narrative going. The issue is now too watered down to nurture trust among voters outside the party base.
TRUST IN THE PAST AND IN THE FUTURE
The manner in which Republicans and Democrats responded to the pandemic and the recent culture-war clashes over CRT shifted the public's trust on education. While the two issues were connected, their influence on voters was not equal.
The parties' pandemic responses were foundational to the shift. Democrats appear to have over-emphasized caution and political interests at the expense of students and parents, and as schooling everywhere returns to normal, those missteps seem even more obviously flawed. By contrast, Republicans' consistent push to reopen schools and return to normalcy not only better served the needs of families and children during the pandemic, it demonstrated their early pursuit of policies that Democrats now are belatedly embracing.
Atop this foundation, Republicans' opposition to CRT resonated more with a pandemic-fatigued public than it otherwise might have. With public trust already shaken by the push for school closures and masking, Democrats allowed Republicans to capitalize on egregious, if non-representative, examples of CRT in schools. The grounds for the CRT furor may have been questionable, but public trust undoubtedly shifted toward Republicans in part because their anti-CRT crusades rooted Democrats' otherwise remote "wokeness" problem much closer to home.
With the 2022 midterms fast approaching, many Republican candidates are looking to replicate Glenn Youngkin's success in 2021. But for Youngkin, the partisan fights over CRT and school reopenings played into his hands at the right moment. The challenge Republicans face going forward is that the tide is receding on the factors that contributed to his win, which may well have represented the strategy's high-water mark.
As the pandemic winds down, the differences that so clearly distinguished the parties' approaches to schools are fading with it. Opposition to CRT in schools is the primary strategy remaining, but Republicans face two problems in leveraging it today.
The first, as noted above, is that there just isn't enough CRT being taught in schools to fuel perpetual anti-CRT furor. Coverage of CRT has already started waning, and efforts to revive the outrage seem increasingly tired.
The second problem is that CRT would not have generated the traction it did without the parties' contrasting pandemic responses as the backdrop. Absent the outcry over school closures and masking, there is little reason to believe that opposition to CRT — or its close cousin, radical gender theory — will bear fruit in the future.
As the nation steps back to its pre-pandemic posture, Democrats may well have the advantage in regaining trust on education. By downplaying their pandemic response and attributing the costs that students bore to a de-personified virus, the party's dog-eared playbook of support for schools — in terms of spending more on education and championing teachers' unions — may be enough to regain voters' trust. After all, that playbook worked for decades; it could very well do so again.
Yet despite this depressing outlook for Republicans, real potential remains for the party to build lasting trust among voters. The GOP now has a roughly even share of the public's trust on education, as well as pandemic tailwinds at its back. If the party can resist the temptation to chase controversy-fueled attacks on the left, it may be able to build on that success.
By delivering on families' most basic concerns during the pandemic firestorm, Republicans made remarkable headway on education. A positive, future-oriented message that emphasizes how American schools can help students make up for pandemic losses, that encourages teachers to teach students a critical but fundamentally optimistic view of their culture and country, and that insists that excellence still pays off in the land of opportunity could serve as a lasting foundation for maintaining the public's trust.