The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Education, traditionally a strength, has Democrats on their heels

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announced plans this month to lift the statewide mask requirement in schools, calling the move “a huge step back to normalcy for our kids.” (Seth Wenig/AP)

Minutes after Democrat Stacey Abrams announced her candidacy for Georgia governor, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp made clear he would put education at the center of his campaign to keep his job.

“With Stacey Abrams in control, Georgia would have shut down, students would have been barred from their classrooms, and woke politics would be the law of the land and the lesson plan in our schools,” Kemp, a Republican, said on Twitter.

Education has long been a strength for Democrats, an issue they dominated even when Republicans had the edge on other matters. But this year, Democrats are being tested like never before as the party confronts a multipronged attack from Republicans in a challenging election year. They disagree about the best response.

The debate will unfold in campaigns up and down the ballot, but it will be particularly relevant in the gubernatorial contests, because governors have a significant say in education policy. Thirty-six states have gubernatorial contests this year, with Democratic incumbents in Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin and Kansas facing tough reelection races.

“If the election was held today, it [education] would be a big issue for us and probably net out against us,” said Scott Kozar, a Democratic strategist who works on gubernatorial and other races.

Republicans across the country are pushing proposals for “parental control” and trying to ban certain lessons about race and gender in classrooms. They also are working to associate Democrats with lockdowns, school closings and mask mandates at a time when voters are aching for life to return to normal.

Democratic governors have responded by dropping mask mandates, urging that schools remain open and emphasizing there is a light at the end of the dark covid tunnel. They also are trying to change the subject, with a focus on education investment and recovery and warnings about the consequences if Republicans are elected.

But some Democrats worry that the responses, to date, are insufficient given the hardball politics the GOP is playing on these emotional issues.

“Democrats are giving away one of their greatest assets, and that’s being associated with public education. And giving away that advantage is going to get Democrats’ clocks cleaned this fall,” said Joe DiSano, a Michigan-based Democratic consultant. “We are letting the conservative crazies run ragged on us. We have the ammo to fight back, and we don’t.”

Republicans were buoyed by their unexpected victory in November’s Virginia gubernatorial contest, where Republican Glenn Youngkin won after a campaign defined by education issues. Youngkin criticized pandemic-related school closures and a statewide mask mandate in schools, issues that analysts who studied the race found particularly effective. He also promised to ban teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism and a catchall term that many GOP politicians have embraced to describe various racial equity lessons and initiatives they find objectionable.

Perhaps most importantly, Youngkin effectively seized on a gaffe by his opponent, who said parents should not tell schools what to teach.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll after that election found overwhelming support for parents having a say in what their children’s schools teach. It also found 44 percent of Americans say they trust Democrats more to handle education, barely topping the 41 percent choosing Republicans. That represented a significant weakening in Democrats’ historic advantage.

The Post-ABC poll hadn’t surveyed on that question since the mid-2000s, but at the time Democrats had a 23-point advantage. The last time Republicans were competitive with Democrats on education was early in the first term of President George W. Bush, who signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002.

While Democrats have debated various parts of education policy, their push for public school funding and backing of teachers unions have been central features of the party for decades, giving them an advantage and helping preserve the key demographics of educated voters and those in swing suburban congressional districts.

Last week brought further proof of anger around education when voters in San Francisco ousted three school board members in a recall election. That wasn’t a partisan dispute, as the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, but the issues were similar: Voters were angry about extended school closures. Asian-American voters, in particular, rebelled against the school board’s decision to jettison merit-based admissions to an elite magnet school, changes made in an effort to advance racial equity.

“It was really about the frustration of the Board of Education doing their fundamental job. And that is to make sure that our children are getting educated, that they get back into the classroom. And that did not occur,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Nationally, inspired by Virginia, Republicans are gearing up campaigns based loosely on the idea of “parents’ rights” and “parental control,” which often includes a promise to let parents examine curriculum or find out what books are in the library. In December, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed a parents’ rights bill that would have given parents online access to class materials, saying it was unnecessary and “overly burdensome.”

“This is an issue that has legs, this is an issue that’s going to continue. I don’t think it’s over yet,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican strategist who has worked on education issues.

By huge numbers, he said, voters believe children have fallen behind in school, and yet schools are sometimes focused on questions of race and social justice. “The misplaced priority stuff is frustrating to a lot of parents.”

So far, the focus of the attacks, strategists in both parties say, centers on the pandemic and parental frustration that it took too long to reopen schools — and keep them open.

Districts across the country have been operating in person this entire academic year, almost everywhere. But it hasn’t been a normal year. Exposures to covid have forced class and student quarantines. In January, the omicron surge prompted short-term closures in thousands of schools. To some parents, it has felt like school might be canceled on any given day.

Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

And the scars from last school year linger. Defenders say those school closures were needed to protect students and teachers, but as the two-year anniversary of the national school shutdown approaches, many exhausted, frustrated parents struggle to conjure the urgency of those early days.

“Everybody has had it with this thing. You don’t need a poll or focus group to tell you that. They’re fed up, they’re fatigued — and that includes yours truly,” said Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.), who recently won a close reelection campaign and is the vice chairman of the National Governors Association. “But, and this is the complicated part: You can’t make your decisions on covid based on fatigue. You have to make it on science and data.”

“There’s a real sense that what we did did not work for many kids, most kids,” said Brian Stryker, a Democratic consultant. Democrats, he said, “are paying a price for last year.” In a memo for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, he wrote that in Virginia, voters “felt Democrats closed their schools and didn’t feel bad about it.”

Stryker and others say it’s urgent for Democrats to demonstrate their understanding that even if their decisions were justified or motivated by health concerns, they caused pain and inflicted damage.

An NBC News poll last month found 65 percent of people saying they are more concerned about children falling behind in their education than with the spreading of the coronavirus, which was more worrying to 30 percent of respondents. Similar results came in a recent Pew Research Center survey.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered schools closed when the pandemic hit and imposed some of the toughest public health measures in the nation. She faced harsh backlash, and even a foiled kidnapping attempt. After that, she pivoted, sending decision-making on masks and school policies to local officials. Last week, her administration dropped a recommendation that schools and other indoor settings require masks.

Now Whitmer is emphasizing her success in increasing education spending and plans to increase it further, and to empathize with parents.

“I know how anxious and tired parents are feeling right now. As a mom, I get it,” she said in her 2022 State of the State address. She added: “I want to be crystal clear: Students belong in school. We know it’s where they learn best.”

Education is also likely to be a defining issue in Wisconsin, a state President Biden narrowly won in 2020 and where Gov. Tony Evers (D) is running for reelection. Evers spent his career as a teacher, principal and superintendent before defeating Republican incumbent Scott Walker in the 2018 gubernatorial contest. He ran on his education background and put education policy at the core of his campaign against Walker, who had cut funding for public schools and frequently clashed with teachers unions. He narrowly won.

This year, the Republican legislature passed legislation to bar public schools from teaching students about systemic racism and implicit bias. It says students shouldn’t learn that people bear responsibility for past actions of others of their race or sex. Evers vetoed it.

“I object to creating new censorship rules that restrict schools and educators from teaching honest, complete facts about important historical topics like the Civil War and civil rights,” Evers wrote in his veto message.

As he runs for reelection, two of his potential Republican opponents are emphasizing education policies. Rebecca Kleefisch, who was the lieutenant governor under Walker, endorses school board recall efforts, while Kevin Nicholson, a businessman, has made education a central issue of his campaign.

Key for Evers will be reminding voters what they don’t like about Republicans when it comes to education, said Ben Nuckels, a media consultant who is working for Evers’s campaign. Aides also tout spending increases for schools and new programs to recruit and train teachers.

“Voters remember how awful Republican policies were,” Nuckels said, noting funding cuts and saying the quality of schools fell during the Walker administration. “It will be important for Democrats to play offense and not give an inch.”

In Georgia, Abrams spokesman Seth Bringman responded to Kemp’s tweet about her “woke politics” by attacking the governor’s education record. “Brian Kemp has failed to fully fund education, his Senate floor leaders are pushing massive cuts for schools that don’t teach what they want and Kemp is championing criminal carry legislation making it easier for criminals to carry a gun into a school,” he said in an email.

In Nevada, one of the Republican candidates for governor, Las Vegas councilwoman Michele Fiore, announced her campaign with a video in which she shoots at a beer bottle labeled “critical race theory.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) sees the issue as more of a GOP sideshow, said spokeswoman Molly Forgey, saying he doesn’t hear about issues of race and schools when he talks to parents, teachers and students.

Forgey said the more relevant conversation is about the governor’s leadership on education. Sisolak appointed an educator as lieutenant governor and recently lifted the statewide mask requirement in schools. Forgey added that the governor wants to be sure parents have a voice in schools and that he understands that everyone is exhausted by the covid restrictions.

That sense of exhaustion is motivating many Democrats to lift restrictions, such as mask mandates in schools, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says such moves are premature.

Murphy said that in the months leading up to his reelection, he knew that voters were tired of strict pandemic policies but that he kept them in place because numbers were still high. But this month, he led Democratic governors in lifting statewide mandates. Absent new developments in the pandemic, he predicted voters will care far more about other issues related to education.

“Mental health and learning loss have much longer legs than masking,” he said.

Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic strategist, agrees. He said the covid restrictions have hurt incumbent Democrats, but he predicted that the issue will be far less salient by November. For now, though, the party is taking a hit.

“People looked at the last two years of education and they said it didn’t go very well for the kids, they didn’t learn a lot, and who was in charge? Democrats,” he said. “When you’re in charge, you get blamed.”

Some Democratic strategists are urging candidates to respond aggressively on the issues of race and gender.

“We should be going on the offensive, fighting back against the book bannings, fighting back against Republicans who want to check your kids’ genitalia,” said DiSano, the Michigan-based consultant. “These are all strategies that Democrats are just leaving on the table. We’ve surrendered. We’ve surrendered when we have winning arguments.”

New critical race theory laws have teachers scared, confused and self-censoring

Other Democrats say the smarter path is to change the subject. Questions about how race is taught motivate base Republican voters, they say, but are not likely to be important in a general election.

“The most important thing we need to do is get off defense and start on offense, talk about what is our vision for education,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who does work for teachers unions, among others. That includes helping students recover learning lost in the pandemic, recruiting high-quality teachers and paying them more, and addressing mental health challenges.

She said her research shows voters support last year’s infusion of more than $130 billion in federal money to schools, the largest ever. “Are we talking about that? No.”

As for debates over race and gender, Lake said her advice is this: “Understand that this is wedge politics, divisive politics. They’re trying to energize their base and get us on the run, and we should not participate in it.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.