The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are more worried about what’s being taught in schools than the pandemic

Protesters and activists stand outside a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Va., on Oct. 12. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The casual observer might have been a bit baffled why Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), during a hearing on Thursday focused on Attorney General Merrick Garland, would mention Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s position on education standards. That McAuliffe is in a tight race against Republican Glenn Youngkin is certainly one clue.

The missing piece, though, is that Garland last month issued a memo encouraging local law enforcement to take violent threats against school officials seriously — a response to an increase in hostility that stemmed from parent complaints over mask mandates and, more esoterically, teaching kids about race. This advisory was elevated by the political right as an attack on parents, which it wasn’t, save parents who make violent threats against school officials.

But with help from right-wing media and a lot of attention from Fox News, the throughline became “Democrats want to treat parents as terrorists when all they want is for their kids not to be called racist.” Every part of that is dishonest, but you can see how it’s compelling.

On Wednesday evening, Fox News released new national polling showing that this line of rhetoric was taking hold. Respondents were asked whether they were concerned about a series of issues from crime to unemployment. At the top, inflation, which more than half of Americans described as something about which they were extremely concerned. Tied with unemployment and the deficit with around 70 percent saying they were very or extremely concerned? What kids are being taught in schools.

Perspective is useful here. The coronavirus pandemic, which is currently killing about 1,500 people a day, is slightly less of a concern for Americans than school curriculums. Worry about what kids are learning is more potent among Republicans, nearly half of whom are extremely concerned about it. Only about a quarter of Democrats are. Republicans are much more worried about schools than they are about crime in their neighborhoods, the hand-wringing that right-wing media was encouraging a few months ago.

That it was Fox News polling that elevated the dominance of this concern is fitting. Fox News has also spent a lot more time talking about schools since President Biden was inaugurated. In the spring, that manifested as outrage over “critical race theory,” an academic regimen whose descriptor was co-opted to fill in for the broad overlap of race and education. More recently, the network has amplified the protests at school board meetings that reflected a moderate end of the anger Garland’s memo was highlighting. Often, Fox’s concerned-parent coverage involved interviewing Republican officials who also happened to be parents.

This message has stuck. Republicans are twice as worried about what’s happening in schools as they are about the pandemic.

In recent weeks, Fox has turned its attention to schools in Virginia, not coincidentally. The quote from McAuliffe that Jordan was amplifying centered on an argument that parents should not tell schools what to teach. From the moment he said it earlier this month, it entered heavy rotation on the network.

At the same time, Virginia voters have increasingly moved education to the center of their concerns. Polling from Monmouth University found that the number of Virginia voters who saw education as one of the two most important issues in the race had climbed from about 30 percent in September to 40 percent now — and that Youngkin, the Republican candidate, had eaten away at McAuliffe’s advantage on the issue.

The pattern here is actually fairly remarkable. Fox News helped amplify (if not create) a furor at school board meetings several months ago. Over the summer, this had the (intended) effect of establishing a tea-party-like movement from the base up — one that, like the tea party a decade ago, was carefully cultivated and tended. McAuliffe’s comment about parents, which seems fairly obviously not to have been helpful, allowed the right and Fox News to center that frustration on his race in particular. The salience of the issue in Virginia shot up.

It’s useful to point out that most of the concerns included in Fox News’s questioning haven’t actually moved much. Things like crime and infrastructure and health care are about where they have been for a while.

What kids are being taught in schools, however, lacks prior polling for the sake of comparison. Which makes sense, of course: It’s an issue that was formed from the sheer energy of the culture war more than anything else.