The role of schools in shaping the minds of future generations has always been a topic of political discussion. However, in recent years, schools have taken center stage in the Republican primary campaigns. Candidates like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump have passionately addressed issues related to race, sexuality, and curriculum content in schools. But why are Republican candidates focusing so heavily on schools? And do voters prioritize this issue as much as candidates do? In this article, we will explore how schools (but not necessarily education) have become central to the Republican primary campaigns. How Schools Became the Focus of the Republican Primary
The Power of the School Issue
When it comes to rallying their base, Republican candidates understand the power of talking about schools. Former President Donald Trump, during his campaign in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pledged to cut federal funding for any school promoting critical race theory, transgender issues, and other controversial topics. Similarly, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has used schools as a platform to connect with voters, emphasizing the importance of allowing children to be kids without being subjected to any agenda. While the issue of how gender and race are taught in schools may not be the top priority for Republican voters, it serves as a powerful tool for candidates to convey their political ideologies and show voters who they are.
Schools as a Surrogate for the Culture Wars
In the Republican primary, talking about schools and talking about education are often two different things. Instead of focusing on student achievement, school choice, or standardized testing, Republican candidates have used schools as a battleground for culture wars. Former President Trump and Governor DeSantis have framed the issue as a way to combat “political correctness” and “wokeism,” positioning themselves as defenders against the excesses of the radical left. By highlighting their efforts to protect women’s sports, ban transgender surgeries for minors, and eliminate controversial ideologies in schools, candidates like DeSantis aim to appeal to conservative voters who feel their values are under attack.
Nikki Haley’s Approach: No-Nonsense and Women’s Issues
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley takes a slightly different approach to the school issue. While she also addresses cultural issues in schools, she emphasizes her no-nonsense attitude and the importance of being the only woman in the Republican field. Haley acknowledges weaknesses in the U.S. education system, such as low proficiency rates in reading and math among eighth graders. She also raises concerns about transgender girls participating in girls’ sports, which she considers “the women’s issue of our time.” By positioning herself as a strong leader who prioritizes the education system’s shortcomings, Haley aims to resonate with voters who value academic achievement and gender equity.
The Need for a Shift in Focus
While focusing on cultural issues in schools may energize the base, some experts argue that Republican candidates should pay more attention to educational achievement. Republican strategist Frank Luntz believes that candidates like DeSantis are using schools as a surrogate for the culture wars, missing an opportunity to address the public’s desire for a nonpartisan approach to education. Luntz suggests that voters want partisan politics removed from education and that candidates who prioritize actual educational achievement could attract more support. It remains to be seen whether future Republican candidates will heed this advice and shift their focus accordingly.
The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The prominence of schools in the Republican primary campaigns can be traced back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures not only led to concerns about learning loss but also provided parents with a closer look at school curricula. Some parents were dissatisfied with what they perceived as cultural or pedagogical issues in the curriculum. However, educational experts like Heather Harding, the educational director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, argue that schools were weaponized for political purposes. They believe that political strategists leveraged fear and discontent during the pandemic to amplify misinformation about schools and education.
Diverse Opinions on Education
Although education and schools may not be the top priority for many Republican voters, they still hold strong opinions on the matter. Conversations with Iowa voters revealed a range of perspectives. While some voters, like farmer Dave Meggers, focused more on issues like fuel prices, they still expressed concerns about school curricula and policies. Meggers mentioned working with other parents to influence their local school district and even taking their children out of masks when it became optional. On the other hand, voters like Lori Tiangco prioritize cultural issues in schools, citing conflicts with their Christian values. However, there are also voters like Stacey Doughan, the president of a city’s Chamber of Commerce, who believe that the focus on culture wars distracts from the real purpose of education – preparing children for a competitive future.
The Importance of Prioritization
The diversity of opinions on education within the Republican primary underscores the challenge of prioritization. While some voters prioritize issues related to culture wars, others see education as a means to prepare children for an increasingly globalized world. For example, Michelle Garland, a psychology professor, expressed disagreement with Nikki Haley on the topic of transgender rights but still supports her due to their shared stance on Israel. Garland’s unique perspective highlights the complexity of voter preferences and the importance of aligning with candidates on the issues that matter most to them.
In the Republican primary campaigns, schools have become a focal point for candidates to convey their political ideologies and connect with voters. While there may be a disconnect between the emphasis candidates place on schools and the actual priorities of Republican voters, the issue serves as a powerful tool for candidates to define themselves and rally their base. However, some experts suggest that candidates would benefit from shifting their focus towards educational achievement to appeal to a broader segment of voters. As future campaigns unfold, it will be interesting to see how Republican candidates navigate this delicate balance between cultural issues and educational priorities.