(CNN) – America’s most recent and emotional political battle is now being fought in its schools as children and teachers engage in the cultural and ideological struggles that dominate national and local politics.
Republicans, beginning with the ultra competitive Virginia governor raceThey see parental rights, anger over COVID-19 precautions, and mourning over how America’s racial history is taught as their much-needed opening for critical suburban voters.
Democrats fight for public education, which has traditionally been an important political issue for them. But they must defend their takeover of the suburbs to have any hope in next year’s midterm elections and, if necessary, avoid a comeback by former President Donald Trump in 2024.
The topic of what American children are taught erupted this week in Virginia with Democratic accusations that the Republican nominee Glenn youngkin was sounding a “racist dog whistle“After posting a misleading ad with a mother’s concerns about a book her son was taught at school. Turns out the mother is a conservative activist and the book is the pulitzer prize-winning novel” Beloved. ” Nobel Toni Morrison, describing the horrors of slavery.
The Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe approached Youngkin with enthusiasm during an appearance alongside the President Joe Biden Tuesday in the vast Virginia suburbs, which have transformed what was once a reliably conservative southern state into a Democratic stronghold.
“What bothers me on a daily basis is that Glenn Youngkin uses education to divide Virginia. He wants to pit parents against parents, parents against teachers. He wants to bring his personal culture wars to our classrooms,” said the former Democratic governor. , who faces a close race made difficult by Biden’s battles to pass his broad agenda and declining approval rating.
Education is not just a political issue. Few areas are as important and emotionally resounding for voters of all stripes as the well-being and future of their children. And senior Republicans believe the pandemic – and the frustration many parents felt over school closings for much of the past year – means they can get an audience from voters who don’t always listen.
The emotional impact of schooling is evident in furious struggles for and against the use of masks and mandates across the country. School board meetings have been interrupted by angry conservative parents who seem to see themselves as the vanguard of a new political movement. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republicans are expected to challenge Attorney General Merrick Garland in a memo in which he instructed the FBI to work with state and local police to respond to harassment and threats against officials of the the school board. Conservatives have accused him of treating parents as “internal terrorists.” (The memo does not refer to domestic terrorism.)
Potential Republican presidential candidates, such as Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, have weighed in on issues such as the involvement of transgender children in school sports and the way the history of racism is discussed in the classroom to seek credibility. with voters who sympathize with Trump. And Republicans now believe they see evidence that parents of other political persuasions also feel that schools are failing in the domain of political correctness.
“Our kids can’t wait,” Youngkin said at a recent rally in Burke, Virginia, after anchoring his hopes of a shocking victory in a closing argument centered on the culture war for education.
His controversial ad posted Monday hits McAuliffe for vetoing a bill in a previous term as governor that would have forced schools to warn parents about such material, but Youngkin may have gone too far for some.
Democratic Virginia State Senator L. Louise Lucas called Morrison a hero to African Americans, a key voting bloc in Virginia.
“Youngkin aligned himself with the people who wanted to stop the teaching of his book in our public schools. And the people who want to ban books on slavery and racism,” Lucas said Tuesday, speaking on behalf of the McAuliffe campaign.
Youngkin’s dance between Trump and the moderates
Disputes over education encapsulate broader confrontations – over America’s race and identity – exacerbated by Trump’s demagogic rise. They tap into a sentiment often found among Republican voters outside liberal coastal cities that the country’s quintessential culture and history is threatened by a newly diverse population and rapidly changing social mores. This generates a “take back our country” mentality that Trump constantly nurtures.
The Republican Party has opted for a message that asks whether parents or bureaucrats and teachers, who are often seen as disproportionately liberal, should decide what is taught in schools. It raises the question of whether American children should only learn topics and ideas that fit well with their own parents’ politics and views on America’s tortured racial history. After all, education is supposed, at some level, to involve learning new facts and perspectives that challenge preconceptions.
Republican strategists believe that the homeschooling that was imposed on many parents during the pandemic opened their eyes to the type of material their children used to learn about race and history. They also think the charged atmosphere around school closings, masking and potentially vaccine mandates will play in their favor in many Congressional races next year.
“I think the pandemic exposed all of this and then we saw that teachers unions control when schools are going to be open,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate National Republican Commission heading into the midterm elections. Teachers unions traditionally favor Democrats.
Republican leaders believe their message on the issue will connect with their voters and others beyond Virginia, possibly even spurring an increase in the number of conservative parents running for school board positions, which could propel Republicans to move up the list next year.
McAuliffe inadvertently amplified the Republican message in a comment at a debate last month that he said was taken out of context. “I don’t think parents should tell schools what they teach,” he said.
Youngkin, who tries to dance between Trump’s extremism and the more moderate voters who helped Biden win the state by 10 points just a year ago, pounced on the comment. He also accused the progressive movement of inserting “political operatives into our school system disguised as school boards.” And it took advantage of parental anxiety over a pair of alleged sexual assaults at two Loudoun County schools earlier this year, a county where Biden beat Trump by 25 points last year.
If Youngkin can use the issue to woo some independents and profit from Democratic apathy at the polls, he could slash McAuliffe’s vote by the margins he needs to achieve a victory that would shake the Biden White House.
So far, the focus on education appears to be helping Youngkin. A Fox News poll last week found that it had reached a tie on the question of which candidate was most reliable to address the issue. In a previous poll in September, he was behind on the issue by 4 points.
Youngkin on Tuesday embraced the idea that he might be writing a plan for Republican campaigns next year.
“We hear parents e-mailing me, texting me and calling me and saying ‘stand up for our kids too,'” he told reporters. “It just shows that Virginians have an opportunity to do something in Virginia that will have an effect across the country.”
Gender battles rock schools too
But Virginia is not the only front line in the battle for race and gender in schools.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 30 states have introduced legislation this year that would prohibit transgender student athletes from participating in school sports based on their gender identity. Proponents of such bills suggest that transgender girls are not biological girls and therefore have a physical advantage in women’s sports. Advocates for trans people, however, argue that such views are based on an inaccurate view of sexuality, gender, and biology, and argue that the right to participate in sports like any other child is a basic right and vital for mental health.
Texas director suspended after accused of promoting critical race theory
As recently as Monday in Texas, Abbott signed a bill that restricts the right of trans children to play on K-12 sports teams that match their gender identity. The bill requires student athletes to compete on teams that align with the gender listed on their birth certificate. In June, DeSantis of Florida signed a bill that prevents transgender girls and women in public high schools and universities from competing on girls’ and women’s sports teams. Transgender advocates have vowed to challenge those laws in court.
Florida and Texas have also been at the forefront of efforts to ban the teaching of the “Critical Theory of Race” (CRT), which critics say is more about using race as a political divide than an honest debate on American history. And both governors have fought with school districts that wanted mask mandates.
The CRT has become a dominant theme on conservative radio and television, where it is often misrepresented. The concept has been around for decades and seeks to understand and address systemic inequality and racism in the US, but conservative critics claim that the CRT is a Marxist ideology and a threat to the American way of life. The extent to which CRT is used and taught is regularly exaggerated, especially since it has mostly been an academic discussion far beyond the elementary school classrooms, and that’s especially true in conservative media, where it offers a connection. direct power to Trump’s base.
While McAuliffe insists the CRT is not part of the Commonwealth education system, Youngkin’s promise to ban it anyway is regularly the loudest line of applause in his speeches. That helps explain why Republicans think they have a shot at an issue that could explode in the suburbs next year.
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Education in schools becomes key in the political campaign (Analysis)