Election 2022: Will Critical Race Theory Debates in Schools Help the GOP?

Nicole Eidson has been thinking about running for the school board for a few months now. She is fed up with what she sees as progressive politics seeping into schools, from race-related curricula to sex education, from mask mandates to school closures. Now is the time to “restore transparency in the school district as well as parental rights,” she says.

Last fall, Eidson, a 50-year-old mother of two, took the plunge and decided to run for the Chandler Unified School Board, which oversees Arizona’s second-largest school district. She has no political experience, but has since received the blessing and mentorship of local Republicans. And as the leader of a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a GOP-backed nonprofit that fields candidates for school board races, she’s working to persuade more to follow her lead.

Eidson is one of a growing number of parents taking part in narrow-ballot races on a “parental control” platform, from New Jersey to Virginia. “Education has always been important, especially for suburban parents,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist. “But the pandemic has increased their importance in our political life.”

Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race is seen as proof of concept by the GOP that promoting parental rights resonates with voters. His promise to “encourage critical thinking instead of critical race theory” seemed to play well with independents, as did his affable personality and bona fide corporate views.

Democrats, on the other hand, have struggled to appear responsive to parents’ needs and have rushed to mount a counter-strategy, giving Republicans plenty of hope that expected midterm election victories will next year could turn into a red wave.

Until recently, Erica Frankenberg, professor of education and demography at Penn State University and co-editor of “The Resegregation of Suburban Schools,” taught her students that education was largely a matter bipartite.

In the 1990s, Republican and Democratic leaders emphasized the need for testing and accountability in schools. In 2002, George W. Bush shook hands with Ted Kennedy after signing the No Child Left Behind Act, which passed by an 87-10 vote in the Senate. Parents on all sides have agreed on once-controversial issues like sex education: 96% of respondents in 2014 agreed that discussing sex in high school classrooms was somewhat or very important.

But in recent years, conversations around education have soured. School board meetings, mirroring insult-laden brawls on the national stage, have turned into howling matches on curricula dealing with issues of race and diversity and, more recently, critical race theory, a framework academic complex used to analyze institutional racism.

It’s not a surprising development in an increasingly polarized society, Frankenberg says. Schools are “just part of the politicization of every major issue,” she says.

This evolution took place in the context of the demographic evolution of the country. In 2017-2018, white students made up just under half of public school students in suburban areas of the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, up from 60% in 2006-2007, according to research center EdWeek. This partly reflects an increase in the share of the black and immigrant population living in the suburbs of metropolitan areas. Newcomers tend to be more racially diverse, but also less affluent: the number of suburban residents living below the poverty line increased by 57% between 2000 and 2015.

As a result, school districts have seen their resources drained, Frankenberg says, prompting resistance from some white parents who view public education as a private good and a zero-sum game.

“It really raises the stakes of everything, including, you know, worrying about how your child is being taught,” she says.

This is not the only thing that has changed in the schools. When it comes to education, school prayer, Bible reading, evolution and sex education were the main contentious issues, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an educational historian at the University of Pennsylvania. But a decline in Christian numbers and the rise of homeschooling and Christian schools have pulled the most devout believers out of the public school system and, with them, pressure on school boards, he says.

Now, “historical wars” have replaced “religious wars,” he says. “Our ideas about (the history of) the nation and politics have become quasi-religious engagements in their own right,” he says. “And that’s what we argue about in schools.”

Eidson’s beef with the public school system dates back to 2008. That year, she took a job at a semiconductor company and moved her family from Texas to Arizona. They chose Chandler, a city dotted with parks southeast of Phoenix, for its high-performing public schools.

But weeks after her daughter started fourth grade in a gifted program, Eidson was dismayed to find she had no duty but to have her address memorized. Later, she was harassed by her classmates and started spending recess in the library. “What was going on in public school?” Eidson wondered.

Her daughter now attends a charter school and her youngest son is homeschooled, but Eidson says she still worries about public schools in the area. His concerns go beyond standards of education and discipline.

She has become a staple of school board meetings, lambasting diversity-related curricula, quarantine rules and sex education. She also targets critical race theory, which the Chandler Unified School District says it doesn’t teach, but which Eidson says informs curricula. When delivering her broadsides, she sometimes wears a black “Moms for Liberty” t-shirt.

Moms for Liberty, which was founded in Florida, is a grassroots movement but has strong ties to the Republican Party. Bridget Ziegler, one of the co-founders, is married to Florida’s GOP Vice Chairman and received a round of applause from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Women wearing “Moms for Liberty” t-shirts stood alongside Republican Florida congressman Randy Fine at a press conference denouncing critical race theory last summer.

That an organization focused on hyper-local racing would be backed by a national party might seem unusual, says Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College, but it’s not surprising.

“If you can find the cause, and if there’s money behind certain races of individuals or school boards, then it will be spent there,” she says. Moms for Liberty says it does not receive funding from the Republican Party.

Eidson received more overt support from the Republican Party. Republicans in District 17, which covers parts of Chandler, encouraged her to run for the school board. She is also chaperoned by an Arizona GOP official, she said.

Party efforts to galvanize parents like Eidson have also followed more traditional routes. Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, has introduced a “Parents Bill of Rights” law that would allow parents to sue schools that do not uphold “rights” such as knowing “what their minor child is learning at school.” ‘school”. More than two dozen Republican-led legislatures have introduced laws restricting discussions of race in the classroom, and to date eight states have passed bills to that effect.

Midterm elections have historically seen the party holding the White House suffer losses, and experts don’t expect 2022 to be any different. But whether Democrats lose a few House seats or control of the Senate could largely hinge on issues with public education.

The GOP hopes to replicate Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia, a state Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020. His commitment to improving standards in schools and eliminating critical race theory in Virginia schools , although several school districts have denied ever teaching him, drew support from independent voters and helped him defeat his opponent, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

What makes this tactic particularly formidable is that education has become an indicator of civil liberties, civil rights and race, but also the rights of state and local government, says Roberts of Davidson College.

“This whole parental rights stuff can get you a lot of riding,” she says. “A strong education message is the way to get support from suburban parents, especially college-educated women,” says Ayres, the Republican strategist.

For Democrats, the GOP message is about energizing its base, not pushing for improvements to the public school system. They point out that critical race theory is not actually taught in schools, and Republicans seem unable to come up with a definitive definition of what they mean by “critical race theory.”

“These are tactics designed to enrage and engage grassroots voters around issues that don’t exist,” says Jim Margolis, a top adviser to the Democratic Party leadership.

That said, Democrats have struggled to counter the GOP message, failing to criticize their political opponents for stoking fears.

“If they just do that and don’t talk about what we need to do to really improve our children’s education, they will pay at the polls,” Margolis said. This may partly explain why Youngkin was successful in influencing independent voters like Dana Jackson.

Jackson, a Fairfax County resident and mother of one, voted for Biden in 2020 but voted Republican this time around. A private tutor, she struggled to balance her career and family life throughout the pandemic. Compounding his frustration, county schools remained closed long after European students returned to in-person learning.

Youngkin, she says, “just listened to the parents and acted like he cared.” On the other hand, McAuliffe, the incumbent Democratic president, came across as deaf, saying during a debate against Youngkin that he didn’t think “parents should tell schools what they should teach.”

Rebecca Katz, a veteran Democratic strategist, hopes Democrats will learn from their defeat in Virginia and work to address the concerns of worried moms and dads.

“As Youngkin has been a model of what to do for other Republicans, the McAuliffe campaign should serve as a model for Democrats of what not to do,” she says. “There’s no reason Democrats can’t campaign with empathy and talk to people.”

This story appears in the February issue of Desert Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

Sharon D. Cole