In a speech in Onalaska, Wisconsin, on Tuesday afternoon, Senator Ron Johnson (Republican Whiskey) lamented that “the nation’s education system, unfortunately, teaches our children not to love this country,” and declared, “It must end.”
On a layover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last Saturday night, Matthew DiPerno—the state’s Republican nominee for attorney general—warned that the school system wanted to “indoctrinate” the state’s children, teaching them to “hate God, hate their country and “hate their parents.”
“They want to split your family — they want to teach your kids that they can no longer trust you,” DiPerno continued. And they want your kids to then go to counselors and schools and teachers at schools and talk to them about pronouns and puberty and those kinds of things. And then they lead them into parenting without the parents’ knowledge or consent.”
In the final days of the campaign, Republicans across the country are polishing a message focusing on what they call “parental rights,” portraying Democrats as out of touch with what’s happening in the nation’s schools and warning of a dystopian future — porn books in school bookstores, liberal brainwashing in classrooms. Schooling, scant parental involvement — should the Democrats win Tuesday’s midterm elections.
The alarming allegations about schools and restricted parental rights are part of a move Republicans have honed over the past two years, as they aggressively sought to position themselves as the parent party and portray Democrats as indifferent to the concerns of voters with children.
Many of these claims are misleading exaggerations. Parents already have great rights in most schools and many Democrats say it is conservatives who are trying to push their ideological agenda on everyone. Opponents argue, for example, that parents who do not want their children to read books with LGBTQ subjects should not be allowed to be denied access to libraries that also serve those who might want those stories.
Many Democrats also argue that most voters are not responding to these cries of culture war — a theory that will be tested on Tuesday.
Virginia’s 2021 governor’s contest, in which Republican Governor Glenn Yongkin narrowly defeated the state’s former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, in a state where Biden won by 10 points a year ago, has proven that education can prove to be a critical issue for the state’s voters. .
At the time, Yongkin traveled to the state that hosted “parent rallies,” and attacked McAuliffe for coronavirus back-to-school and concealment policies, as well as critical race theory—a catch-all term that conservatives have applied to any discussion or policies of systemic racism.
Now, Republican candidates have taken the topic of education – an issue that for years Democrats have had a political advantage – and refocused it on a different set of cultural issues, including transgender rights and what they warn is the nation’s “doctrine indoctrination.” schoolchildren.
“It’s a movement that Democrats don’t know how to talk about anymore, and they haven’t been able to regain their strength on this issue because I still think they are afraid,” said Kristen Davison, general counsel for the 2021 Youngkin campaign. Who is now one of his political advisors. “Now, this ‘parental importance’ movement has managed to bypass Virginia and continue in places like Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.”
But as race theory and the politics of pandemics dominated the early period of the Republican education campaign, attacks in recent weeks have largely turned to gender issues — including the rights of transgender girls to compete in school sports and whether they should be talked about gender identity. In sex education – as well as more general assertions about “parental rights”. The goal, say Republicans, is simply to give parents a greater role in their children’s education.
Politics, of course, is also a driving factor. In September, a letter memo from the Republican National Committee warned candidates that attacks on critical race theory were not likely to be effective with swing voters, and instead advised them to focus on the long-term effects of covid policies on students’ emotional and educational development. .
The memo said, however, that the parental rights issue was effective with independent voters. Education can be a winning case for Republicans, but “winning this issue is more accurate than simply focusing on the radical agenda Democrats are setting up in kindergarten through the end of high school,” the memo states.
As gay and lesbian relationships gain wide popular acceptance, transgender rights have become the new cultural starting point — and nowhere more so than in schools. Democrats have generally worked to protect the rights of transgender students, including the right to use bathrooms and pronouns consistent with their gender identity, and the right to play on sports teams. Conservatives described this as a radical agenda.
Across the country, Republican lawmakers lobbied legislation to ban certain lessons about race and gender — as well as laws requiring teachers to post educational materials online — and opposed programs that once standardized to promote social-emotional learning. Many education departments have removed books on gender and race that critics find objectionable, sometimes from reading lists and sometimes from bookstores.
These messages are now appearing in midterm contests, as Republicans in recent days have been eager to win over independent voters.
In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis focused on education as the battleground for the culture wars — and it remained the number one issue he and the state’s Republicans discussed during the election campaign.
Earlier this year, DeSantis, seen as one of the top Republican presidential candidates for 2024, signed into law a controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill that restricts classroom instructions on gender identity and sexual orientation. He also signed into law a bill that would give parents an opportunity to check books owned by schools in their libraries. This summer, the incumbent governor ran in school board races, endorsing candidates “committed to advancing our agenda to put students first and protect parents’ rights.”
DeSantis’ focus on the issue has run down races across the state, including the Senate race between Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Representative Val Demings (D-Florida). On a recently carried station in Miami, Rubio mentioned several times the importance of parents having a say in their children’s education.
“No one paid attention to the school boards until their kids had to take lessons from home — and all of a sudden the parents could see what they were learning and they were like, ‘Oh my God, it’s time to share’ a crowded room full of supporters,” Rubio said. If you file a complaint, it makes you classed as a terrorist in some places, but not here.”
“The vast majority of Americans … want to send their children to schools that will teach, not indoctrinate,” Rubio said.
In Maine, Republicans have repeatedly attacked incumbent Gov. Janet Mills (Democrat) over a video that was posted—and later removed—from the state’s Department of Education website. The video on how to talk about gender identity was introduced as an optional lesson for kindergarten children. In the letter, one teacher said that doctors sometimes “make a mistake” when they tell parents whether their newborns are boys or girls.
Meanwhile, Mills emphasized her record of funding education, a common theme of the Democratic campaign.
Gender identity classes, banned in some schools, are on the rise in others
In Kansas, Democratic Governor Laura Kelly has twice been attacked for twice vetoing legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in girls’ and women’s sports teams. Under attack from Republican TV ads, Kelly was forced to respond with her own TV ad saying that she does not support men who play on women’s teams, but that sports governing bodies must make those decisions.
“We really need to focus on issues that are really important to people,” she said in a recent debate.
Lani Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education and policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank that advises candidates, chose Kelly’s responses to these attacks among the best. “Reject the absurd,” said Erickson. But do not ignore foolish attacks – clearly and concisely refute them as absurd. Then focus mostly on what voters care about.”
In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial candidate Theodore Dixon, a mother of four, honed the parenting rights rhetoric, which she repeated at three Detroit-area campaign stops on October 30, including at a “Parental Rights Rally.”
“It’s time to take back our state, to make sure we have parental rights,” Dixon said in Troy, before warning that the state Department of Education’s training “is to bring the kids to class, and on the first day we’ll ask them what their pronouns are, what their name is, What is their gender – and then they will hide it from mom and dad. ”
Lavonda Kodanian, a retired registered nurse and great-grandmother who supports Dixon, said her most important topic of the election was “these teachers teach all these sexual things and books that are brought in.”
“I can’t understand why anyone, if they can, would not take their children out of public schools,” Kodanian said.
Republicans’ focus on parental rights has often left Democrats on the defensive, wrestling with exactly how to respond.
But a growing number of Democrats are starting to back off. Sitting on his campaign bus on Tuesday, Josh Shapiro, the Democrat running for governor of Pennsylvania, criticized his opponent’s claim that he supports parental rights.
“Doug Mastriano is so full of this — it’s ridiculous,” Shapiro said. “He loves going to his websites or whatever they’re called, simple message boards – but he really doesn’t have a plan to involve parents in the process.”
However, Republicans are unlikely to voluntarily cede ground to Democrats. Former President Donald Trump – who is expected to announce his presidential bid in 2024 shortly after the midterms – has used the efficacy of parental rights as a political cudgel. At a rally at the end of April, he got no more applause when he spoke of stopping “transgender rights education” in schools.
After a full 15 seconds of applause from the newly energetic crowd, Trump marveled at the reaction: “Isn’t it amazing how big this has become a topic,” the former president said.
“Who thinks this is going to become a big topic,” Trump added, while the crowd erupted in chants of “Save our children.”
Annie Lenski, Sabrina Rodriguez, and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.