Education Will Be a Hot Button Political Issue in 2024

Education Policy Brief #82 | By: Rudolph Lurz | July 14, 2023
Photo taken from: www.ny1.com

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In the 2000 Presidential Election, education was a central issue. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee,
attacked Republican policies that created crowded classrooms with large class sizes. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, called for stronger accountability for schools and tying federal funding to standardized test scores, along with extending the use of vouchers. 77% of likely voters considered education to be a “very important” issue, and the subject was a frequent topic on the campaign trail and during debates. 

Following his narrow and controversial victory in the election, President Bush followed through on his campaign promise with the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which was signed into law in early January 2002. Despite its promises to deliver broad improvement to struggling schools through incentive-based funding, the end result was that wealthier districts got a lot of that funding because their students (predictably) performed better on the state assessments. The assessments themselves required roughly 7 billion dollars of state funds, which lined the pockets of giant education corporations like Pearson. The obsession with standardized testing further exasperated educators and parents alike, and fortified the antiquated factory model of education, which prioritizes rote memorization and recall over critical analysis. Very few educators and policy actors believe that NCLB resulted in improvement for American education, and lawmakers who voted for its passage in 2002 quickly retreated from their previous support of the measure by the time of the next election cycle in 2004. 

There is a stark contrast between education’s prominence in the 2000 election cycle and each presidential election after it. Education was not often mentioned in the 2012 and 2016 debates. It was actually a rare point of consensus between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, as Romney noted he liked some of the things Secretary Arne Duncan was doing with Race to the Top. In the first and final presidential debates of 2020, it did not even make the agenda as a topic. 

Education will likely be front and center as an issue of prominence in the 2024 Presidential Election. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin made “parent choice” a central issue in his surprise victory in 2021, and Republican policy actors have made “anti-woke” education proposals a centerpiece of the GOP platform in recent months. The lessons from the 2000 Election demonstrate that if the GOP retakes the White House in 2024, education’s centrality as an issue means bad news for students and teachers nationwide.

 

Analysis

 

During the 2000 election cycle, I was a junior at Sarasota High School, the example Al Gore used to discuss overcrowded classrooms. In 2001, President George Bush touted his own education policies in a nationwide tour of classrooms, and was at Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, FL when he received the news that the Twin Towers were under attack on September 11th. In more recent history, Sarasota is one of the origin points of the Moms for Liberty advocacy coalition, which seeks dominion over district curricula and library selections across the nation. One can say that my hometown has been at the center of education debates over the past quarter century. 

Zeal for conservative education ideas has not equated to good education policy in recent history. NCLB was passed in the House with a vote tally of 384-45. Many of those same policy makers were left scrambling to defend their decisions when educators, parents, teachers, and students were angered by the realities of high-stakes standardized testing. Even Rick Scott, who is extremely right-leaning on education policy, rolled back standardized test requirements during his time as Florida’s governor. 

Bill Clinton made teachers and nurses the heroes of his standard campaign stump speech in the 1992 campaign (you can hear it in his victory speech at around the 13-minute mark on the link). George W. Bush focused on students, with the notion that all children should be educated, and for that matter, assessed. That was a worthy goal, as districts nationwide devoted millions of dollars to educating students with special needs. Positions appeared on job boards for roles as reading coaches, ELL instructors, special education case managers, and early intervention specialists. The message was sound. Who can argue against “no child left behind”? The 384-45 tally on the passage of the NCLB Act speaks to the appeal of that message.

This latest push for “parent choice” creates a similar powerful message with broad appeal. Parents want the best for their children and feel that they should have a central role in determining the curricula they receive in public schools. Governor Youngkin’s opponent in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Terry McAuliffe, provided a response that future Democrats would be wise to avoid. He stated, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” 

No Child Left Behind accelerated the trend of high-stakes standardized testing which has had lasting and detrimental effects on the very students it sought to help. “Parent Choice” is, in reality, a ticket to handing control of public school curricula to far-right activists who seek to chill discourse concerning any topics that they personally dislike, including those relating to uncomfortable periods in U.S. history such as slavery and segregation, along with any discussion about LGBTQ+ issues. Education will be relegated to the kind of rote memorization of facts and figures promoted by NCLB, and patriotic cheerleading will replace critical analysis of issues facing this nation, past and present. Any voices which diverge from the standard talking points from Moms for Liberty will be chilled into silence or screamed at until they are squashed. 

It would be better for students, parents, and teachers if education did not have a place in the spotlight this election cycle. Since it will, progressive and centrist policy actors better find a better answer than Terry McAuliffe’s.

Instead of playing defense on parents’ role in designing curricula, they should demonstrate that priorities such as early childhood education and assistance with the exorbitant cost of childcare should be the focus. Household budgets are more compelling than conservative activists scouring district libraries to censor books they dislike. They should stand up for teachers, who are caught between the pincers of standardized testing and parents who want to stifle class discussions that require the critical thought needed to survive in an Information Age economy. If this is the Information Age, how does stripping access to books and resources help students compete? 

This will not be a comfortable debate topic in the 2024 cycle, but Democrats need to find answers, and fast. They cannot sit on defense, or Moms for Liberty will be designing units for our kids instead of professional educators. The only answer is a counteroffensive. The rhetoric for that counteroffensive could come from Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory speech.



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