Republicans say their education policies are not to blame for last week’s election losses, and they are planning to hold their current course heading into 2024.
Last week, Virginia Democrats, many of whom made schools a leading campaign issue, were able to secure full control of the state’s General Assembly, while Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) was reelected in a red state on a pro-public schools campaign.
The wins have been celebrated by groups such as the National Education Association (NEA) teachers union as a rejection of culture war battles in the classrooms, with the NEA touting the victory of a Democratic high school government teacher who flipped a Virginia state Senate seat with 54 percent of the vote.
The Virginia results were seen a rebuke to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who two years ago flipped the governor’s mansion from blue to red on a platform that leaned on “parental rights,” but conservatives say the 2023 vote was not a rejection of that message.
Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Education Freedom at the libertarian CATO Institute, said a bigger swing issue for the elections last week was likely abortion, which has become a hot topic since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Much of the loss “wasn’t driven by education issues,” McCluskey said. “It was almost, it seemed to be, largely driven by abortion. But Youngkin was hoping and many were hoping that education would be something that would help put the Republicans over the top, and it certainly didn’t do that. So it may not be the reason they lost, but it certainly wasn’t enough for them to win.”
Others say education is still a winning issue for Republicans, despite the recent setbacks.
“Conservatives have made, to put it mildly, … tremendous progress on education freedom over the past two years, and that momentum is continuing apace for sure,” said Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Almost a dozen states have adopted universal or partial school choice policies, and Texas is now in a special session to become the next to implement one.
Numerous Republican-led states have also banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, and a couple are now allowing education videos by right-wing group PragerU to be shown in classrooms.
Beshear was vocal throughout his campaign against supporting universal school choice vouchers and focusing on public schools. The Democratic governor also proposed a $400 million increase in education spending over the next two years.
“I believe that now that teachers are reminded what it feels like to have a governor that’s got their back, they’re going to show up even more for Gov. Beshear and myself in 2023,” said Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, a former public school teacher, on the campaign trail. “Because we’ve, time and again, proven that we’re committed to being an education-first administration.”
On the school board level, conservatives also saw some setbacks, with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) saying they won 80 percent of their endorsed races. The conservative Moms for Liberty, by contrast, pointed to a 43 percent win rate.
However, conservatives are attributing the losses, largely in purple and blue districts, to more interest in school board races from teachers unions and to parents being content with conservative policies that have been implemented over the past few years.
“Parents across the country have wanted to see school boards adopt policies that err strongly in favor of parental consent and principal notification. And so many school boards have done that, and Madison County and Central Virginia is a good example. And, so, I think, maybe not complacency but satisfaction with changes that they’ve seen and so they were sort of happy with that,” Burke said.
With more interest from outside groups, lower turnout and parental satisfaction, conservatives don’t think their policies will hurt them in future elections.
“The only change, and I wouldn’t even call it a change, that we are going to do is just to continue to grow, to find more people that are willing to run in unopposed races, to support more candidates and to hopefully, one day, they’ll never be an unopposed seat for a school board again,” said Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms for Liberty.
But even if Republicans don’t change their overall messaging on education, they may start shifting their strategy, including the groups with which they choose to associate.
Moms for Liberty has been at the forefront of the parental rights movement since it formed during the pandemic and came out strongly against masks and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Since then, it has focused on issues such as advocating for transparency in curricula and for books they deem inappropriate to be taken out of schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the organization a “hate and antigovernment” group, accusing them of disrupting school board meetings and spreading misinformation.
Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, noted school board elections are not on their own the most popular for getting people to the polls. As Moms for Liberty’s name has grown, Valant thinks it has hurt candidates, and that in local and state elections, they will rethink their ties to the group.
“They see that there are candidates on the ballot who are supported by Moms for Liberty, then you’re in a world where people are actually going out to vote against those Moms for Liberty candidates just because they’re associated with Moms for Liberty,” he said. “So my biggest takeaway is that I think the Moms for Liberty brand has changed over the last couple of years in a way that is undermining the chances of some of the candidates that Moms for Liberty supports.”