Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Democrats Need to Face Up to Their Public School Problem

Education should be helping Democrats, not hurting. What happened?

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Election reaction statements by politicians and interest groups may be the most robotic genre in the messaging business. Every outcome proves everybody was right all along. And yet the response to the Democrats’ underperformance in Virginia and New Jersey issued by Third Way, the moderate Democratic Party faction, raised half an eyebrow.

The group did not call for pulling back on President Biden’s domestic agenda — instead it pleaded for Congress to end “months of in-fighting and sausage-making” by passing both bills. It pointed the finger at schools, instead, as a cause. “Parents of school-age kids (who were breaking sharply against Democrats in pre-election polling) were clearly worried about losing control over what their kids are experiencing in schools, from COVID protocols to books in the library to debates over equity and race.”

In the big picture, it would be a huge stretch to blame public school policy for an election outcome that fits a standard historical pattern of voters turning against the president’s party. And yet evidence does indicate that education, an issue that has favored Democrats for decades, has recently turned into a liability. There are polls showing Terry McAuliffe performing substantially worse among parents of K-12 students than among the overall electorate, and other polls showing Glenn Youngkin winning voters who care most about education.

Zachary Carter, who until recently lived in Northern Virginia, notes that enrollment in the public schools in that fast-growing region has dropped over the last year. “Anecdotally, I’ve never heard so much anti-teacher sentiment in the region as I did during the pandemic,” he writes. “Every parent I talked to had at least one horror story, and I mostly talked to affluent, upwardly mobile, pro-public-goods liberals.”

Anecdotes are not polling. But Carter’s observations track with Andrew Rice’s reporting from New Jersey earlier this year, where school closings were alienating large segments of mostly Democratic parents. What Rice’s reporting shows, and what I have also seen, is that liberals who opposed school closings faced massive blowback painting them as entitled Trumpy Karens, and were often afraid to voice their beliefs publicly.

If you ask most progressive analysts why Republicans, who usually try to change the subject away from public education, have seized on schools as their message, the answer you’ll hear is something like, Because they’re racist. There is a lot of truth to this. The Republican Party has a huge number of racists in it, and those who aren’t still, by definition, tolerate racism by the party’s leaders. A non-trivial part of the backlash to education comes from parents who are offended by accurate teaching about slavery, Reconstruction, and structural racism or don’t want their kids to be exposed to Toni Morrison. The actual policies Republicans are pushing on schools are illiberal and make a mockery of their professed belief in free speech.

And yet this kind of response has made it difficult for liberals to acknowledge that maybe Republicans are focusing on schools at least in part because they detect genuine policy failures that have alienated part of the Democratic constituency.

The overlapping debates over school closings and racial equity have both been characterized by heavily moralistic language compressing the issue into a false binary. It’s possible to favor some measures to contain the pandemic while wanting to keep the schools open, or to support unvarnished history without the Robin DiAngelo jargon.

It became much easier for liberals to focus all their energy on the underlying racism of the critical race theory backlash and the fact it employed an imprecise term to deflect from any internal probing. Yes, CRT is a term to describe a family of academic theories that are not being taught to schoolchildren. But many school administrators are embracing its theories as the basis for their anti-racist practices. Some of these lessons are reductive, employ shaming, and are ineffective. Repeating over and over that these lessons are not, strictly speaking, CRT is a way of shutting down any channel for identifying and correcting errors.

Of course, self-criticism is in perpetual short supply on Twitter. But education in particular presents Democrats with a unique liability. Schools are one of the few venues in American life where the political left can expose average Americans to its operationalized worldview. Teachers and school officials lean well to the left of the American public. And crucially, they face very little organized interest-group counterpressure.

This aspect of education makes the issue very different than almost any other policy field. If the Democratic Party tries to raise the minimum wage, tax the rich, or crack down on pollution, the business owners whose profits will be threatened will make their opposition felt. That pressure may be subterranean — pharma lobbyists won’t be making their case on Twitter — but it will find an audience.

(This is the point at which I should note that I have attracted critics on the left who are obsessed with the alleged conflict of interest posed by my wife’s work. She is, in fact, an employee at a nonprofit organization whose clients include traditional schools as well as charters, and — contrary to the dark accusation that I am advancing her employer’s interests — would strongly prefer that I never write about education, precisely because it is not involved in advocacy and wishes to remain neutral.)

As a structural matter, Democratic initiatives like closing tax loopholes for the wealthy or building green energy face tremendous obstacles. Shutting down schools for a year and a half, or implementing poorly designed DEI concepts can be done easily and without running a gauntlet of K Street donors.

In the absence of financially motivated organized opposition to curtail the worst ideas of school officials and teachers unions, the only pressure relief is parents voting with their feet (to disenroll their kids) or at the ballot box. If that was happening, what would it look like? Probably a lot like what happened yesterday.

Democrats Need to Face Up to Their Public School Problem