Los Angeles Times

Democrats’ goal: Win back parents

The midterm plan is to focus on economic and post-pandemic learning concerns and forget the culture war.

- By Courtney Subramania­n

WASHINGTON — The era of COVID-19 school closures appears to be over, but parents’ frustratio­n with that difficult period is set to play a pivotal role in November’s midterm elections.

Last summer, anger about months of remote learning energized Republican­s, who founded activist groups, launched recalls of school board members, introduced new legislatio­n, and attacked not only school closures but also “critical race theory” and sex education.

Now, with the elections that will determine control of Congress just months away, Democrats are fighting back, recalibrat­ing their message to K-12 parent voters. Pandemic-era fights in the classroom have reengaged parents on broader concerns such as school shootings, learning loss and economic anxiety, and lessened voters’ focus on the culture war issues that dominated Republican complaints about public education last summer, Democrats argue.

The fights in school board meetings last summer were driven by a loud minority that’s since been balanced by more “mainstream voices” focused on issues such as teacher shortages and stricter gun laws in the aftermath of recent mass shootings, said Katie Paris, a parent and founder of Red Wine and Blue, a left-leaning, Ohio-based network that organizes suburban moms all over the country.

“No matter what party you’re a part of, pandemic parenting was a huge challenge,” Paris said. “When you’re exhausted and frus

trated, it is a whole lot easier to point your finger and blame a bogeyman than it is to actually address the challenges in front of us. … Suburban parents don’t like extremism.”

Polling suggests that many parents’ top concerns are economic. Three-quarters of parents say they’re concerned about rising costs of food and gas, and more than half of parents said they changed or canceled their summer plans for a family trip because of inf lation, according to a May survey by the National Parents Union, an umbrella organizati­on for parental advocacy groups.

Nearly half of working moms of children ages 6 to 12 accrued more credit card debt during the pandemic, and 56% reduced spending on everyday items such as groceries and transporta­tion, according to an April survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Half of women with children ages 6 to 12 reported scaling back their careers and struggling with financial insecurity because of caregiving needs.

Recent polling also indicates that parent voters are more focused on helping students recover from pandemic-related learning loss than on critical race theory, according to a May survey of likely voters in seven battlegrou­nd states conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions. The survey found that of the 60% of respondent­s who are dissatisfi­ed with the way students are instructed on issues of race in America, only 9% cited critical race theory as a reason.

Republican­s insist that parents remain worried about what their children are learning about sex and racism. “We have drawn a very clear line in the sand that says our school system is for educating kids, not indoctrina­ting them,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading voice of GOP outrage over public schools, told the annual conference of Moms for Liberty, a conservati­ve activist group, on July 15.

Parents have long been key to both parties’ electoral strategies. Most Republican­s between the ages of 18 and 55 are parents, as are nearly half of Democrats in that age group. Come November, they could prove to be a key swing group.

Although Democrats have historical­ly been more trusted than Republican­s on education, that has been shifting recently, noted Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster who worked for the Biden campaign. A poll of likely voters across 62 battlegrou­nd congressio­nal districts — the places where control of the House will probably be decided — found that 43% of respondent­s said they trusted Democrats on issues of education.

But 47% of respondent­s trusted Republican­s more, according to the June survey conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, an organizati­on that supports school choice and standardiz­ed testing.

The American Federation of Teachers poll also gave the GOP a slight edge on education, with 39% of respondent­s saying they have more confidence in Republican­s on the issue, compared with 38% who said they had more confidence in Democrats. More than 80% of voting parents would be willing to vote for candidates outside their political party whose education platform aligns with their views, according to a May survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Though Republican­s and Democrats disagree about parents’ priorities, the pandemic hangover has led more parents to engage with politics, according to Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union. Her organizati­on has seen its membership rise from 185 local activist and advocacy groups to more than 600 since its inception in January 2020.

“We are being more engaged and respected now as potential voters that could swing things and have swung things because we’re demanding that level of engagement,” Rodrigues said.

Still, parents of schoolage children will make up only 26% to 28% of the electorate, Lake projected. That’s why Democrats hope that by talking about issues that resonate beyond the classroom — inflation, gun violence, abortion access and climate change — they can appeal to parents and nonparents alike.

National Democrats, however, have not been able to deliver on many of the policies they hoped would benefit working parents and convince them to vote blue.

President Biden’s child-care and paid family leave policies were scuttled by his party’s narrow legislativ­e majorities. A more recent effort to revive a slimmed-down version of Biden’s domestic spending package includes none of the parent-focused measures. The expanded child tax credit, a pandemicer­a program that provided enhanced payments to parents, appeared to boost Biden’s approval among its recipients, but it expired in December.

The administra­tion has tried to regain its footing by reminding voters about the

$122 billion from the president’s American Rescue Plan that’s devoted to helping schools increase mental health services, combat learning loss and hire more teachers and staff. Last month, in response to calls for parents to have more say in their children’s education, the Education Department created a parent council. Last week, First Lady Jill Biden traveled with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to Connecticu­t, Georgia and Michigan to highlight summer learning programs aimed at helping children who fell behind during the pandemic.

The administra­tion’s ongoing appeals to parents could be undermined by continued COVID-19 disruption­s. In some Democratic­leaning areas, students are still routinely quarantine­d based on COVID-19 rules around testing and exposure, leaving those parents to “feel pretty abandoned,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor and parenting expert.

A recent surge in coronaviru­s transmissi­on in San Diego prompted the city’s school district to reimpose a mask mandate beginning July 19. The board’s president, Sharon Whitehurst­Payne, defended the policy in an interview with local outlet KUSI-TV and said those who feel uncomforta­ble wearing a mask should “just not return.”

If those types of disruption­s continue this fall, COVID-related frustratio­ns may be “more salient than some of these other bigger issues,” Oster said, referring to abortion and gun reform.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a vulnerable Democratic incumbent in a suburban, Republican-leaning district in New Jersey, held education town halls and several parent roundtable­s in recent months to gauge voters’ concern over changes to the state sex-education curriculum. He found parents to be most concerned with gun violence and the fallout from COVID-19, he said, “not this made-up culture war stuff that’s being imported from other states and that threatens to lower our standards to those states like Florida and Texas.”

Last month, Malinowski and Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.) sent a letter urging textbook publishers to resist political pressure to ban books in Florida and other states. The congressma­n’s campaign has featured an online ad of him holding a package of diapers as he recalls raising his daughter and talks about how to counter rising inflation.

Jennifer Gillman, a former elementary school teacher and parent in the Newark, N.J., suburb of Westfield, said the uproar over the revised sex-education curriculum was exaggerate­d and parents’ concerns have since been addressed. She and her friends have grown “dishearten­ed” and are more worried by what she described as bleak national headlines regarding the Supreme Court decision overturnin­g Roe vs. Wade, attacks on LGBTQ rights and mass shootings.

“That anxiety is 100% there and anxiety of what to do about it,” she said. “There’s an element of the rest of the country moving on and maybe not rememberin­g we actually still have a child-care crisis here.”

Republican­s haven’t given up their criticisms of Democratic-run public education systems, however. New laws prohibitin­g the teaching of critical race theory, school board recall efforts and book bannings have been on the rise since last summer, according to a March report by PEN America, a nonprofit organizati­on that advocates for freedom of expression.

DeSantis — a possible candidate for the 2024 GOP presidenti­al nomination — has made parents’ rights central to his agenda. He’s endorsed conservati­ve candidates in school board elections across the state and sparked national outcry over state laws aimed at controllin­g what is taught in classrooms, including a measure banning public school teachers from instructin­g students about sexual orientatio­n or gender identity.

This month, Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based group that has grown into a nationwide organizati­on of nearly 100,000 members, held its first conference in Tampa to discuss how conservati­ves can reshape education policy across the country. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the committee dedicated to electing Republican­s in the Senate, and Betsy DeVos, former President Trump’s Education secretary, spoke at the event.

Republican­s are also mulling changes to parental policy at the national level. In November, Republican­s in Congress introduced a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” measure that is intended to give parents greater control over public school curriculum­s. More GOP lawmakers have also shown interest in paid family leave since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting the right to abortion. Several Republican staffers called Adrienne Schweer, a family leave fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, to ask about the subject in the weeks after the ruling, she said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (RFla.) has proposed a framework that includes benefits for parents and a paid family leave policy that would allow them to borrow from their future Social Security payments.

Both parties have a chance to court parents come November, Schweer said. More than half of respondent­s to her group’s April poll said that policy solutions like paid family leave and affordable child care would affect their ability to remain in the workforce and fulfill family responsibi­lities as well as support their financial security.

“You’re walking into an election with a whole cohort of people who haven’t returned to pre-pandemic work-life balance, and that’s making them quite fragile,” she said. “They are going to take that to the ballot box.”

‘No matter what party you’re a part of, pandemic parenting was a huge challenge.’

— Katie Paris, a parent and founder of Red Wine and Blue, which organizes suburban moms across the country

 ?? Alex Wong Getty Images ?? A PARENT votes in the Virginia primary in June. “You’re walking into an election with a whole cohort of people who haven’t returned to pre-pandemic work-life balance, and that’s making them quite fragile,” one expert said. “They are going to take that to the ballot box.”
Alex Wong Getty Images A PARENT votes in the Virginia primary in June. “You’re walking into an election with a whole cohort of people who haven’t returned to pre-pandemic work-life balance, and that’s making them quite fragile,” one expert said. “They are going to take that to the ballot box.”

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