The Mercury News

Why Democrats, Republican­s are fighting over our schools

- By David A. Hopkins David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College. © 2023 Bloomberg. Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency.

In U.S. politics, domestic issues tend to fall into one of two categories: economic or cultural. But it's getting harder these days to decide where education belongs. That's because Democrats and Republican­s are talking about the issue differentl­y — and their rhetorical dissimilar­ity shows how each party has adopted its own view of class conflict.

For most Democrats, education has always been largely about dollars and cents. The party's current policy proposals emphasize increased government funding to improve public schools' facilities and resources, expand pre-K programs and increase college affordabil­ity. President Joe Biden's plan to forgive certain federal student loan debts, announced shortly before the 2022 midterms but now facing multiple legal challenges, represents a benefit directed toward a specific population — current students and younger graduates — that Democratic leaders view as an important constituen­cy motivated by material self-interest.

Republican­s, in contrast, have become more likely to regard education as part of a larger cultural conflict. They describe public schools and universiti­es as liberal-dominated environmen­ts that need to be prevented from forcing their ideologica­l vision on U.S. society. Former President Donald Trump introduced an education reform proposal last month that includes cuts in federal funding for schools that teach “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropri­ate racial, sexual, or political content”; a certificat­ion program for teachers who “embrace patriotic values”; and a plan to allow parents the right to elect the principal of their children's school.

“Our public schools have been taken over by the radical left maniacs,” Trump says in a campaign video announcing his plan. “If we have pinkhaired communists teaching our kids, we have a major problem.”

Trump's recent focus on this issue seems like a response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential rival for the 2024 Republican presidenti­al nomination, who has made the state educationa­l system a primary target in his wellpublic­ized “war on wokeness.” DeSantis has enacted a series of laws in Florida premised on his belief that the state's public schools and universiti­es have become focused on “the imposition of trendy ideologies,” especially on topics like race and gender. He recently appointed six conservati­ve trustees to oversee the New College of Florida, the state's honors college, with the goal of reforming its curriculum and policies to be less objectiona­ble to the cultural right.

“In the radical left's America … our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country,” argued Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her State of the Union response. “We are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn't start and never wanted to fight.”

Neither party's vision consistent­ly prevails over the other. The growing salience of cultural concerns has led white Americans without a college degree to support Republican candidates by a 2-to-1 margin in recent elections. Republican voters also hold increasing­ly negative opinions of U.S. higher education.

Yet rates of educationa­l attainment continue to rise as Americans perceive that staying in school will provide them with a greater economic return after they graduate, and politician­s who propose cuts to education spending risk facing a popular backlash even in conservati­ve constituen­cies. In fact, despite their sharp criticisms of public educators, both DeSantis and Huckabee Sanders have recently proposed increasing teacher salaries and other education funding in their home states.

The struggle over how to frame education policy will continue as long as voters see some truth in how both parties view the class divide in America.

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