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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Fixing the Democrats’ Education Problem

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

For decades, the Democrats were “the party of education,” ringing up double-digit leads in polls asking Americans which major party they trusted most to handle education. During parts of the Clinton and Obama presidencies, that lead topped 30 points. Now, though, the Dems’ edge has shrunk to just a few points, with the occasional poll showing Republicans nosing ahead.

Why are Democrats fumbling the issue of education, which they dominated for so many years? There are multiple reasons: they mishandled the Covid-related school closures, they are letting the culture wars distract from the core mission of schools, and they are downplaying the importance of merit and academic achievement. Before I discuss how the Dems could effect a turnaround, let’s dig deeper into these missteps and unfortunate trends.

The school closures went on way too long. Democrats, far more than Republicans, worked to keep public schools closed during the Covid pandemic—longer than in other advanced countries and far longer than was justified by emerging scientific understanding of the virus and its effects. Pushed by their allies in the teachers unions, Democrats ignored the justified warnings that extended school closures would severely harm student learning and social development, especially for poorer children. The returns are now in, and it is clear that the warnings Democrats ignored were, if anything, too mild.

This was no minor error made by Democratic officials in the fog of pandemic confusion but a profound tragedy for millions of children that could have been avoided or at least substantially mitigated. To add to the shameful episode, parents in many communities around the country who wanted the schools reopened faster were frequently demonized by progressives as heartless, anti-science right-wingers who didn’t care about public health. The wounds from this still fester today.

Privileging politics over pedagogy. The culture wars rage on in the schools. Democrats argue that it is all the fault of the Right, who they say wishes to “ban books,” prevent children from learning about slavery, and subject gay and transgender-identifying children to bullying and worse. Progressive educators and school systems, on the other hand, simply stand for a modern, inclusive education that no decent, unprejudiced person should oppose.

This is disingenuous in the extreme. Over the last decade, and especially after the George Floyd summer of 2020, there has been a concerted effort by many school systems and educators to promote “anti-racist” education that goes way beyond benign pedagogical practices such as teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, the Tulsa Race Massacre, redlining, and so on. Instead, pedagogy itself is to be infused, from top to bottom and in every subject, with concepts drawn from the anti-racist playbook. As noted by sociologist Ilana Redstone, these concepts include the assertion that “[a]n unwillingness to recognize the full force of systemic racism as determining disparities between groups is a denial of the reality of racism today (and evidence of ignorance at best and racism at worst).” An army of diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants have stood at the ready to assist school systems in training their staff and teachers to implement this creed and incorporate it into their curricula.

This is politics, not pedagogy as traditionally and properly understood. It has little to do with what most parents want schools to do: develop their children’s academic skills and knowledge base so they can succeed in the world. Democrats have been hurt by their increasing identification with this ideological project rather than the traditional goals of public education.

Downgrading merit and educational achievement. Consistent with this ongoing politicization of educational practices, there has been a concomitant downgrading of academic merit and standard measures of educational achievement, especially standardized tests. In the name of fairness and “equity,” school systems in Democratic-controlled states and counties have taken steps to de-emphasize such measures as a means of evaluating students and controlling admissions to advanced courses, programs, and elite schools.

It hasn’t quite reached the “all shall have prizes” stage, but the message to aspiring students and parents who see educational achievement as their route to upward mobility and success in life is clear: students can no longer rely on hard work and objectively good academic performance to attain their goals. Other priorities of the school system may take precedence, reducing the payoff from their performance. This does not sit well with most parents, who see it as public schools’ responsibility to encourage and reward their children’s talent and hard work. Democrats have been hurt by their diminishing association with what parents care about the most.

Getting Their Groove Back

In light of all this, is it possible for Democrats to regain their mojo on education during the 2024 election cycle? I think it is, though it will require changing their approach considerably from current practices. And it’s worth doing so. Even if education is not a central issue in the presidential contest, it is sure to loom large in many congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races.

Here’s how Democrats can decisively change their current image on education and rebuild their advantage on the issue.

Get ideology, whether from the Left or Right, out of schools. Voters are sick of the culture wars around schools. Overwhelmingly, they just want children to get a good education based on standard academic competencies, not instruction in a politically inflected worldview. Democrats must assure voters that the former is their number-one priority. Just as they oppose attempts from the Right to inject their ideology into schools by restricting critical discussion of American history and society, so they must also oppose efforts by those on the Left to impose their views on curricula and analysis of social issues. Neither is appropriate. The job of schools is to give students the tools to make informed judgments, not tell them what those judgments should be.

[Editor’s note: Read the rest of Ruy’s prescription for the Democrats at Education Next.]

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