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How schools (but not necessarily education) became central to the Republican primary

Perhaps no presidential candidate has leaned more into talking about schools than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Perhaps no presidential candidate has leaned more into talking about schools than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Talking about schools is a reliable applause line for Republican candidates. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, former President Donald Trump got a roar of approval when he talked about race and sexuality in schools.

"On day one, I will sign a new executive order to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity and other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content on our children," he pledged.

Schools are even more central to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's campaign, and he used the topic to fire up the crowd in November at the Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport, Iowa.

"As the father of a six, five and a three-year-old, I believe that kids should be able to go to school, watch cartoons, just be kids without having an agenda shoved down their throat," he said, to cheers.

The issue of how gender and race are taught in schools has been a major focus for Republican candidates this entire campaign cycle, even while the issue may not really drive votes.

Indeed, it's hard to really tell how much voters care about the topic. When pollsters ask Republican voters their top priorities, the economy tends to come out on top. Immigration is also up there. Foreign policy, sometimes. Often, education is toward the bottom, if it ranks at all.

"People confuse the yelling for the priorities. They confuse passion for prioritization," said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who has conducted many voter focus groups.

"Yes, transgender and all of that gets people to yell. But that's not what people really care about," he added.

A one-size-fits-all issue

First, an important distinction: in this primary, talking about schools and talking about education are often different things.

A lot of the Republicans' campaign rhetoric hasn't been about student achievement, school choice or standardized testing. Rather, it's about playing out culture wars on the battleground of K-12 schools.

And while that may not be the issue pushing voters toward one candidate or another, schools nevertheless play an important role for candidates. The topic of schools is a powerful tool for the candidates to tell voters the story of who they are.

Trump, for example, uses the topic of schools as a way of telling his crowds that so-called "political correctness" and "wokeism" have gone too far. His argument is that he is the man to stop the excesses of what he calls "the radical left."

DeSantis takes a similar tack, but leans into the issue harder than Trump, using it as an opportunity to tell voters about his record as governor of Florida — to show them that he's doing the work of reining in liberals.

In that Davenport speech, for example, he laid out his record: "We enacted a parent's bill of rights. We protected women's sports in Florida. We banned the transgender surgeries for the minor kids in Florida. We enacted universal school choice. We eliminated the ideology, the CRT and the gender ideology in schools."

For former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, it's about presenting herself as no-nonsense, as well as emphasizing her role as the sole woman in the Republican field.

In a stump speech in Waukee, Iowa this month, Haley did address weaknesses in the U.S. education system: "Only 31% of eighth graders are proficient in reading. Thirty-one percent. Only 27% of eighth graders are proficient in math. We don't do something about this, we're going to be in a world of hurt ten years from now."

She also later stressed transgender girls playing girls' sports — a topic she has called "the women's issue of our time."

"Strong girls become strong women. Strong women become strong leaders. None of that happens if you have biological boys playing in women's sports. We've got to cut that out," she said.

That line got big applause.

Too much emphasis on schools (not enough on education)?

Focusing on cultural issues in schools may fire up the base, but to Luntz, talking about actual educational achievement could win more voters. Luntz points to DeSantis as the candidate he thinks is getting this the most wrong.

"He's using it as a surrogate for the culture wars, and that's not the way to approach education. The public wants to take partisan politics out of education," Luntz explained.

The story of Republican candidates talking about schools goes back to school closures during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Luntz. In addition to worrying about learning loss, parents also got a view of school curricula, and some didn't like what they saw — whether it was about culture or simply about how reading and math were taught.

All of that may be true, but according to Heather Harding, schools also got weaponized for political purposes. Harding is educational director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, which focuses on equity in education.

"I do think that the nation went through a very challenging time during the global pandemic," she said. "I think that the political strategists then leveraged that fear and discontent to really gin up a lot of things in misinformation."

Strong opinions, but bigger worries

In conversations with Iowa voters over the last few months, few brought up education or schools as a top priority. However, when asked about the issue directly, many did have strong opinions.

Dave Meggers is a farmer who came out to see Trump in Davenport in September. He said the price of fuel is his top concern. But when asked about schools, he talked about working with other parents to influence this local district.

"We're tough on our school board down there on different such situations," he explained. "One thing was, you know, the books in school and stuff like that. And we we were one of the first ones down there to get our kids out of masks, too."

Lori Tiangco was volunteering for DeSantis at a November rally in Des Moines. Unlike Meggers - and many Republican voters - cultural issues in schools are a top priority for her. She spoke about her grandson and how his parents reacted to the school's teaching about LGBT issues.

"They pulled him out and homeschooled him because they didn't want that be enforced on them, which goes against our, you know, the Christian moral values that we have," she said.

But there's a wide range of opinions. At a recent Nikki Haley event in Clear Lake, Stacey Doughan – the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce – said the focus on culture war issues leaves her cold.

"I think that when you take it down to race and gender, you're really missing the point," she said. "Whatever we need to do to make it so our kids are able to go to school, to enjoy going to school and to learn what they need to learn to be competitive in an international market today is what's really important."

Indeed, that Haley event had at least one voter who disagrees on a key Republican culture war issue.

"This is my only point of contention that I have with her," said Michelle Garland, a psychology professor at nearby Waldorf University, of Haley. "The suicide rate among gay teens is the highest of all groups, and they have a right to be called by whatever gender they prefer to be called by. It's not our business to tell somebody who they are."

That makes Garland unusual among GOP primary voters. But then, this is the thing about prioritization – trans kids aren't her top priority. Israel is. And she likes where Haley stands on Israel.

Moreover, Garland is, simply put, a Nikki Haley superfan.

"I fell in love with Nikki the first time she spoke from the U.N.," she remembered. "And then when she announced she was running for president, it just made my day."

So to the extent that Haley is using education to tell voters who she is, voters like Garland don't need to hear it. Garland already liked her from the start.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.