The American voting public now trusts Republicans nearly as much as Democrats on education issues, according to recent polling. This represents a significant leveling of the playing field on an issue that has traditionally been a boon to the political left. 

In an August 2022 Fox News poll, 48% of voters said they think Democrats would do a better job handling education, while 46% said they think Republicans would do a better job. A pollster for the group Democrats for Education Reform said Democrats have in the past held a “double-digit advantage” on education issues, and this was a “historic” shift.

Concerns over parental rights, gender ideology and the politicization of education has pushed voters further to the right on education, while Democrats still hold the edge on issues like book bans and education funding. 

In another recent poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union, a majority of voters expressed a desire to see schools get back to the basics of teaching math and reading, while also raising the bar for students. This frustration among parents may increase given recently released national test scores that show big drops in reading and math scores for students, especially those who were already struggling. 

In the AFT poll, which included registered voters in several swing states including Arizona and Nevada, respondents identified the top problem in education as the politicization of schools, with more respondents blaming Democrats for this shift. Respondents also expressed concern about the teaching of sexual preference and gender identity in schools, with 58% saying they were “dissatisfied” with “the way students are taught about issues related to sexual preference and gender identity.”

The top responses when asked why respondents were dissatisfied about how gender identity and sexual preference was taught in school were “students are too young for material,” and “parents are responsible for teaching material.”

While education may play less of a role in voting decisions for congressional candidates in the midterms, it could be more an issue in gubernatorial and state legislative races. And that may become a problem for Democrats. 

Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center for Education Policy at Brookings, said between school shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and culture war issues, Republicans have managed to out maneuveur Democrats on messaging on education. But he sees that as a problem Democrats can overcome — if they choose to.  

“Republicans have been effective in portraying Democrats as extreme on education. That is a failure of Democratic Party messaging,” said Valant. 

Valant pointed to the winning campaign of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ran as a champion of parental involvement in education while portraying Democrats as extremists, as an example of how Democrats ceded control of education issues to Republicans. 

Max Eden, an education research fellow at American Enterprise Institute, said school closures during the pandemic and cultural issues like gender ideology and critical race theory have shifted voters toward Republicans on education issues. 

Historically Democrats have had an advantage on education issues, he said. But, in the wake of the pandemic when Democrats were seen as broadly in favor of school closures while Republicans were in favor of keeping schools open, voters have shifted, he said. 

He said voters are also more aligned with Republicans on cultural issues, pointing to the AFT poll as evidence that this was true. 

“Their own polling showed that Republican messaging on this issue played very well with their audience,” he said. 

Republicans in states like Arizona and Texas have found some success pushing universal school choice as a policy solution to the current issues in schools, said Eden. He said he would also like to see candidates at the state and local level promote a more knowledge-rich curriculum, especially in the wake of the release of the latest test scores.  

The scores show just how brutal the learning loss has been for many schoolchildren across the country, with the worst declines coming for students who were already at the bottom of the curve. 

Voters will expect Democrats and Republicans to suggest ways that schools should address these declines, although that might be difficult to do as candidates from both parties remain mired in culture war issues. 

Valant said he would like to see Democrats pivot to discussing issues like increasing funding for “high quality instructional time,” through tutoring and expanded classroom hours, while also highlighting cultural issues he feels they have the edge on — like classroom safety and book banning. 

“I think Republicans will win on the issue of education until Democrats stop letting them win on education,” he said. 

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Eden said he doesn’t expect debate over culture war issues to die down anytime soon, especially when some teachers who are active on social media detail how they keep information from parents or bring personal ideology into the classroom, stoking concerns among parents of all political stripes.

“At the local and state level, there are structural forces in the education establishment that are pushing (cultural issues), and they aren’t going to stop because of a few bad opinion polls,” he said. 

Eden pointed to teachers unions, the professional development industry, and teacher education schools as entrenched interests on the political left who were “steeped in the progressive cultural agenda,” and would continue to push progressive ideas into the classroom.  

“I’m afraid the culture war issues are here to stay,” he said.

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