Republican presidential candidates have spent months differentiating themselves on foreign policy, climate and welfare. But they all seem to agree on one thing: parents should have a say in their children’s education.

In last week’s debate, candidates spent a full 15-minute segment discussing school choice, public school curriculum and academic achievement. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned of “indoctrination.” Former Gov. Nikki Haley warned of plummeting reading ability among U.S. school children. And four candidates — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — went as far as calling for the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

Scott addresses CRT, school choice in ed plan

On Monday, Sen. Tim Scott took the argument further, unveiling a full policy platform related to education. His proposal — called the “Empowering Parents Plan” — is built upon three general pillars: defending children, empowering parents and combatting Big Tech’s influence on young people.

“If we’re going to restore hope, it means every parent must have a choice in education so their child has a chance for the best future,” Scott said at a Monday event in Charleston, where he unveiled his plan.

While Scott gives significant attention to controversial topics in school curriculum (teachers should teach “ABC, not C.R.T.,” his plan says), he also emphasizes school choice. The plan promises to “create choice in education, so parents can decide whether it’s public school, private school, charter school, STEM school, or homeschool that is best for their child.”

In coming weeks, the issue will continue to garner attention from candidates as schools reopen and as clashes continue over what should be taught in the classroom — which is once again in the spotlight due to a recent lawsuit in Maryland.

Religious parents speak out

A group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim parents filed a lawsuit against the Montgomery County Board of Education this week, after the school board took away parents’ abilities to opt out of curriculum dealing with gender identity and sexuality. The parents argue that the decision takes power away from parents, who “know best about how and when to introduce their elementary-age children to complex and sensitive issues around gender and sexuality.”

Last week, the U.S. District Court in Maryland denied an injunction that would have paused the curriculum from going into effect. But as school started this week, a group of parents petitioned a higher court for an emergency motion for injunction pending approval, Deseret News’ Tad Walch reported.

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“The court’s decision is an assault on children’s right to be guided by their parents on complex and sensitive issues regarding human sexuality,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the religious parents, in a statement. “The School Board should let kids be kids and let parents decide how and when to best educate their own children consistent with their religious beliefs.”

GOP candidates court Moms for Liberty

Several Republican presidential candidates have campaigned for parents to have an increased awareness and control over what their children are taught in public schools. In June, five candidates — Trump, Haley, DeSantis, Ramaswamy and Hutchinson — spoke at the Moms for Liberty national summit in Philadelphia, an unprecedented show of support for an “education-focused pressure group,” The Washington Post reported. 

Moms for Liberty was formed during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide a mobilizing organization for concerned parents about how schools dealt with vaccination, masks and social distancing. It has since focused on how schools discuss topics like race, sexuality and gender identity. Many conservatives have praised its approach, while one progressive group deemed it an “extremist group.” 

“When they mentioned this was a terrorist organization, I said, ‘Well then count me a Mom for Liberty!’” Haley said at the Philadelphia summit.

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Haley plans to attend a Moms for Liberty event in New Hampshire next week; Scott campaigned with them in South Carolina on Monday.

DeSantis’ battles over curriculum

But perhaps no candidate has made grade-school education as central to their campaign as DeSantis. Last year, he signed the controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which supporters called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It limited the teaching of LGTBQ topics and “sexual orientation or gender identity” from Florida early elementary school classrooms.

The governor has sparred frequently with the College Board, the organization that administers Advanced Placement courses, over its psychology and African American Studies curriculum. 

DeSantis has used his track record in Florida as leverage for his presidential campaign, claiming during the first debate that he “eliminated critical race theory” and “gender ideology” from Florida schools.

“We need education in this country, not indoctrination in this country,” DeSantis said. 

Scott’s plan hits similar notes. A press release announcing the plan advocates for replacing “indoctrination with education” and empowering parents with “the right to opt out of propaganda that attacks their values and religious liberty.”

A central aspect of the plan is weakening teachers’ unions, which Scott sees as a major hindrance to effective education. “The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers unions,” Scott said during last week’s debate. “They are standing at the doorhouse of our kids, locking them into failing schools and locking them out of the greatest future they could have.”