As Republican Party leaders weigh future campaign strategies after their disappointing midterm results in 2022, they should carefully consider whether it’s worth continuing to push K-12 classroom controversies about critical race theory (CRT) and gender at the state level. While substantive education issues are important to voters, leaning heavily into classroom culture wars hasn’t won over large percentages of swing voters like Republicans expected. And it’s also bad policy.
To be sure, some of the Republican Party’s top performers in the midterms cruised to re-election after signing laws restricting public schools from teaching “divisive concepts,” including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. But these election successes could just as easily be attributed to the candidates’ minimally restrictive COVID-19 policies and being in comfortably red states.
Republican gubernatorial candidates in other states like Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who heavily campaigned against critical race theory didn’t get enough traction from the issue to win. Similarly, local and state school board candidates running to get CRT and other controversial subjects out of classrooms saw checkered results, according to reports by The Wall Street Journal and Associated Press.
During the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions, Education Week found that state legislators or state school boards in 17 states successfully adopted policies that limit how school staff can address certain “divisive concepts” with students. Most of these policies restrict how educators can discuss concepts of race, gender, sexuality, and more.
This wave of legislation came in response to a select number of troubling accounts — reported most prominently by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo — going viral online as some local public school staff adopted highly politicized curricula. For example, one California school district asked its third-graders to sort themselves on “oppression matrices” by race, class, and gender.
While these individual instances are certainly disturbing, many of the one-size-fits-all state policies adopted in response have gone too far and raise serious questions of constitutionality.
Legislation passed in Texas, for example, flat-out banned any curriculum that requires an understanding of the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine project that, while flawed, even according to its critics, pursues “a worthwhile avenue of historical research.”
Oklahoma’s 2021 anti-CRT law caused two school districts to be at risk of losing accreditation for a teacher training video that discussed implicit bias toward minorities. This summer, a similar anti-CRT law in Tennessee law gave a parents’ rights advocacy organization grounds to sue one school district over its elementary English curriculum for reasons including its presentation of the civil rights movement, segregation, Civil War, and Greek mythology.
At face value, the concepts outlined in most of these policies seem trivially easy to avoid. It’s hard to believe many teachers want to teach students that one race is inherently superior to another or that an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by their sex. But early rounds of litigation from various groups seeking to ban content from classrooms indicate these lawsuits and complaints will keep coming because concepts that some special interest group or parent object to can be detected when reading between the lines of almost any lesson plan.
While taxpayers have a right to shape curriculum and hold schools in check when they get too ideological in classrooms, statewide policies that make sweeping, difficult-to-interpret prohibitions on lesson content are the wrong tool. Parents and voters have better avenues to express their views beyond asking governors and legislators to micromanage classrooms.
The best approach is for parents and policymakers to advocate for expanding school choice — which allows families to sidestep the culture wars and vote with their feet about the education environment they want by choosing the right school for their child.
School choice is popular among voters, with a June poll from Real Clear Opinion Research showing 75 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats supporting the concept. By contrast, an April poll from National Public Radio found that just 18 percent of parents disagreed with what their child’s school taught about gender and sexuality.
Leading with culture war issues like banning books and opposing teaching CRT in classrooms wasn’t the political juggernaut Republicans had hoped would help them gain ground in state and federal office, but school choice could be. Rather than further politicize schools and classrooms, politicians should pursue policies that let parents choose whatever school is best for their children.
A version of the column previously appeared in the Hill.