Welcome to the 2024 GOP primaries. In a video recently released by Donald Trump outlining his education policy plan for his presidential campaign, he appears bathed in darkness and flanked on either side by sagging American flags. “Our public schools have been taken over by the radical left maniacs,” he brays. “Here is my plan to save American education, restore power to American parents.” He pledges that when he returns to the presidency he’ll cut funding for any educational institution “pushing critical race theory, gender ideology or other inappropriate gender, racial, or political content onto our children.” He goes on to promise Justice and Education department prosecutions of “any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination,” especially against Asian-Americans, in a frontal attack on the already endangered practice of affirmative action. He declares his intentions “to find and remove the radical zealots and Marxists who have infiltrated the federal Department of Education.” His vows include assurances to “keep men out of women’s sports,” “certify teachers who embrace patriotic values,” dismantle “the costly divisive and unnecessary diversity equity and inclusion bureaucracy,” and establish “a parental bill of rights.”
He’s not alone. As Trump fends off a steady barrage of legal prosecutions and sees his support soften among the conservative base, a specter haunts the grounds of Mar-A-Lago: Hardcore education demagogue and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has staked out the vanguard position in the right wing school wars. DeSantis already sought to stamp out the sinister doctrines of CRT in statewide math instruction and signed “Don’t Say Gay” legislation to halt gender-inclusive teaching initiatives. Lately, as he eyes his own presidential run, he’s gone harder after the designated education bogeys of the right, pulling the plug on AP African American Studies classes and emptying school libraries of their collections, so they can be systematically reviewed for telltale accommodations to less-than-patriotic ideas or suspicious inclinations toward something other than a heroically white and straight message. Trump, now a full-time Florida resident, is no doubt fuming as he sees DeSantis run away with the resentment-filled playbook that he pioneered with his 2020 anti-CRT executive order.
But while egomania and affront are reliable driving forces of both Trump and the MAGA movement, this first policy initiative of the former president’s second re-election campaign also attempts to fulfill a longtime agenda for right-wing education reformers: the privatization of American public schools. That’s why, for all the heavy-breathing talk of Marxists and maniacs, Trump went out of his way to denounce teacher tenure, promising “massive funding preferences and favorable treatment for all states and school districts” that abolish it: for generations, conservative education reformers have demanded a casualized labor force. The overlapping outcries over CRT and gender inclusion are “a delivery vessel for the privatization of public education, a long-held Republican priority,” says Victor Ray, the F. Wendell Miller associate professor of sociology at The University of Iowa and author of the recently published On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. “They’re going scorched-earth with this—in Iowa, they recently passed a bill allowing private schools to get public funding. That will be something both Trump and DeSantis run on.”
The next phase in the assault on public education is likely to be more ideologically driven for the seemingly counterintuitive reason that the issue proved to be a big loser in the 2022 midterms. Political parties are expected to use rejection at the polls as an occasion for introspection and fresh strategizing, but given the dynamics in the Trump-era GOP, defeat is more apt to produce heightened extremism. “For 15 minutes, there was an acknowledgment in the Republican commentator class that this was a loser, this wasn’t good,” says Jennifer Berkshire, a longtime scholar of right wing education politics. “The Republican who ran for governor in Wisconsin ran on choice and school vouchers—it was a dud.” But after DeSantis’s success in Florida, lawmakers are stepping up school bans once more. “You look at the sheer number of bills targeting trans education,” Berkshire notes. “The right is back to saying ‘this is going to be our campaign strategy.’ Now they’re saying, ‘the reason we lost is that we didn’t go hard enough.’”
This is not to say, however, that the torrent of grievances that the right trains on schools is producing a cogent or coherent campaign narrative. “The list of things they’re mad about just keeps morphing,” Berkshire says. “You’re supposed to believe that the same parents who are angry about school closures are going to rally around Republicans who think we shouldn’t have public schools at all?”
Of course, the point in all this posturing is to keep base voters angry and agitated. “One thing that it’s important to think about is how easily these attacks are racialized, and how that animus shapes our connection to private education,” Ray says, citing the initial founding of segregation academies across the south in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating racial desegregation in public schools. “What we’re seeing now is very similar,” he says.
“I don’t think any of this is about children,” Ray adds, despite Trump’s fervid protestations to the contrary. “The reason I say that is that there’s good evidence on what works in schools, and they’re not asking for any of those things. None of these policies has any sort of education research behind them.”
Instead, the move is to invoke the market-anointed household gods of choice and parental control. “You already can’t keep all the initiatives straight,” says Max Sawicky, a Democratic candidate for Virginia’s state legislature in Loudoun County, a former flashpoint in the 2020 CRT battles. “The last thing we need is a ballot full of principals.” Sawicky also sees the long shadow of segregation academies on the right flank of the school wars. “That kind of segregation is now being surpassed, in fact,” he says. “You can see the forces behind the right-wing agitation reflect an interest in separate Christian academies. There’s a lot of money at stake there, since education is typically the biggest expenditure in state and local government. Recent legislation in Virginia is moving in that direction. There’s a pot of money at the end of all this.”
Sawicky also reports that the DeSantis-branded curricular offensive is out in full force in his state, with talk of book burning at school board meetings and bans in Madison County of Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Anne Rice. “But the thing I worry about more,” he says, “is opening the door to parents scrutinizing what goes on in classrooms and creating an environment where teachers are afraid to deal with stuff like race.” A recent RAND corporation poll of 8,000 teachers found that a quarter of them admitted to limiting classroom discussions of race and gender for fear of parental and political reprisals.
These kinds of crackdowns are critical in district-level political confrontations, Sawicky notes, because education controversies are a key fulcrum in the white suburban enclaves that strategists from both major parties covet. “For suburbanites, the most intimate relationship people have with the public sector is the public school. They don’t worry so much about trash pickup, water, or electricity. People move here and pay a lot for real estate because of the schools—and what happens with suburbs and schools has a bigger strategic national importance.”
Indeed, Glenn Youngkin’s successful gubernatorial run in Virginia in 2021 was supposed to be the great GOP model of a domesticated Trump-style strategy more closely aligned with suburban quality-of-life issues. Youngkin pitched his general election message at anxiety over classroom instruction, seizing on the CRT and LGBTQ panics and diluting their harder bigotries into a message of anodyne parental control.
But it turned out that the Youngkin model wasn’t replicable. “I have believed from the beginning, and I’ve seen this acknowledged by people in his campaign, that Youngkin’s pitch to parents was really unique,” Berkshire says. “He was appealing to the base worked up about CRT, and to the elite suburban parents at the same time—outraged parents who think that the district equity plan is a threat to their kids getting into Ivy league schools. You don’t see Republicans in the rest of the country using that same playbook—they’re strictly appealing to the base who think the job of schools is to secretly transition their kids.”
That obsessive fixation on moral panic for moral panic’s sake may have been the limiting factor on the 2022 appeal of the right-wing school wars. “The hardcore anti-education push—vouchers, school choice, anti-anti-racism—when it comes to a majority of voters in states, there’s no way that can be a winning message,” says Boston University law professor Jonathan Feingold, who co-hosts a radio show devoted to these issues called Race Class. “That’s why you see DeSantis doing everything essentially in anti-democratic fashion. And whether it’s Arizona passing voucher initiatives or other states siphoning public money into underperforming private schools, it’s the same process. DeSantis can only win if democracy doesn’t work—he’s trying to suppress voters while he’s doing the rest of this.”
There’s a deeper paradox beneath all of DeSantis and Trump’s sound and fury over ideologically captive public schools. “Most folks are happy with their local public schools,” Ray says. “There’s this disjuncture between what they see in their communities versus the moral panics happening nationally. They’re oftentimes the center of the community, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to attack them wholesale.”
Yet the political market on the right is filled with incentives for such attacks—particularly since their antidemocratic nature is decidedly a feature and not a bug. “You go back to [Trump Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos, and how she knew nothing,” Ray says. “DeSantis is doing the same thing with New College, the school he just took over with the trustees. Steve Bannon said that they were trying to destroy the administrative state. It’s a very similar process you see here—putting folks who are unqualified in charge, and setting them up to destroy the institutions. It’s what Ronald Reagan did by putting Clarence Thomas in charge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision.”
In other words, the aim here is not so much parental control as a concerted hostile takeover from the private sector—a force that’s been driving education debate in America for decades, and that’s only redoubled under the twin scourges of Covid and Trumpism. “However you feel about school closures and other Covid mitigation measures, they clearly had the effect of radicalizing a lot of people,” Berkshire says. “The things that people have convinced themselves schools are doing, it’s just crazy. And what’s frightening now is to watch how all this is playing out at the state level. You’re going to see a significant number of states whose strategy is to aggressively start to dismantle the public school system.”
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