Is The GOP Winning The Education Message Wars?

Illustration: Aidan Wharton

This article originally appeared in Imbroglio. Imbroglio is a newsletter from The Branch about how we bring about the education revolution. Most of our posts will focus on the future of K-12 and higher education, but we’ll also cover the imbroglio itself — the politics, misdirection, the excuse-making, the mediocrity. Occasionally we’ll also meander into the general science of learning outside of the traditional education system.

(This article is the first in a multi-part series on the presidential cycle’s campaign education policy and messaging.)

As 2024 approaches, all signs point to this being one of the most consequential education-focused elections in recent memory. Governor Ron DeSantis has made K-12 and higher education his top messaging and policy priority, while Donald Trump has raced to outflank him by releasing an education policy “platform” and recently attacked DeSantis’ K-12 record. The House GOP passed a “Parents Bill of Rights” bill modeled after states like Florida. Meanwhile, over a dozen conservative legislatures have recently proposed, and in some cases passed, sweeping legislation on Education Savings Accounts, representing the most significant expansion of private school choice in our nation’s history. Amidst all of this Republican activity, President Biden is doggedly pursuing student loan relief, while the Supreme Court stands poised to deliver a potential landmark ruling on affirmative action in the coming months. Add to the mix a series of durable and polarizing debates like those over Critical Race Theory and the rights of trans minors. 

This is a marked difference from recent presidential election years that saw scant attention to education issues. If you remember, the most significant K-12 exchange in the 2020 primary came when then-Senator Kamala Harris jabbed Joe Biden over bussing — a policy that hadn’t existed in any meaningful way for decades. 

The critical question will be how the candidates and parties weave these issues into a compelling narrative. The race to define the very question voters ask is the most critical battle of any campaign, and whoever frames the choice in the election usually wins. For example, you can convince people you are the most intelligent, prepared, and ethical person in the race — but if the electorate is looking for who will shake things up, you’ve wasted your time and resources. This dynamic has played out many times in our lifetime: 

  • If the 2000 election was about who was the smartest, Gore would have won. Bush framed the election about who was more likable (remember the “who you’d rather have a beer with” conversation?). 
  • If the 2008 Democratic primary was about who was the most experienced, Hillary Clinton would have won. Obama made experience a liability, tying Clinton and eventually McCain to the old Washington way of doing things. Trump did something very similar in 2020, albeit with a different flavor. 

The most common tug of war over the framing of the election is “change” versus “more of the same.” Generally, if you are an incumbent, you want to convince the electorate that everything is heading in the right direction and that you are here to preserve or incrementally improve the status quo. The most famous example of this framing was President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, which featured the now-famous Morning in America ad:

Notice that the ad doesn’t even feature any video of Reagan himself, mention his opponent, or outline any plans for the future. It just highlights how great things were going (for suburbanites). 

If you are a challenger, however, you want to convince the electorate that everything is going to hell — and that you are the only person/party who can turn things around. My favorite example of this is Al Gore’s 1992 “upside down” rally speech: 

I know, I know. Not the same Al Gore you remember, is he? If that version of him had run for President in 2000, that election would have turned out much differently. Anyway . . . 

Every now and then, an incumbent can pull off the seemingly impossible and run as a change agent or as the opposition. That is sort of what Biden and Democrats did in the midterms when they framed the election around the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and election denialism. Yet those opportunities are rare. Usually, the incumbents are the “more of the same” party. 

That brings me back to the 2024 election and education policy. Republicans will be running as change agents. Like it or not, the story they tell the electorate is quite clear. It goes a little like this (my words):

It’s time for parents to regain control over their kids’ education. They desperately want to take it back from radical leftists who want to teach our kids to hate their country and hate each other, adopt radical ideas on race and gender, and to question the very idea of hard work and merit. That’s why we’re codifying a Parents Bill of Rights that for the first time gives parents the ability to see their children’s curriculum and lesson plans, to participate in any meaningful life conversations that school staff is having with kids, and to hold staff members who attempt to indoctrinate our kids accountable. And through our historic expansion of Education Savings Accounts, we’re allowing parents to use their tax dollars however they see fit to educate their children. Private schooling will no longer be the exclusive option for the rich. We want every family to have the opportunity to access the best schools — whether zoned, magnet, charter, or private. Speaking of which, we’re also taking aim at the bloated and unaccountable higher education establishment who’ve been running up costs, pushing extreme views, and discriminating against white and Asian applicants. That’s why we’re weakening tenure protections for professors — allowing us to hire and fire based on performance — and why we’re investing in the expansion of career and technical education, so we can once and for all break the higher ed monopoly and give you better choices for your children. 

This is a classic change message. There’s a clear and simple description of the problem, a compelling villain, and a series of solutions with the parent at the center. 

Notice I use the phrase “take back control” — which was the successful pro-Brexit slogan. I believe the GOP will use nearly identical language because the slogan can mean different things to different parts of their current coalition and persuadables alike. During the Brexit campaign, Take Back Control could be a racist dog whistle, but it could also be about economic and legal independence, a call for more sovereignty, or a primal scream against a rapidly changing world. Similarly, a “control” message around education could, of course, motivate voters over issues of race and gender in schools — but it could also appeal to lower-income parents fed up with their options, suburban parents with lingering frustrations over Covid closures, or any parent who simply feels the world getting scarier and their children slipping away. Republicans are banking on Democrats going the way of the “remain” crowd — attacking all opponents as racist and failing to see the complexity of their opposition. 

And like Brexit, the GOP doesn’t have to defend the actual implementation of many of their most ambitious policies. They can sell an idea. For example, most of the recent Education Savings Accounts bills include a multi-year ramp-up — where the most significant shocks to the system won’t be felt until well after the 2024 election. They can capitalize on hopes and dreams without owning the downsides. 

If it’s not obvious, I believe the GOP education message will be highly effective. 

What about the Democrats’ message? Here’s Biden’s education message from the most recent State of the Union address:

Restoring the dignity of work also means making education an affordable ticket to the middle class. When we made 12 years of public education universal in the last century, it made us the best-educated, best-prepared nation in the world. But the world has caught up. Jill, who teaches full-time, has an expression: “Any nation that out-educates us will out-compete us.” Folks, you all know 12 years is not enough to win the economic competition for the 21st Century. If you want America to have the best-educated workforce, let’s finish the job by providing access to pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds. Studies show that children who go to pre-school are nearly 50% more likely to finish high school and go on to earn a 2- or 4-year degree, no matter their background. Let’s give public school teachers a raise. And we’re making progress by reducing student debt and increasing Pell Grants for working- and middle-class families. Let’s finish the job, connect students to career opportunities starting in high school and provide two years of community college, some of the best career training in America, in addition to being a pathway to a four-year degree. Let’s offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not. And folks, in the midst of the COVID crisis when schools were closed, let’s also recognize how far we’ve come in the fight against the pandemic itself. . ..  

“Let’s finish the job” is classic more of the same messaging. You can find it in hundreds of speeches from mayors, governors, and presidents running for reelection over the years. 

What’s notable is how little in Biden’s speech is new. How often have you heard about 21st Century jobs, Pell Grants, more teacher pay, or expanded pre-K? Take out the references to Covid, and much of what Biden says here could have been in a speech from Clinton’s second term. That’s not to say it’s terrible policy, but it’s far from a fresh or compelling narrative (Democrats often confuse the two). Biden and Democrats need to link together these (and ideally more) policies and tell one compelling story. In a future post, I will propose a few options on this front along the lines of what I do for the Republicans above. 

Remember, this is what the best and brightest speechwriters and policy minds in the Democratic Party could muster — during Biden’s most high-profile speech as president to date. At a time when his political opponents are talking about education issues daily. 

One could argue that the GOP education message isn’t fresh either. After all, Republicans have talked about private school choice and racial grievance for as long as I can remember. But the scope and coordination of their policy moves and the sophistication of the message are more expansive and effective than ever before. If you don’t believe me, read the recently passed education bill from Arkansas and then watch Governor Huckabee Sanders’ accompanying speech. As we’ve recently discussed on the Lost Debate, you can argue with her choices, but you can’t say it isn’t bold or new. In the coming years, we’ll see many more bills of this kind passing through other state houses, and you can be assured most 2024 GOP candidates (up and down the ballot) will propose legislation along similar lines, telling nearly identical stories. 

Democrats, being the party of more of the same, will likely defend the status quo (and perhaps add incremental improvements). If parents love their current school options, vouchers and Education Savings Accounts sound radical and dangerous. If they love their teachers and principals, they’ll balk at onerous “transparency” requirements or weakened tenure. But if they are frustrated by their current options or resentful of the indignity and inequality of the system, then they are likely to be much warmer to significant change. 

So what does the polling say? Are parents satisfied with their options? Recent polling from Murmuration found the following:

Only 7-in-100 registered voters rate the performance of the U.S. education system as excellent; about three times that many (22%) rate it as poor. Overall, we find that about one-third rate our schools as either excellent (7%) or good (27%), while 60% see them as only fair (38%) or poor (22%); 6% declined to offer an opinion.

While voters are more likely to rate the public school system in the neighborhood where they live better than the nation’s system, still only 12% rate their schools as excellent. In total 46% rate their local schools as excellent or good (34%), 29% as only fair, and 15% poor. Among parents, the ratings are slightly better as 54% rate them excellent (16%) or good (37%), and 42% only fair (31%) or poor (11%).

This gives either side confirmation of their theory. Democrats will point to the fact that parents are more likely to rate their own school as positive even if they aren’t satisfied with schools generally. Republicans, on the other hand, will point to the anemic enthusiasm for the system as a whole as an opportunity to sell a change message. 

The Murmuration poll also found that Democrats have a 10-point edge on education issues writ large and that teachers’ unions are viewed favorably by most voters, especially younger voters. However, other recent polls have found more trouble for Democrats. Here’s a summary from the conservative American Enterprise Institute from 2022:

In March 2022, when Rasmussen asked 1,000 likely voters, “[w]hich party do you trust more to deal with education issues, Democrats or Republicans?” 43% reported that they trusted Republicans, compared to just 36% who favored Democrats. Other polls confirm this finding: A June 2022 poll by Democrats for Education Reform found that 47% of voters in battleground districts trusted Republicans on education while 44% trusted Democrats. Another poll of voters in battleground states by the American Federation of Teachers revealed that 39% of voters trusted Republicans on the issue, giving them a one-point lead over Democrats.

I’m not sure what to believe in the polling other than that the electorate is movable. This may be bad news for Democrats because they’ve long taken their advantage on education issues for granted — and depend on an electorate that believes the current system works. 

If the polls are unreliable on these issues, they may be in a way that should give Democrats even more reason for concern. For example, Populace found that one of the largest collective illusions is on the issue of education, with 74% of people aged 30-44 saying privately that they believe parents should have a say over public school curriculum even though only 48% are willing to say so publicly. 

When you combine that reality with the differences in the party’s narratives, Democrats should feel some urgency to start telling a clear, compelling, and coordinated story about our kids’ future.  

In my next post, I will discuss the various options for Democrats on that front — weaving together policy and communications. I’ll also dig deeper into the polling to discern what voters really want. 

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