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Attacks on Public Education Could Swing Elections in Democrats’ Favor

After decades of conservatives defunding public education, there's a backlash brewing. Attacks on public education could swing elections in Democrats favor in traditionally conservative states across the country.

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Narrated by Jennifer Berkshire

After decades of conservative attacks on public education, there’s a backlash brewing.

[News clip]: This is the Republican playbook now, to whittle away at public schools until they’re all but gone.

While much of the national attention is on inflation and abortion rights, in Oklahoma and other conservative states, the fate of public education could swing the election in Democrats’ favor.

The war on public schools is backfiring.

In Oklahoma, a state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin, the race for governor is in a dead heat. Stitt, the governor of Oklahoma, is a big supporter of school vouchers, which take money from public schools and hand it over to religious and private schools.

[Gov. Stitt]: And I pledge to support any legislation that gives parents more school choice.

He tried and failed to pass a massive expansion of the voucher system this year, and he’s promised to try it again if re-elected. His Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, is currently the state schools superintendent.

[Joy Hofmeister]: Here’s the problem. This governor has a school voucher scheme that is a rural school killer. You kill the school, you kill the community.

She opposes the plan — and crucially, so do many rural Republicans. That’s because in rural parts of the state, there aren’t a lot of options besides the public schools. Those schools also happen to be the largest employers in a lot of small towns, which makes school privatization a hard sell.

Polls show that more than 80 percent of Oklahomans think the state should spend more on public education. Which means that candidates pushing plans that will result in cuts to school spending have an uphill battle.

The backlash may be enough to get a Democrat elected governor in this ruby red state. And it could also put another Democrat in the publicly elected superintendent’s seat.

In that race, Democrat Jena Nelson, is leading her Republican opponent, Ryan Walters. She’s running as an avowed public education advocate who wants to boost teacher pay. He’s running as a culture warrior and a proponent of private school vouchers.

[Ryan Walters]: We are going to reject calls from the teachers union to push woke, left-wing indoctrination in our schools.

And, according to polls, a fair number of Republicans plan to cross over to vote for the Democrat. And it’s not just Oklahoma where public education has emerged as a key issue.In states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Hampshire, Republican candidates are running on school privatization.

Take Doug Mastriano, the GOP candidate for governor in Pennsylvania. He’s best known for being a Christian nationalist and an election denier. But his education platform is just as extreme. Mastriano wants to slash school spending by half, then give what’s left to parents via vouchers. The catch: with such deep cuts, parents will end up having to cover much of the cost of education themselves. 

In Illinois, the Republican candidate for governor wants to cut billions in school spending.

[News clip]: At a recent campaign stop, Bailey again promoted his plan to use public funds for private schools. 

[Darren Bailey]: And friends that means educational vouchers. It is a must.

And Bailey wants the state to fund religious schools, like the fundamentalist Christian school he founded. One that uses a controversial curriculum that teaches that the majority of slaveholders treated their slaves well and that women are inferior to men.

Then there’s Michigan, where the issue of public education will likely determine who occupies the governor’s office. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is being challenged by conservative media commentator Tudor Dixon. Dixon is running as a culture war candidate. She says that Michigan’s public schools are indoctrinating kids.

[Tudor Dixon]: Sexual content. We’re talking about pornography in schools. That’s the biggest concern I’m hearing about.

Dixon also has some serious money behind her.

[Gov. Whitmer]: She is bankrolled by Betsy DeVos. She has endorsed Betsy DeVos’ plan to drain half a billion dollars out of public schools.

The DeVoses think that Dixon is their best shot to bring private school vouchers to Michigan, something they’ve been after for decades.

[Betsy DeVos]: I personally think the Department of Education should not exist.

Poll after poll shows that voters across party lines are turned off by Republicans’ education policies. Ever since Glen Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia last year, we’ve been hearing that parent outrage equals electoral gold for Republicans. 

But there’s just one problem with this argument. It doesn’t seem to be true. As we see in Oklahoma, Michigan and plenty of other states, the GOP platform of dismantling public education and restricting what kids learn isn’t attracting voters, but pushing them away. 

The GOP’s education agenda these days is essentially that we shouldn’t have public schools. That’s an extreme position that’s out of step with voters in both parties. So, don’t be surprised if public education turns out to be a deciding issue in Democrats’ favor on November 8th.

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