- Pamela Arjona
From Classrooms to Candidates: Politicians Focus on Education as the Key Midterm Battle
The United States has seen a rise in political activity among youth and young adults in the past 20 years. Following this trend, school-aged children are more and more involved in politics than ever before— but not only in the way one might think. While it may seem great initially, political involvement isn’t always good, as young children aren’t the ones autonomously choosing to increase their political activity. As opposed to in the past, school-aged children aren’t protesting the Pledge of Allegiance or heading out to the polls. Instead, they’ve entered into the turmoil of public education reform.
Across the country, there has been a rise in limitations on what schools can teach in public education: which manifests itself mainly in the form of book bans and public debates surrounding sex education. While these limitations pertain almost exclusively to those who rely on the public school system, it has a ripple effect on the entirety of society as young generations grow into adults. Southern states and more conservative districts have taken to book banning to “protect” children, resulting in 1,648 books being banned from July 2021 to June 2022 across 138 districts in 32 states. These districts are home to 4 million students; however, 74% of parents across party lines claim they trust school librarians to use discretion in which books children check out and that these bans are unnecessary.
Books aren’t the only things regulated aggressively. There has been an increase in concerns about how schools teach sex education, what is taught, and if it is meant to be taught at all. Specifically, 15% of Americans think schools should only teach abstinence and that there should be no information about access to contraception. Conversely, 46% of Americans believe that both abstinence and contraception should be taught in schools. As of October 2020, only 30 states and D.C. required public schools to incorporate some sort of sex education into their curriculum; however, 39 states and D.C. require HIV instruction. Of those states that choose to provide education, five require parental consent before the instruction is given, and 36 states, including D.C., allow parents to opt out on behalf of their children.
While parents defend their stances about pulling books and sex ed from classrooms by claiming that subjects such as racism, LGBTQ+ issues, and sexual health should be taught at home, this perspective is ultimately concerning, as not all children have access to education about these topics at home. Furthermore, by removing these topics from public education, low-income communities are disproportionately affected as well as any child with parents who do not have time, or desire, to incorporate this information into their day-to-day life.
Some parents also incorrectly claim that teaching sex ed in schools may make children more likely to desire sexual relationships and increase promiscuity. However, studies have shown that comprehensive sex ed limits sexual activity and sexually risky behaviors such as STIs and pregnancy in teenagers, which benefits students and their families.
For similar reasons regarding their children’s exposure to ‘adverse’ behaviors, parents believe they should control which books their children read, thereby limiting their access to information. This censorship is dangerous because it isolates children from reality outside the school system and fails to prepare them for the real world. A narrow-minded worldview would do nothing except continue to polarize the U.S. and limit critical thinking abilities. Allowing for the exploration of complex topics such as religion, sex, and race is important from a young age, and public school libraries are already vetted for age-appropriate books.
How have these education-related issues found their way onto the ballot? Increasingly polarized, politicians are falling staunchly along party lines and using these education concerns to gain voter support. For example, conservative politicians are making promises to “protect” students and children from being exposed to inappropriate content, appealing to their traditionalist base. On the other hand, liberal politicians encourage teaching multiple worldviews and access to information, such as banned bookstores and libraries, to increase accessibility outside schools. This ideological divide has snuck up on elections in early 2022. It will likely be seen at the polls in November and impact the future of education in the United States and, therefore, the future of this country.
In Virginia, Governor Glen Youngkin (R-VA) ran on a heavily education-based platform, advocating for banning Critical Race Theory and supporting motions like book bans: a decision which led him to win in a state that is not staunchly Republican in late 2021. Some political scientists believe that Youngkin’s win may have led to other Republican candidates following in his footsteps after witnessing how he was able to appeal to the conservative movement in Virginia.
While some issues like public vs. private school choice seem appealing to both sides of the political aisle, the divide among conservatives and liberals about access to information in an educational environment is clear and will exacerbate at the polls. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has made statements that the “school system is for educating kids, not indoctrinating them,” implying that information to that effect should be removed. Come November, these issues will remain at the forefront.
These issues have already emerged to light in the summer 2022 primaries. In an early Michigan primary, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dizon used education as a primary issue on the ballot, leading to an easy win. Similarly, Kim Reynolds (R-IO) endorsed challengers to six different Republican candidates who refused to get on board with her education agenda: larger budgets for public schools, increased transparency pertaining to curriculum and library materials, and opportunities for parents to appeal information exposed to their children. Five of those candidates lost.
Finally, a race to watch in the midterms is New Jersey’s seventh congressional district - rumored to be the most competitive in the state. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) is up for re-election against Tom Kean Jr., who came within one point of beating him back in 2020. Like Youngkin, Kean Jr. has taken the education issue, specifically sex-ed, and placed it at the head of his campaign, especially following New Jersey’s expansion of sex ed standards in 2020, which expanded knowledge for younger students.
Education matters; more controversial issues are appearing on the ballot, and education should not slip through the cracks. As seen in the past, Republican candidates have successfully mobilized their base by using education as political ploys, so a red sweep this November would not be surprising. Democrats may be able to convince concerned parents of the dangers of censorship and closed-mindedness, but it hasn’t seemed to have turned out that way thus far, leaving them unprepared for election season.