Focus on the economy, not ‘critical race theory’ or sex ed: Inside Democrats’ plan to win back parents

A woman and her children vote at a polling station.
A woman and her children at a polling station during the 2018 midterm elections.
(Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The era of COVID-19 school closures appears to be over, but parents’ frustration with that difficult period is set to play a pivotal role in November’s midterm elections.

Last summer, anger about months of remote learning energized Republicans, who founded activist groups, launched recalls of school board members, introduced new legislation, and attacked not only school closures, but also “critical race theory” and sex ed.

Now, with the elections that will determine control of Congress just months away, Democrats are fighting back, recalibrating their message to K-12 parent voters. Pandemic-era fights in the classroom have reengaged parents on broader concerns such as school shootings, learning loss and economic anxiety, and lessened voters’ focus on the culture war issues that dominated Republican complaints about public education last summer, Democrats argue.


The fights in school board meetings last summer were driven by a loud minority that’s since been balanced by more “mainstream voices” focused on issues like teacher shortages and stricter gun laws in the wake of recent mass shootings, said Katie Paris, a parent and founder of Red Wine and Blue, a left-leaning, Ohio-based network that organizes suburban moms all over the country.

“No matter what party you’re a part of, pandemic parenting was a huge challenge,” Paris said. “When you’re exhausted and frustrated, it is a whole lot easier to point your finger and blame a bogeyman than it is to actually address the challenges in front of us. … Suburban parents don’t like extremism.”

Polling suggests that many parents’ top concerns are economic. Three-quarters of parents say they’re concerned about rising costs of food and gas, and more than half of parents said they changed or canceled their summer plans for a family trip due to inflation, according to a May survey by the National Parents Union, an umbrella organization for parental advocacy groups.

Nearly half of working moms of school-age children 6 to 12 accrued more credit card debt during the pandemic, and 56% reduced spending on everyday items such as groceries and transportation, according to an April survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Half of women with children age 6 to 12 reported scaling back their careers and struggling with financial insecurity due to caregiving needs compared to all working moms of school-age children.

Recent polling also indicates that parent voters are more focused on helping students recover from pandemic-related learning loss than on critical race theory, according to a May survey of likely voters in seven battleground states conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions. The AFT survey found that of the 60% of respondents who are dissatisfied with the way students are instructed on issues of race in America, only 9% cited critical race theory as a reason.

Republicans insist that parents remain worried about what their children are learning about sex and racism. “We have drawn a very clear line in the sand that says our school system is for educating kids, not indoctrinating them,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading voice of GOP outrage over public schools, told the annual conference of Moms for Liberty, a conservative activist group, July 15.

Parents have long been key to both parties’ electoral strategies. Most Republicans between the ages of 18 and 55 are parents, as are nearly half of Democrats in that age group. Come November, they could prove to be a key swing group.


Although Democrats have historically been more trusted than Republicans on education, that has been shifting recently, noted Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster who worked for the Biden campaign. A poll of likely voters across 62 battleground congressional districts — the places where control of the House will likely be decided — found that 43% of respondents said they trusted Democrats on issues of education. But 47% of respondents trusted Republicans more, according to the June survey conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that supports school choice and standardized testing.

The separate AFT poll also gave the GOP a slight edge on education, with 39% of respondents saying they have more confidence in Republicans on the issue, compared to 38% who said they had more confidence in Democrats. More than 80% of voting parents would be willing to vote for candidates outside their political party whose education platform aligns with their views, according to a May survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Though Republicans and Democrats disagree about parents’ priorities, the pandemic hangover has led more parents to engage with politics, according to Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union. Her organization has seen its membership rise from 185 local activist and advocacy groups to over 600 since its inception in January 2020.

“We are being more engaged and respected now as potential voters that could swing things and have swung things because we’re demanding that level of engagement,” Rodrigues said.

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Still, parents of school-age children will only make up 26% to 28% of the electorate, Lake projected. That’s why Democrats hope that by talking about issues that resonate beyond the classroom —inflation, gun violence, abortion access and climate change — they can appeal to parents and nonparents alike.

National Democrats, however, have not been able to deliver on many of the policies they hoped would benefit working parents and convince them to vote blue. President Biden’s childcare and paid family leave policies were scuttled by his party’s narrow legislative majorities. A more recent effort to revive a slimmed-down version of Biden’s domestic spending package includes none of the parent-focused measures. The expanded child tax credit, a pandemic-era program that provided enhanced payments to parents, appeared to boost Biden’s approval among its recipients, but it expired in December.

The administration has tried to regain its footing by reminding voters about the $122 billion from the president’s American Rescue Plan that’s devoted to helping schools increase mental health services, combat learning loss and hire more teachers and staff. Last month, in response to calls for parents to have more say in their children’s education, the Education Department created a parent council. Last week, First Lady Jill Biden traveled with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to Connecticut, Georgia and Michigan to highlight summer learning programs aimed at helping children who fell behind during the pandemic.

The administration’s ongoing appeals to parents could be undermined by continued COVID-19 disruptions, though. In some Democratic-leaning areas, students are still routinely quarantined based on COVID-19 rules around testing and exposure, leaving those parents to still “feel pretty abandoned,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economic professor and parenting expert.

A recent surge in COVID-19 transmission in San Diego prompted the city’s school district to reimpose a mask mandate beginning July 19. The board’s president, Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, defended the policy in an interview with local outlet KUSI-TV and said those who feel uncomfortable wearing a mask should “just not return.”

If those types of everyday disruptions continue this fall, COVID-related frustrations may be “more salient than some of these other bigger issues,” Oster said, referring to abortion and gun reform.

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Rep. Tom Malinowski, a vulnerable Democratic incumbent in a suburban, Republican-leaning district in New Jersey, held education town halls and several parent round tables in recent months to gauge voters’ concern over changes to the state sex-ed curriculum. He found parents to be most concerned with gun violence and the fallout from COVID-19, he said, “not this made-up culture war stuff that’s being imported from other states and that threatens to lower our standards to those states like Florida and Texas.”

Last month, Malinowski and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter urging textbook publishers to resist political pressure to ban books in Florida and other states. The congressman’s campaign has featured an online ad of him holding a package of diapers as he recalls raising his daughter and talks about how to counter rising inflation.

Jennifer Gillman, a former elementary school teacher and parent in the Newark, N.J., suburb of Westfield, said uproar over the revised sex-ed curriculum was exaggerated and parents’ concerns have since been addressed. She and her friends have grown “disheartened” and are more worried by what she described as bleak national headlines regarding the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, attacks on LGBTQ rights and mass shootings.

“That anxiety is 100% there and anxiety of what to do about it,” she said. “There’s an element of the rest of the country moving on and maybe not remembering we actually still have a childcare crisis here,” she said.

The future of conservative backlash

Republicans haven’t given up their criticisms of Democratic-run public education systems, however. New laws banning the teaching of “critical race theory,” school board recall efforts and book bannings have been on the rise since last summer, according to a March report by PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for freedom of expression.

DeSantis — a possible candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination — has made parents’ rights central to his agenda. He’s endorsed conservative candidates in school board elections across the state and sparked national outcry over state laws aimed at controlling what is taught in classrooms, including a measure banning public school teachers from instructing students about sexual orientation or gender identity.

In July, Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based group that has grown into a nationwide organization of nearly 100,000 members, held its first conference in Tampa to discuss how conservatives can reshape education policy across the country. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the committee dedicated to electing Republicans to the Senate, and Betsy DeVos, former President Trump’s Education secretary, spoke at the event.

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Republicans are also mulling changes to parental policy at the national level. In November, Republicans in Congress introduced a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” measure that is intended to give parents greater control over public school curriculums. More GOP lawmakers have also shown interest in paid family leave in the weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting the right to abortion. Several Republican staffers called Adrienne Schweer, a family leave fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, to ask about the subject in the weeks after the ruling, she said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has proposed a framework that includes benefits for parents and a paid family leave policy that would allow them to borrow from their future Social Security payments.

Both parties have a chance to court parents come November, Schweer said. More than half of respondents to her group’s April poll said that policy solutions like paid family leave and affordable childcare would affect their ability to remain in the workforce and fulfill family responsibilities as well as support their financial security.

“You’re walking into an election with a whole cohort of people who haven’t returned to pre-pandemic work-life balance and that’s making them quite fragile,” she said. “They are going to take that to the ballot box.”

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