GOP schools platform: parents, curriculum

GOP schools platform: parents, curriculum

Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake takes the stage at a “Stand for Freedom” rally in Scottsdale on July 5, 2021. Lake and other GOP candidates have embraced a new focus on parent influence at schools and curriculum, pushing their stances ahead of traditional education policy issues like school choice or funding. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/STAR NEWS NETWORK

Earlier this month, Republican candidates in the governor’s race turned up at a school board meeting in Scottsdale.  

In October, a group of Republicans launched what’s effectively a conservative alternative to the Arizona School Boards Association.  

At a policy rollout in November, Democratic governor candidate Katie Hobbs chose her words carefully when she said that parents are needed “partners” in schools. 

Heading into the 2022 governor’s race, the political fault lines surrounding education are moving quickly, with a new focus on parent influence in schools and curriculum items like “critical race theory.” Many Republican candidates are pushing their stances on curriculum ahead of traditional policy questions like school choice and funding for public education. 

“I will stop the ‘woke’ curriculum overtaking our schools, and ensure our kids are given the tools they need to grow and be successful in every phase of life,” states the website for Kari Lake, the GOP primary frontrunner. 

It all amounts to a “pretty large shift” in the conversation about education policy, said Matt Simon, vice president for advocacy and government affairs at Great Leaders, Strong Schools, a pro-school choice group. 

And it has emboldened Republican candidates to emphasize their stances on education, an issue that’s historically been a bigger talking point for Democrats. Chuck Coughlin, a consultant with GOP firm HighGround, told Arizona Capitol Times earlier this month that education is the top issue for Democrats, with immigration the most important for Republicans. 

The candidates might be taking cues from a gubernatorial race across the country. Many analysts think that an eleventh-hour comment by Democrat Terry McAuliffe – “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – helped Republican Glenn Youngkin beat him in the Virginia governor’s race. 

The conservative message on education ties together a mix of issues ranging from pandemic restrictions on learning to questions about curriculum content. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson speaks with people in attendance at an event hosted by the Defend America Foundation at the Scottsdale Gun Club in Scottsdale on September 11, 2021. Robson other GOP candidates are pushing a new education platform that focuses on parental influence at schools and curriculum ahead of traditional public-school policy issues. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/STAR NEWS NETWORK

“It’s more important than ever that we empower Arizona parents and families at a time when we’ve seen teachers unions locking down schools; a rise of racialized, anti-America curriculum; school board members collecting dossiers on parents; and even the Department of Justice treating concerned moms and dads like domestic terrorists,” GOP candidate Karrin Taylor Robson said in an emailed statement.  

Simon said the pandemic has given parents a new view on education and led to “parents not only wanting to be invested in knowing that their students are achieving, but really being a participant in finding an instructional model that works for their child.” 

Robson and Matt Salmon, another GOP candidate, also mentioned familiar issues like support for school choice and, in Salmon’s case, opposition to the 2020 Proposition 208 tax hike. 

But some in Arizona education policy, particularly on the Democratic side, indicated frustration at the newfound focus on what they see as political issues at the expense of educational aims. 

“I think it’s distracted from what we should really be focusing on,” said David Lujan, a former Democratic legislator who helped organize the Proposition 208 ballot measure. Lujan pointed to high school graduation and third-grade literacy rates as concrete goals that should be the focus of education policy. 

“I think it’s great that parents are involved in the process, but I think they’re becoming almost political fights rather than what’s best for kids,” he said. 

Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said districts should address teaching issues if they arise, but the current political environment has led to some ill-advised mixing of two separate things: funding and curriculum.  “It’s not good public policy to be combining those issues,” he said. 

There’s also a question of whether the emerging politics of parental involvement and school curricula are only political winners for Republicans. 

In a statement sent by his campaign, Democratic governor candidate Marco Lopez didn’t directly respond to questions about parent issues, but said the state needs to invest more in education to help drive the state’s economy.  

“Right now we’re almost dead last in the nation when it comes to investing in educating them and that’s simply unacceptable,” Lopez said in the statement. 

But Julie Erfle, a liberal consultant and commentator, said parent involvement schools fits with Democratic values and that parents who are invested in their children’s school might be more willing to agitate for more education funding. To make this messaging work, she said, Democrats need to separate parent participation and skepticism of schoolteachers.  

“You don’t have to embrace parent involvement and then make teachers the bad guy.” 

In her comments at the policy rollout on November 4, Hobbs said, “We absolutely need parents as partners in our education system.” (Hobbs’ and Aaron Lieberman’s campaigns didn’t respond to emails seeking comment for this story). 

Still, Erfle said that increasing funding as a means to improve educational attainment remains a principal goal for Democrats and is their best play for political support.  

“To me, that’s where Democrats should be focusing,” she said. “Do we want more tax cuts for the wealthy, or do we want more money in our classrooms?”