As students settle into classrooms and the Republican presidential campaign kicks into high gear, President Biden has begun pushing back on hot-button issues related to education — but in an often-indirect way while trying to stay focused on issues his campaign believes matter more to voters.
Biden regularly denounces Republican efforts to remove or restrict certain books in schools, but he has opted against fully engaging in the culture wars being waged by many Republicans. Instead, Biden and his administration are emphasizing areas they see as more resonant: increasing school funding, combating pandemic-era learning loss and addressing students’ mental health.
Republicans, for their part, are zeroing in on issues such as transgender athletes in schools and how Black history is taught. As Labor Day marks the unofficial start of both the campaign and the school year, the emerging split screen underscores the vastly different approaches the two parties are taking to education politics.
“Republican culture wars have really moved education onto the national agenda,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “One of the strongest strategies for responding to the divisiveness on these culture war wedge issues is to actually talk about an investment in our schools.”
The president’s calibrated approach was on display last Monday, the first day of school in D.C.
Biden visited Washington’s Eliot-Hine Middle School to mark the occasion, but he did not address book restrictions or the rights of transgender students, instead offering a traditional back-to-school message. The school, one of several Biden administration officials have visited in recent days, was selected in part because it broke with national trends last year when its students scored higher on a standardized test than they had before the pandemic.
The president did weigh in on book restrictions when he met with civil rights leaders later that day to mark the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. “Now is the time for all America to speak up, when history is being erased, books are being banned,” he said. “Did you ever think we’d have this conversation here at this time? Diversity is being attacked.”
Some activists complain that this careful approach is insufficient. Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group, said the seriousness of the issue requires Biden to more regularly take on classroom culture war issues “with his full chest,” adding, “I don’t think they’re doing anywhere nearly enough.”
Biden’s campaign wants to link the battle over what is taught in schools to its broader effort to brand Republicans as extremists trying to control what Americans can learn, teach and do with their bodies. His campaign launch video and first television ad included references to book restrictions as one example of GOP infringements on freedom.
The Republican onslaught on educational issues and what they call “parents’ rights,” in contrast, has been far more full-throated and forceful, especially as they attack the way race and gender are discussed in public schools.
A pilot Advanced Placement course on African American studies has been banned in Florida and Arkansas amid criticism that its content is too liberal. In Florida, new standards direct that middle-schoolers learn that enslaved people “developed skills” that “could be applied for their personal benefit.” In districts across the country, books that address gender or racial issues have been challenged and in some cases removed from libraries. Teachers have been fired for displaying Black Lives Matter signs and teaching about White privilege, while others have self-censored out of fear of running afoul of new state laws.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a prominent GOP presidential candidate, has leaned especially hard into such culture war topics, which are popular with many GOP base voters. DeSantis began his presidential bid by touting his “anti-woke” agenda, pointing to a record in Florida that has helped supercharge the classroom culture wars nationwide.
He has signed legislation banning teachers from teaching certain lessons about the nation’s history on race, restricting discussion of gender issues and strengthening parents’ ability to challenge what books are available in schools.
Other Republican candidates have followed his lead. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) recently rolled out a 12-point educational platform, accusing Biden of teaming up with teachers’ unions “to make parents less important.” Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley plans a town hall on education Wednesday with the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parental rights group.
The GOP rhetoric reflects a broader message that liberal policies on race and gender have gotten out of control. On many issues, polls suggest the Republicans are out of step with the general public. But in some cases their arguments resonate, notably the notion that transgender girls should not be allowed to compete in girls’ school sports.
“Biological boys don’t belong in the locker rooms of any of our girls,” Haley said to applause during a GOP presidential debate last month.
Still, the candidates did not dwell on educational culture war topics during the debate. The word “woke” was uttered only once during the two-hour event. Former president Donald Trump — the front-runner in the GOP field who skipped the debate — has only occasionally engaged on the issue since the January release of an education policy that accused “pink-haired communists” of indoctrinating students.
And while these issues may resonate in a GOP primary, last year’s midterm elections suggest they could fall flat in the general election. DeSantis easily won reelection, but other candidates who focused on “woke” issues lost, including GOP gubernatorial candidates in Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Biden’s allies say he is focused on what most parents care about, pointing to billions of dollars in federal covid relief sent to schools, as well as initiatives on school shootings and mental health.
“President Biden took historic action to re-open our schools after the mismanaged covid response he inherited kept them closed,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement, adding that Biden “is working to ensure our schools treat everyone with dignity and respect, while Republican officials seek to exploit them for political division by pushing extreme book bans, discrimination and concealing the full history of the greatest nation in the world.”
Yet there are other indications that the administration is moving gingerly on these cultural issues.
In April, the Education Department embraced a more conservative approach to transgender girls in female athletics than many were expecting. The department proposed a regulation that would block states from issuing blanket bans on transgender athletes participating in competitive high school and college sports, but allowing schools to adopt more narrowly tailored bans.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has called the matter “a truly complicated issue with a wide range of views.”
After receiving some 150,000 public comments on the proposal, the administration pushed back its timetable for finalizing the regulation. It had been set for October, but last week a spokeswoman revised the timetable to “as soon as is practicable.”
Another administration initiative has also been delayed. In June, the White House announced that the Education Department would appoint a coordinator to address “the growing threat that book bans pose for the civil rights of students,” with a specific focus on attempts to remove books on LGBTQ+ themes. Almost three months later, no one has been named to the job.
A department spokeswoman said that in the coming weeks, a senior official in the Office for Civil Rights, who will have other duties as well, will be named to that role.
Rodrigues, of the National Parents Union, said she has repeatedly urged the White House and the Education Department to take stronger stands, only to be rebuffed. For instance, she asked that Secretary Miguel Cardona appear this summer in Philadelphia when her group and others protested a convention of the Moms for Liberty, but he declined.
“It was just met with a lot of nervousness and kind of a lack of urgency that we find pretty alarming,” Rodrigues said. “There’s a lot of fear. They’re afraid of backlash. They’re afraid of stepping in it.”
A Cardona spokeswoman said the secretary and other top officials were needed in Washington at the time, which coincided with issuance of two major Supreme Court decisions on education.
Rodrigues also pointed to a post included on the Education Department’s blog that her group helped write. She said department officials insisted on softening the language before publication.
“It was nowhere near what we wanted to do in terms of calling out what we’re going through,” she said. “There’s just a reluctance to say the thing, to address the elephant in the room. The elephant is stomping on our children. Our children are under attack.”
Cardona talks about culture war topics regularly, officials said, such as during a virtual roundtable with LGBTQ+ students in Florida last year and in remarks to the American Federation of Teachers this summer. In his AFT speech, he said some of those claiming to support parental rights are really “extremists working to whitewash history and censor educators at the expense of our students.”
“You want parents’ rights?” he said. “How about the parents’ right to have their child attend a school where they feel welcome the way God made them?”
A spokeswoman predicted the topic will also come up during Cardona’s back-to-school bus tour this week. Still, it is not included in any of his prepared remarks.
The administration’s education messages have often been delivered by two high-profile officials — the first lady and Vice President Harris — while the president is focusing more on his broad economic message.
In recent weeks, Harris has intensified her effort to call out what the administration has branded “MAGA extremism.” She traveled to Florida in July to blast the state’s leaders over the education guidelines suggesting that enslaved people learned “skills” that could be “applied to their personal benefit.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, cited Harris’s trip as evidence that the White House is “not hiding from anything” even as officials understand that culture war issues are not a priority for most voters.
“That was a pretty direct response,” she said.
First lady Jill Biden is also playing a key role. A longtime educator, she regularly elevates education issues during travel across the country, visiting schools in Indiana and Wisconsin recently to discuss mental health and teacher appreciation. But culture war battles have been less of a focus for her.
In Madison on Thursday, the first lady did speak about the cultural conflagration over classroom instruction — but only indirectly.
“Lately, when I turn on the TV, I see pundits attacking our public schools and saying that parents and educators are at odds,” she said. “But that’s not what I see.”
Lauren Lumpkin contributed to this report.