Education issues such as Critical Race Theory (CRT) and gender ideology are likely to become a key factor in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries as candidates attempt to appeal to the GOP base, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
While only former President Donald Trump has officially declared, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to announce a run, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as several other Republican governors and former governors, have either laid the groundwork or hinted at possible campaigns. As state-level executives, these candidates have a proven track record on education that may prove pivotal as the issue has become a political and cultural flashpoint in recent years, experts told the DCNF.
“To win the GOP primary, this is a smart strategy,” Dr. Keith Gaddie, Oklahoma University professor and political scientist, told the DCNF, adding that candidates’ background in enacting state-level education policy would “no doubt” be a valuable asset to their campaigns.
In 2021, DeSantis expanded Florida’s school choice program and in March 2022 signed the Parental Rights in Education Act into law, barring teachers from educating K-3 students on topics such as sexual orientation and gender ideology. Most recently, he pressured the College Board to alter its AP African American Studies course and announced legislation to provide core curricula “rooted in Western tradition” and eliminate the emphasis on CRT and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in Florida universities.
“Education is going to be a big issue in the Republican primaries mostly because it has (finally) dawned on folks on the right that the interests of State schools might not always align with the interests of the parents. That has probably been true for 100 years; not sure why it has taken so long for folks to figure that out,” Michael McKenna, president of MWR Strategies, told the DCNF.
Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has also been the subject of much speculation as to whether he will launch a presidential campaign, though the governor has yet to commit to a run. Youngkin won Virginia in 2021 on the back of a “parents’ rights” platform in a blue-leaning state, frequently arguing for parents to play a greater role in their child’s education.
Since his election, the governor has continued to stress education issues; recently, Virginia’s Attorney General Jason Miyares launched an investigation into Virginia high schools after certain schools withheld merit awards from students, allegedly out of concern for “equity,” while Youngkin proposed a “merit protection bill” that made it through the state’s House Education Committee on Jan. 25.
“Parents started paying more attention to what their local schools are teaching and they didn’t like what they saw. The radical over-politicization coming from socialist education bureaucrats has become too much by their own polling. Support for parental rights and school freedom are increasingly becoming core principles of modern conservatism and that will be increasingly reflected in elections. And it isn’t just an issue for the base in primaries, parental rights are a winning issue in general elections and allows conservatives to reach new audiences,” David McIntosh, Club for Growth PAC President, told the DCNF.
Youngkin has also made school choice a central part of his education policy, frequently pushing to expand Virginia’s program and investing in charter schools.
“It is pretty safe to say that the next Republican presidential nominee is going to be in favor of funding students not systems,” McKenna said.
Candidates will likely what cite what they’ve done on education within their state and their plans to nationalize these reforms if elected president, Dr. Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia and an American Enterprise Institute Fellow, told the DCNF.
“It would make sense, particularly for these individuals who have had terms in the governor’s desk, to talk about education and what they would do about it, and they would do it with some degree of expertise,” Bullock said.
He noted that that such state-level experience gives these potential candidates an advantage over Trump, and it would be wise to stress the issue.
“President Trump has not emphasized the issue, so it allows for some asymmetrical attacks from challengers, especially those who have been governors and been in the middle of the brawl,” McKenna said.
Trump released a preview of his education plan in January detailing proposed reforms should he win the presidency. The plan aims to “restore power to American parents” and remove CRT and gender ideology from American classrooms.
“Our public schools have been taken over by the radical left maniacs,” Trump said in the video. “At the end of the day, if we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids, we have a major problem.”
“Education will resonate well with the electorate, particularly those folks who have children, they’re desperately concerned about having their children prepared to succeed,” Bullock said. “It’s a good issue to run on.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has also leaned into the education issue, especially in recent years, targeting CRT and advocating for educational reforms.
“[M]ore school choice, more pathways to college degrees, more college alternatives, and more workforce training for people of all ages. Education can’t be allowed to hold anyone back. Every child deserves a world-class education that helps them get ahead – regardless of where they are born and raised,” the former governor said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 2021.
Haley released a video Wednesday teasing her entrance into the race, ahead of her expected official announcement on Feb. 15.
In Florida, we will ensure that taxpayer-funded higher ed institutions focus on pursuing truth, promoting excellence, and providing students with a foundation so they can think for themselves, not to enforce ideological conformity and political activism. pic.twitter.com/OOz5iO1Jwr
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) January 31, 2023
Similarly, DeSantis’ advisors have been holding preliminary meetings to discuss a 2024 presidential campaign, the most recent suggestion that the governor is likely to jump into the GOP primary, according to The Washington Post.
“Schools have become a hot plate for activism, at the expense of core academics. This will make a lot of parents single-issue voters in 2024; that issue will be the current state of public education in America,” Mailyn Salabarria, Director of Community Engagement for Parents Defending Education, said in a statement forwarded to the DCNF.
Republicans have also made up serious ground on Democrats on the education issue, with voters just barely preferring Democrats to manage education over Republicans, according to a polling memo from the Republican National Convention.
“Voters are most concerned with kids not learning enough basic life skills AND the long-term effects of COVID on emotional and educational development. While masks on seven-year-olds and CRT is a concern, it is not the driving force. If Republicans solely focus there, they are missing a wide swath of voters open to the Republican message on education,” the memo read. (RELATED: Parents, Advocates Call For Legislation After Utah Educators Admit On Video To Using ‘Loopholes’ To Push CRT)
Donald Trump: “I will be the President to finally fix this education in America…We will not let men, as an example, participate in women’s sports.” pic.twitter.com/RYCx8H550E
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) November 16, 2022
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