Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What’s driving escalating political tensions over education in America?

What’s driving escalating political tensions over education in America? Rick Hess on the culture war surrounding U.S. classrooms.
Artem Maltsev
Conflict over education in America is getting more intense, and more central to the country’s politics, as it’s become more about culture and identity. Former U.S. President Donald Trump, now officially a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, released a video last month saying that America’s public schools “have been taken over by the radical-left maniacs” and warning against “pink-haired communists teaching our kids.” One of Trump’s potential rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is now among the United States’ most prominent opponents of “woke” progressivism in education—and one of many Republican governors to have passed significant restrictions on how schools teach about U.S. history and issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

Jeffrey Sachs and other critics of these new laws associate them with a new climate of confusion and fear among educators, while others—including prominent Democrats—frame them as reactionary, even “authoritarian.” Yet Republican leaders argue they’re just responding on behalf of voters to educational institutions that have gone out of control. According to a recent study by David Houston of George Mason University, meanwhile, American voters themselves are now developing their views on these issues increasingly along partisan lines. Why is this happening?

Rick Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. To Hess, this growing division in American life represents a major departure from the last few decades of political debate about U.S. schools—an era defined more by technocratic, often bipartisan, efforts to reform primary and secondary education through standardizing testing, accountability measures, changes to funding mechanisms, and charter schools operating independently of the traditional public system. But the new division isn’t entirely new, either, Hess says—or entirely bad.

Graham Vyse: How unprecedented are the cultural battles we’re seeing today over education in America?

Rick Hess: You mightn’t imagine it, but it’s actually been normal throughout U.S. history for cultural tensions to drive public debate about education. In the 19th century, there were major disputes about compulsory schooling, what languages were acceptable in schools, who could attend them, or the status of parochial schools—all of which were along ethnic or religious divides.

Later in the 19th century and into the 20th, there were ferocious clashes over the “Jim Crow” laws in the South, enforcing racial segregation; later in the 20th century, over the desegregation laws of the Civil Rights era; later still, over “bussing” laws that mandated transporting students to schools within or outside their local districts to diversify the schools’ racial compositions.

But there was also a steady stream of very consequential, but less well-remembered, fights about curricula and educational access: There were conflicts over the teaching of science, which frequently turned on questions of religion and faith. There were conflicts over schooling for students from German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, East European, and Mexican communities. As the century went on, American education was variously consumed by fights over communism, school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, efforts to outlaw private schools, efforts to legalize homeschooling, the issue of teen pregnancy, the role of faith.

In this sense, the last few decades have been unusual—when the focus turned away from these value-laden questions about what should happen within schools and toward more technocratic questions about policy levers for improving the performance of schools: What are the right funding mechanisms? What are the right choice mechanisms? How best to hold schools or universities accountable? And so on.

Right now, there’s a feeling in America that it’s somehow weird for there to be so much cultural conflict in public debates over education. But from a historical perspective, the last 20 or 30 years have been a vacation from this kind of conflict. You could say that, in the substance of the fights, what the United States is experiencing right now is more the norm than not.

Vyse: What’s caused the shift back to that norm?

Hess: One thing that’s set the stage for it is that, before the 1980s, education wasn’t really ever a defining issue in U.S. national politics. In the eras of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, that really started to change. Educational policy became more technocratic, but it also become more important politically—for Democrats, as a way to show they were committed to investment and impact rather than handouts; for Republicans, as a way to show they were sincere about equal opportunity. Now, education is a big national issue in America.

In this context, the country has since become much more politically polarized. And that polarization has changed the way that both parties have thought and talked about education. For Clinton, for Bush, for Barack Obama, education was an issue where national political candidates could play to voters in the middle. What you see now is that aspiring presidents, or governors, will use education—as they’ll use so many other national issues—to reassure and energize their base.

In the meantime, there have been other important transformations: First, in higher education, the faculty population as a whole has continued to move further to the left—and so, overall, further from mainstream American sensibilities. In the 1980s, Democrats outnumbered Republicans among faculty by about two-to-one; today, it’s about five- or six-to-one.

Second, along the way, after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014—and especially after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020—the idea of anti-racism started to gain more prominence in primary, secondary, and higher education, even while its definition often remained unclear or contentious.

And third, there was the pandemic—which upended a lot of American parents’ sense of schools’ and colleges’ custodial relationship with their children. There’s been a long-established sense that these are institutions where we send our kids, where our kids are taken care of, and where we place a high degree of trust. It’s a kind of covenant between parents and educational institutions.

The pandemic disrupted that covenant—and as it did, this disruption started to exacerbate some of the reservations a significant ratio of parents had about the implicit and explicit politics of the instruction their kids were getting. The pandemic created a new environment that deeply changed American parents’ relationship with schools and universities—and that brought these latent issues to the surface.

Eugenio Mazzone
More from Rick Hess at The Signal:

Rarely has U.S. media coverage captured the extent to which this new Republican legislation was directed against the dominance of a very specific set of nostrums—associated with the views of “anti-racist” progressives such as Ibram X. Kendi, or Robyn D’Angelo, or Kimberle Crenshaw—some of which are genuinely contentious, such Kendi’s idea that every position in public policy is either anti-racist or racist. If you’re for lower capital-gains rates, for example, that’s a racist position. If you’re against the legalization of marijuana, that’s racist too.”

As you look around the world, you can see this same gap between sentiments dominating higher-education systems and sentiments in the population at large—and sometimes between sentiments dominating higher education and sentiments among other elites. In France, for example, you can see President Emmanuel Macron, along with a broad swath of the French cultural vanguard, deeply concerned about the importation of what they see as ideological extremism from the American University.”

There’s a kind of American exceptionalism at work in U.S. educational culture—primarily in higher eduction, but in a way that also influences teacher training and school leadership throughout the education system. The culture has developed in a way that’s, by global standards, unusually removed from a lot of the social and cultural center of gravity outside of it. Which is why, I think, we’re seeing such a distinctive backlash against it. Educational systems can only work, ultimately, in harmony with the societies and cultures around them. To the extent they hold themselves too far removed, they’ll incur an inevitable reigning in from the people who pay for them and use them.”

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