Rep. Steve Scalise and 15 other Republicans lay out their plan to use controversies over the teaching of race and gender in schools to beat Democrats in 2022

Rep. Steve Scalise and 15 other Republicans lay out their plan to use controversies over the teaching of race and gender in schools to beat Democrats in 2022

House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (2nd L) speaks alongside (L-R) House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik, Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida at a news conference at the Capitol July 20, 2021.

Insider interviews with Republicans show they’re sharpening attacks on education culture wars.
Their messaging pits Democrats, teachers unions, and the Justice Department against parents.
They see “parental involvement” in schools as a winning issue for Republicans in 2022.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise looks at the angst from parents at school board meetings across the country and sees electoral opportunities in 2022 for Republicans.

Education hasn’t been a top priority issue for voters on election days in the past, but Scalise said “it’s completely different now.”

“The center of the universe has changed, where parents recognize that who you elect from the school board level to the governor to the president, can determine whether you have the ability to have a direct say in your kids’ education,” said Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House.

Parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education, he said.

“It seems like a lot of liberals and teachers unions are trying to push parents out of the school board meetings, and frankly, out of the classroom,” Scalise added.

Insider interviews with the Lousianna lawmaker and 15 other Republicans on Capitol Hill suggest they’re sharpening lines of attack on education culture wars, pitting Democrats, teachers unions, and even the Department of Justice against parents who want to be involved in their children’s education. 

They see parental involvement as an issue that can help them win majorities in 2022 as skirmishes over face mask mandates, controversial books, and the teaching of race and gender play out across the country. 

Republicans positioning themselves as the “party of parents” are calling for a ”Parents Bill of Rights Act” after education emerged as a priority for Virginia voters in the gubernatorial election of Republican Glenn Youngkin in November over their former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. They point to McAuliffe’s September debate statement, that parents shouldn’t be “telling schools what they should teach,” as evidence that Democrats are out of touch with parents’ concerns. 

That statement helped Youngkin win because it’s not what most Americans believe, Rep. James Comer, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, told Insider. Meanwhile, he added, teachers unions and liberals have alienated parents with school shutdowns, controversial teaching on race, political correctness, and “wokeness.”

“I think that Republicans have a great issue with education,” Comer said. “We want parents to have a strong say in their children’s education and we’re going to campaign on that all through 2022, and in 2023, that’s how we’re going to govern.”

The message is consistent among Republican senators, as well. Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said “liberals across the country have forgotten that parents are in charge of their kids and not administrators, and it has become the focal point in our country — one of the most important ones.”

Anti-vaccine protesters stage a protest outside of the San Diego Unified School District office to protest a vaccination mandate for students on September 28, 2021 in San Diego, California.

‘An intrusion by government’

Controversies over these issues have led to threats against school board members across the country, prompting a response from Attorney General Merrick Garland that has also become part of Republican messaging. They are portraying his October memo, calling on the FBI to address illegal threats against school leaders, as an attack on parents.

“It was an intrusion by government that shouldn’t occur,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, a House Education and Labor Committee member from South Carolina.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said the memo struck him as “a huge overreach of his authority.”

The memo came after the National School Boards Association, in a letter they’d later apologize for, asked the feds to step in against threats to education leaders. The group — not DOJ — compared the threats to “a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

Though NSBA wrote the letter, Scalise blamed the Biden administration for allowing teachers unions to try to push DOJ to “go after parents as domestic terrorists” for speaking out at school board meetings. He said the memo raised alarms and got the attention of parents across the political spectrum. 

The Parents Bill of Rights, among other things, calls on school districts to publicly post curriculum and schools to give parents a list of books in the school library. Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, a senior member of the House Education and Labor Committee said much of the legislation is “defensive,” because of the Biden administration “weaponizing the FBI against parents.”

“Is that something that will be a political mover in elections? Yeah, I believe so,” he said. “I think members of Congress should be doing their best to protect the rights of parents.”

Democrats say Republicans are promoting ideological issues while ignoring major concerns in education. House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, said he’s focused on proper funding for schools, achievement gaps, early childhood education, job readiness, career and technical education, and making college more affordable.

“Making up slogans and diverting attention from what issues are — people can do that if they want,” he said.

Republicans are also ignoring policy fixes that could help families, said Sen. Tim Kaine, another Virginia Democrat. “You would think if they cared about parents, they would want to get the child tax credit extended… They all voted against it in March.”

But Republicans say they’re hearing from parents who learned more about what their children were being taught during the pandemic and now they’re angry, either about teaching on race or gender or sex education.

“Sometimes parents feel a little marginalized,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican. The issues will be “significant” in 2022, though they may vary depending on location. “I think it’s a significant suburban issue,” he added.

Education issues are registering with independent women and pushing them to the Republican Party, said Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican.

“What I call it is, don’t cross Mama bears,” Marshall told Insider. “You cross a mother bear and tell her that the federal government knows more about whether their kids should be vaccinated or not, or a mask or not, or what that education should look like — a lot of those people are really, really upset.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said, “I think sometimes it’s suggested that we have bad values and they don’t appreciate that.”

Republicans say some parents are reacting to race-related teaching that they think goes too far. In North Dakota, there is “big concern” about critical race theory, said Republican Sen. John Hoeven, who represents the state. The study of racial bias in US laws and institutions is most often taught in college and educators say it isn’t taught in K-12 schools, but Republicans disagree. Asked whether it’s being taught in North Dakota, Hoeven said, “well, parents want to make sure that it’s not.”

Parents’ primary concern is making sure kids are in the classroom learning, but beyond that, they’re angry that “outward hatred of America” is being taught, either through “critical race theory” or other “far-left messages that alarmed people,” Scalise said. 

“We’re going to continue to fight,” he said. “We’ve always been the party for more parental involvement, for school choice, for more opportunities for kids and parents. And I think there’s never been more interest from parents across the political spectrum in that kind of Republican agenda.”

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Politics, Republicans, Education, Culture Wars, masks, Critical Race Theory, Virginia

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