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Back To School

Public Schools Are in Danger

Democrats may be winning the culture war in the classroom, but a fight against right-wing book banning won't be enough to save public eduction.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images
President Joe Biden speaks at Brookland Middle School in Washington, D.C.

President Joe Biden wants you to know something: The GOP is banning books. As the 2024 presidential contest heats up, Biden is making this issue—one of many that reveals how once-fringe causes are now mainstream GOP positions—a central theme of his own campaign messaging, warning voters that restricting what kids can read is part of a larger effort by Republicans to roll back freedoms.

Biden is right to highlight the issue. Polls have consistently shown that book bans are deeply unpopular with a broad cross section of Americans, and with key suburban voters in particular. But merely making the GOP synonymous with banning books isn’t enough to overcome the Democrats’ education problem. Even as Biden and the party more broadly are showing a growing comfort responding to Republicans’ myriad culture-war attacks, Democrats have yet to make a compelling case for why we have public schools in the first place.

For most of the past several generations, Democrats and Republicans alike embraced the idea that the primary purpose of education was to prepare people for jobs, and by extension address the nation’s deepening economic inequality. But while both parties advanced this narrative, it was the Democrats who fell hardest for what historian Jon Shelton calls the “education myth.” In their transition from Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition to Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, the party gave up its historical support for unionism and redistribution and became enamored with the idea that a rising tide of education would lift all boats. By the time of Barack Obama’s presidency, it was a party mantra that schooling—with a particular emphasis on obtaining college degrees—was the solution for economic insecurity.

But even as Democrats talked about education more and more, their understanding of why we have public schools in the first place continued to narrow. Lost in all the rhetoric about “ladders of opportunity” and “college and career readiness” was any larger sense of civic and democratic purpose. Education, as Democrats framed it, was good for one thing and one thing alone: getting a job.

Losing the plot has been disastrous for Democrats. Beginning in the 1980s, Democrats began to hemorrhage working-class voters without college degrees. Their message—that blue-collar workers simply needed more education, at a time when jobs were disappearing and wages were declining—rang as oblivious and insulting. But it also had serious consequences for K-12 and higher education. The nation’s schools were blamed for failing to blunt the impact of globalization and prepare American’s for “twenty-first century demands.” Meanwhile, colleges and universities became the target of right-wing ire for their association with elite Democrats whose only anti-poverty policy was college for all.

Today, the Democratic Party is slightly less in thrall to the education myth. The Biden administration’s steps toward student loan forgiveness, for example, is an overdue recognition that the college-for-all sales pitch has left millions of Americans saddled with debt and that schooling alone can’t lift everyone into the middle class. And by hailing unions and worker organizing, Biden has acknowledged the importance of collective action in boosting wages. The dramatic success of the (sadly short-lived) expanded child tax credit in reducing poverty is also likely to ease Democrats’ apprehensions about a more redistributionist agenda.

Yet while Democrats are, at long last, moving away from over-selling schools as a panacea for inequality, they have yet to offer any kind of alternative explanation of why we need public education. Meanwhile, Republicans are stepping up their incendiary claims, painting public schools as sites of indoctrination where kids are taught to hate God, the country, and their parents.

Already, Republican presidential aspirants have made clear that the school culture wars will be central to their campaigns. Former Vice President Mike Pence is running ads in Iowa targeting a single school district’s gender-affirming policies. Ron DeSantis is railing against “woke” ideology and “pornographic” books in schools. Donald Trump recently pledged to supporters that he would find “radical Marxists and zealots” in schools and “have them escorted from the building.” And Vivek Ramaswamy, the wealthy entrepreneur who is steadily rising in the polls, is making the argument that the Democrats’ college-for-all pitch was a costly and insulting mistake a central theme of his campaign.

Biden is right to recognize the waning appeal of such extreme rhetoric with voters as an opportunity for Democrats. According to a recent Fox News poll, a majority of Americans now view book banning in schools as a major problem. Another poll found deep concern among independent voters over Republican bans on teaching accurate history in the public schools. According to that survey, independents are as fearful of such policies as they are of cuts to Social Security and Medicare or a national ban on abortion.

During the 2022 midterms, Republican gubernatorial candidates who ran on school culture-war platforms lost in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Their radical claims about “indoctrination” in the public schools failed to resonate with ordinary voters, most of whom maintain relatively high levels of confidence in teachers. And during this spring’s election cycle, culture-war candidates for school board, including those backed by conservative advocacy groups like Moms for Liberty and the 1776 PAC, largely flamed out, in part because voters increasingly associate the rhetoric of “parental rights” with censorship and intolerance.

It isn’t enough, though, for Democrats to link the GOP and its standard-bearers to book banning, as pollster Celinda Lake recently predicted that Democratic candidates will be doing “up and down the ticket.” To win the issue, they also need to remind Americans what education is good for. Yes, it can create economic opportunity. But our education system has long done so much more. Schools serve as anchors of local communities, especially for rural voters who have long felt ignored by Democrats. Schools prepare students for the responsibilities of life in a democracy—training that is badly needed in these days of civic fragmentation. And schools are places where all young people, regardless of family circumstances, receive relatively equal treatment; they are our strongest commitment to the promise of an equal society.

The Republican Party is engaged in an all-out assault on public education. But Democrats can’t win simply by pointing out the least popular aspects of that agenda. And they certainly won’t win if they continue to embrace the idea that the heart of education is human capital development for a globalized economy. Winning education back means reminding Americans of everything that schools can be.

In doing so, Democrats should take inspiration from the countless places where broad coalitions of parents, teachers, students, and other community members have successfully resisted extremist policies, standing up for public education as an essential democratic institution in the process. By making the case for schools in which every student has the freedom to learn in a safe, affirming environment, these coalitions aren’t just convincing Democratic voters to show up to the polls—they’re winning over independents, and even Republicans, in the process.