- New polling by the National Education Association shows support for strong public schools was key to winning races and right-wing culture war attacks failed.
- The survey found that voters are very positive toward teachers and schools in their neighborhood.
- In addition, critical race theory and other wedge issues did not drive turnout or compel voters outside the conservative base. Voters were more concerned about student safety, education funding and politically-motivated book bans.
In the months leading up to the 2022 mid-term elections, public education was an issue widely expected to shape the outcome of contests up and down the ballot—And it did, just not in the way many expected.
Candidates who accused public schools of “indoctrinating” students with critical race theory (CRT) and LGBTQ+ curriculum and denying “parental rights” were hoping to win over independent voters and emerge victorious on election day. The aim was to duplicate Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021.
As the dust of the 2022 election has settled, however, it’s clear that the “culture war” had negligible impact outside of the core base of voters already motivated by those issues. According to a new National Education Association (NEA) national voter survey released this week, most voters were looking for more positive messages around the real challenges schools, educators, and students face, and less interested in manufactured outrages designed to divide.
“[Voters] supported leaders who have focused on investing in our schools, partnering with educators and parents to help all students, and supporting working families,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “Conversely, parents and voters explicitly rejected extreme politicians who engaged in the politics of division, politicizing our classrooms, banning books, dragging their culture wars into our public schools, and pushing failed privatization schemes.”
The NEA poll, conducted by GBAO Strategies on November 10-19, found widespread support for teachers and their neighborhood schools. Mirroring results of an NEA voter survey in May, the poll found that views about teachers and public schools remain very favorable. Fifty-seven percent of voters are very positive toward schools in their neighborhoods (versus only 18 percent unfavorable). Toward public school teachers, the numbers are even more lopsided— 65 percent favorable versus 15 percent unfavorable.
And seventy-one percent of parents of school-age children — including almost half of Republicans—are also favorable toward teachers.
In addition, critical race theory (CRT), one of the most widely discussed (and misunderstood) education topics of 2021, did not drive turnout in last month’s elections. According to the NEA survey, voters unfavorable toward CRT (62%) were not really any more motivated to vote in the 2022 elections than those voters favorable toward CRT (60%).
According to the NEA survey, voters had other concerns when it came to public education. When asked what issues were factors for them in the 2022 elections, a majority cited school shootings (60%); the need for more “honest” teaching of U.S. history, including slavery, the civil rights movement and Native American history (55%); lack of school funding (55%); politically-motivated book bans (55%); a lack of support for students who fell behind academically during the pandemic (54%); and low teacher salaries and the impact on staffing shortages (54%).
Support for school vouchers, parents not having enough of a say in choosing the books assigned to students, and too much teaching about “negative” side of U.S. history were at the bottom of voter concerns (all below 40%).
Rejection Up and Down the Ballot
Over the past couple of years, school boards have become the epicenter of the culture wars in education. School board meetings became arenas for disruption, chaos, and even threats, often engineered by individuals associated with extremist groups. In 2022, right-wing candidates ran for seats across the nation, vowing to silence educator voices and strip schools of “woke” curriculums.
But again, most of these candidates discovered that these attacks fell flat with voters who were not already ideologically very conservative, therefore failing to generate the kind of enthusiasm needed to win enough of these pivotal races.
The NEA voter survey reveals that while conservative Republicans report being slightly more motivated to vote in school board elections, they were no more likely to say they voted in their own contests than other groups of voters. That includes independent voters who, the survey also found, have a much more varied list of education-related concerns.
The NEA survey helps explain what we saw on Election Day 2022. Rejecting divisive, culture war politics, voters elected candidates who articulated a clear, positive message about public education. Pro-public education candidates won in nearly every competitive gubernatorial race, including Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as 71 percent of the school board races NEA was tracking this cycle. This success was replicated in other key federal, state, and local offices.
Overall, the 2022 election demonstrated widespread support for public schools and an acknowledgment of the struggles they face— including crippling educator shortages, which are only being exacerbated by these relentless attacks by politicians and their extreme positions.
“Now that this election is over,” Pringle said, “It’s time for all of our leaders to focus on providing our students with the resources and support they deserve, respecting and adequately compensating our nation’s heroic educators and public employees, and strengthening public education as the cornerstone of our democracy and our communities.”