Prospective GOP candidates for president are leaning heavily into education amid concerns over issues like parental rights and the politicization of school curriculums.
Underscoring how critical an issue it is for Republicans, former President Trump unveiled his education platform on Thursday, calling for cutting federal funds to any education program that involves “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children.”
The move comes after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), both seen as top potential challengers to Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, have made headlines in recent weeks with a series of education-related actions.
DeSantis sparked controversy most recently by rejecting an Advance Placement African American studies course earlier this month, while Youngkin launched an investigation into multiple northern Virginia schools for not giving students the news that they had qualified for National Merit Scholarships in a timely fashion.
Their actions come as potential GOP candidates search for winning issues after a disappointing midterm election. They also suggest that Republicans will take a page out of Youngkin’s playbook, after he made school issues a winning platform in Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2021.
“You can look at the way Glenn Youngkin became governor of Virginia,” said Republican strategist Alex Stroman. “I would say it was largely because of out-of-control school districts and kind of the climate that was born out of what was happening with COVID and some of the responses and parents starting to pay attention to education because they were forced to.”
Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign had nine different education models to target nine different types of education voters.
“It was a very sophisticated, deliberate goal to make education the forefront,” said Kristin Davison, a political adviser to Youngkin. “We made a decision very early on in 2021 that we were going to go on offense on education because Republicans always played defense, and it wasn’t an easy decision and all of these people said we were crazy, but it ended up working out.”
Youngkin notably zeroed in on his opponent, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for saying that he did not believe parents should be telling schools what they should teach.
The Virginia governor’s supporters credit him for writing the GOP playbook on education after the party had struggled for years to go on offense on the issue.
“Gov. Youngkin put education on the map for Republicans,” said one GOP strategist. “He was the first Republican candidate to have education be a central part of his campaign platform and win.”
“All 2024 potential candidates saw what Glenn did in 2021,” the strategist said.
Education has also catapulted DeSantis, who is viewed as a potential replacement for Trump, into the spotlight.
Like Youngkin, DeSantis used his coronavirus response as a way to mold his own policy on education in the Sunshine State.
“If you look at Ron DeSantis’s meteoric rise among Republican base voters, it’d be the same thing,” Stroman said. “It was COVID policies, but really with a focus on school districts.”
But DeSantis’s policies related to education have also sparked controversy, drawing condemnation from his critics.
Last year, the Florida governor signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and limited it to “age appropriate” material for grades above third.
More recently, DeSantis made headlines for his defense of his administration’s decision to reject the AP African American studies course, arguing it has “a political agenda and leaves large, ambiguous gaps that can be filled with additional ideological material.”
Many strategists say the backlash will only play into DeSantis’s hands.
“This is starting to take the form of the media Democratic pile-on that occurred during the alleged ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
“When KJP stands up there and pretends that he’s George Wallace at a school door, the Democrats are jumping the shark,” he added, referring to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “When the dust settles, whether it’s this or Disney or the parental rights bill, he knows that he’s most likely going to prove victorious.”
The actions also throw red meat to the Republican base.
“It’s flashy newsmaking that appeals here because he knows that that is going to make news in conservative media, whether that’s Fox or Newsmax,” said another GOP strategist.
While education-related issues will likely play well with the party’s tried-and-true primary voters, it remains to be seen which candidate will be able to successfully message on the issue on the national stage.
Insiders point out that candidates like DeSantis and Youngkin differ stylistically on the issue, not only because of their different personalities, but because of their states’ unique political landscapes.
DeSantis has catered toward an increasingly red electorate in the Sunshine State, while Youngkin has had to walk a fine line in Virginia, which is a purple state with an arguably blue lean.
“I think that right now we’re up against such fierce forces that really will destroy, so you kind of got to answer back just as forcefully as they do. But Glenn Youngkin’s strategy has been really working in Virginia,” said Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project.
“I prefer DeSantis,” noted Schilling. “I think that his very direct style is what’s needed right now in politics, but there is something to say about Glenn Youngkin’s style as well. He’s in a blue state and he’s governing pretty successfully.”
Strategists say that for the governors that decide to jump into the presidential fray, their records on the issue will be put to the test on education in the primary.
“That’s going to be a key point to see which people just put out a tweet, put out a press release, and give it lip service and which people show up with action to fight the fight,” Davison said.