Colleges turn out to be a political “battlefield” within the tradition wars that Trump has cultivated

Schools have become a focal point for cultural warfare that revitalized former President Donald Trump’s grassroots base and has been driven by conservative activists and influencers since his retirement.

Grassroots Conservative activists spent months focusing on local education policies with a tea party-like fervor – from reopening debates, teaching US history, and the masking required. Now conservative figures are urging their supporters to run for seats on the school committee, which have rarely attracted much interest, while dozens of school-centered activist groups have sprung up to fuel the struggles.

The influence of the effort can be seen at almost all levels of school administration. State lawmakers have passed bills to restrict teaching. Republican governors have conflicted with the school administration over the district’s masking policy. School board meetings have turned into screaming fights, and some have even turned violent.

Longtime operators in the education world say they have never seen anything like it.

“Usually our children were taboo,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest unions in the country. “We had tensions about the Common Core. There was tension over other issues. But in modern history, since the great desegregation battles, children have been taboo. Now they are the battlefield. “

Even the summer was controversial: the Proud Boys showed up at school council meetings in New Hampshire, fights broke out over a mask mandate outside a Florida school district, and men turned up with zip ties to confront an Arizona school principal after a student was quarantined ordered.

Late last month, a Republican candidate for Northampton County, Pennsylvania said he would get school authorities to bow to his will by showing up “with 20 strong men” and giving them “an option – they can go or they can be removed . “

Jeff Timmer, former Michigan GOP chairman, who got mad at the party and supported President Joe Biden, said he was increasingly concerned about radicalization at the school level.

“When these people are appointed to school boards, they will start setting the curriculum. And that will have a long-term effect, “said Timmer, adding that the pressure on activists to run for the school inspectorate is” more alarming “than anything I’ve seen before.”

Groups have sprung up across the country to support the effort, including No Left Turn in Education, Parents Rights in Education, and Moms for Liberty. NBC News reported earlier that year that at least 165 such local and national groups had emerged to influence the battle over schools, many of them reinforced by a network of conservative think tanks, law firms, and activist parents.

The organizations began to flex their muscles in the conservative backlash against critical racial theory, often used as a collective term for diversity training and other anti-racism efforts. While there was little evidence that the theory itself – an academic area of ​​study examining the modern effects of systemic racism on law and society – was taught in K-12 schools, more than 20 bills restricting racism in schools have been passed introduced into state houses, and a handful of governors signed such a law.

Public school leaders and advocates said the movement was trying to delegitimize public schools while strengthening charter and private schools. Tina Descovish, co-founder of Moms for Liberty and a former member of the Brevard County, Florida school board, said this was not the case with her group, which lists more than 110 chapters on their website.

“A lot of conservatives are trying to blow up public education. We know it,” she said. “I bet it’s no secret. That is not the point of our organization at all. We love public education. We want to fix public education. We want to stay in public education. And we want parents to participate in public education. “

The effort coincides with a large partisan chasm in the view of the K-12 public schools. A poll by the Pew Research Center published last month found that 42 percent of Republicans believe public schools have a positive impact on the country, while 57 percent say the effects are negative. For the Democrats it was 77 percent and 22 percent.

The battle to reopen schools began last year when months of virtual learning took its toll on exhausted parents and their children. Trump was one of the loudest voices in favor of reopening schools last year and tweeted in July 2020: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN AUTUMN !! ! “At the start of Biden’s tenure, senior Republican officials had hoped that parents angry with the reopening process would be key to winning back the House and Senate by winning the suburbs to Biden.

But while polls at the time revealed a dynamic behind the reopening, polls failed to show that the conservative backlash to critical racial theory and masked mandates in schools are broad political winners. Surveys show that more Americans are in favor of students wearing masks than those who oppose it, as recent polls by AP / NORC and Axios-Ipsos have shown.

Now Republicans in Congress have shifted their focus to issues like inflation, crime and border security.

“The fight for schools is part of the larger Covid conversation at the moment,” said a senior GOP Congress official. “It’s on the front line for a lot of parents, but it’s still not in the top 3 topics for the entire electorate.”

As childhood Covid cases rise across the country, Republicans who lead charges of reopening schools and combating masked mandates risk being held responsible for outbreaks among high school students.

Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which supports moderate Republicans, said parents “don’t care what it takes” to ensure their children are in school, whether or not it is a mandatory mask means or not. Children under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated yet.

“They just want their kids to go back to school,” she said. “But they feel like it’s the school districts, the teachers, the people who know the parents, the kids who should make those decisions, as opposed to someone who is in the state capital and has no idea about it, what’s going on in it. ” special community. “

In Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott ordered schools not to require masking, schools have seen more than 50,000 confirmed student Covid cases in weeks as more than a dozen districts have been temporarily closed, Houston Public Media reported. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is pushing fines against counties that defy his anti-mandate ordinance, even after a state judge overturned the decree. More than a dozen districts have resisted the order.

The Biden administration has waded into battle; The Department of Education is investigating whether five states in which prohibited mask requirements violate the civil rights of high-risk students are violating them.

Alachua County public school director Carlee Simon was at the forefront of the Florida brawl. As the head of one of the first districts in Florida to require masking at the beginning of the school year, she has come under fire from the DeSantis administration, which has set itself the goal of district funding.

“If the end goal is to have as many students as possible in the school, then the behaviors, actions, and guidelines my district has adopted have a better chance of us achieving that end goal,” said she .

Ultimately, Weingarten said the focus on schools was part of the far right’s broader search for wedge issues ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“It’s about constant destabilization, to create anger, to take advantage of the fear people are having right now,” she said. “It’s also kind of rooted in destabilizing the institutions in America that, you know, have long been used to unite the country. Like big neighborhood public schools.”

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