Democrats are losing the trust of voters on K-12 education issues, and in battleground states there are signs they’ve ceded that trust altogether to the GOP – a historic reversal that comes just months ahead of midterm elections on an issue the Democratic Party has historically dominated.
Polling released by the Democrats for Education Reform – a national political organization that backs Democratic candidates who support charter schools, more equitable school funding models, standardized testing and other reform-friendly policies – shows that likely voters in 62 congressional battleground districts no longer trust Democrats over Republicans on issues related to education.
“This poll shows that Democrats’ historic advantage on education has been erased,” says Matt Hogan, a partner at Impact Research, the firm that conducted the poll. “While Democrats typically enjoyed a double-digit advantage on which party was more trusted on education before the pandemic, voters in these battleground districts now narrowly trust Republicans more on the issue.”
Indeed, the poll found that 43% of likely voters said they trust Democrats on issues of education compared to 47% who said they trust Republicans.
Notably, the poll was conducted between June 14 and June 21, prior to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade – the 1973 landmark decision that for nearly half a century has protected a woman’s right to access abortion, which many polical strategists are predicting will give Democrats an edge that they previously didn’t have.
Yet the poll reveals an ongoing and potentially deeper and calcifying problem for Democrats, who have long assumed the role as the party of education: The trust gap widens among parents, with Democrats trailing by 9 percentage points, and among voters of color, with Democrats trailing Republicans by 10 percentage points.
Those figures, the polling researchers underscored, represent a steep drop-off from before the pandemic, when Democrats enjoyed a double-digit advantage on education. Data pulled from the poll’s focus groups of swing voters showed a lack of awareness for Democrats’ priorities on public education and a perception that educational funding is misallocated.
Among other things, the poll also found that voters want lawmakers to focus on helping students make up lost ground from the pandemic but think both parties – and especially Democrats – are more focused on how race and gender issues are taught in schools: 47% believe Republicans are too focused on race and gender compared to 54% who think Democrats are too focused on race and gender.
“This poll should raise alarm bells for Democrats,” says Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries.
“Our nation is facing an education crisis of historic proportions,” he says. “Voters are clearly frustrated and eager for leaders who will embrace innovation to enable students to recover from the pandemic and succeed in their futures.”
But the crisis for Democrats has been months in the making.
Political strategists have been sounding the alarm since the 2021 off-year election, during which Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a Virginia gubernatorial race that featured education as the hallmark issue driving voters to the polls, as well as a New Jersey race in which incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was nearly ousted in the same fashion.
Since then, heaps of public opinion polling have hinted at an erosion in voters trusting that Democrats offer the best path forward for the country’s public school system.
Though typically far down on the list of issues driving voters to the polls, education is set to play an elevated role during the looming election season in the wake of two years of pandemic schooling that locked students out of classrooms, drove steep academic declines and unearthed an alarming mental health crisis among adolescents.
Republicans effectively capitalized on the narrative in 2021 by casting it as an issue of diminishing parental rights – a successful strategy that served as much as a wake-up call for the Democratic Party that it had a major messaging problem as it was a validation of conservatives’ playbook.
The Biden administration has been trying to regain some of the stature for Democrats, touting the hundreds of billions of dollars in American Rescue Plan funding devoted to academic recovery, increasing mental health supports and hiring teachers and other school staff. And last month, the Education Department created a parent council to help officials better engage in their children’s schools – a move that acknowledged the success Republicans have had in tapping into parents’ frustrations over a third year of pandemic schooling.
Jeffries is quick to point out that just because Democrats are now underwater in the trust department, it doesn’t mean that Republicans have cemented confidence among voters on K-12 issues. In fact, he says, the polling shows there’s room for Democrats to rebound if they can craft the right messaging and focus on things like federal pandemic recovery relief that bolsters tutoring and mental health support, or Republicans’ continued focus on banning books and culture wars that alienate Black families and LGBTQ students.
“Our party can combine resources and reforms to rebuild trust with voters,” he says, “and most importantly, provide a high-quality education for every student.”