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Where’s ‘Woke’? Republicans Test a Different Education Message

Earlier this year, the Republican presidential primary looked as though it would be driven by conservative cultural battles, especially fights over education that had animated the party’s base since the pandemic.

Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed poised to lead the charge, thanks to an “anti-woke” agenda he put into effect in Florida, restricting how schools teach America’s racial history, banning lessons about gender identity and empowering parents to have books removed from libraries and classrooms.

Even Donald J. Trump seemed to be trying to outflank Mr. DeSantis on education policies, promising to root out “Marxists” in the Education Department.

But anti-wokeness has not played as large a role as expected in the Republican race so far. On the campaign trail, Mr. DeSantis has refocused his stump speech on the economy and border security while leaning less into culture-war issues. Former Vice President Mike Pence called in a speech this month to redistribute federal education spending to states — a traditional Republican goal dating from long before anti-woke crusades.

In the first primary debate last week, the word “woke” was uttered exactly once. Instead, when the topic was education, the conversation onstage in Milwaukee sounded more like a product of the Reagan era than the Trump era.

There were calls to eliminate the Education Department.

To expand “school choice.”

To slay the teachers’ unions.

The focus on a throwback set of education topics seems to signal that Republicans are seeking to frame the 2024 campaign around topics beyond their opposition to “wokeness” — generally understood as liberal views on race and gender — as they try to appeal to audiences wider than conservative activists. On education, the candidates were turning to a general election message, though one with familiar echoes.

“The old Reagan agenda was front and center, and the post-Trump agenda didn’t get much attention,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. He noted that after school closures during the pandemic, some polling showed a reversal in voters’ longstanding preference for Democrats on education issues. “I think what you see is Republican candidates trying to find a way to leverage that support into something sustainable,” he said.

On Monday, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina rolled out a plan that seeks to unite older and more recent Republican talking points on education. Calling his proposal the “Empower Parents Plan,” Mr. Scott said he wanted to “enact nationwide school choice,” while also ripping “the false notions of ‘equity’ and the left’s attacks on honors classes.”

A cooling-off of the cultural battle over education in the political conversation could reflect recent electoral history showing that railing against “woke” ideology plays well with social conservatives, but also that most parents are more concerned about children’s pandemic-era learning loss and a lack of mental health support in schools.

The sole time the word “woke” was spoken in the two-hour debate last week was when Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, seemed to dismiss school-based cultural issues as a distraction from student learning. “There’s a lot of crazy, woke things happening in schools, but we have got to get these kids reading,” Ms. Haley said, touching on both traditional and current issues for conservatives.

For his part, Mr. DeSantis nodded to the bans on critical race theory and what he called “gender ideology” that he enacted in Florida schools (though there is no evidence that critical race theory was taught in the state’s K-12 schools). On the stump before Republican audiences, the governor still reels off an alphabet soup of anti-woke targets like C.R.T., for critical race theory, and E.S.G., for environmental, social and governance corporate investment policies.

But Mr. DeSantis has also adjusted the way he presents those issues, making more of an effort to explain why they matter.

Aides to the DeSantis campaign say that since the governor has successfully introduced himself to voters as an anti-woke warrior, he is now ramping up his messaging on other policies.

Asked in Iowa the day after the debate why he hadn’t emphasized an anti-woke message during the widely viewed televised broadcast, Mr. DeSantis said there were few questions prompting the topic. (Education was the fourth most-discussed issue at the debate, just below abortion, Donald Trump and their credentials, according a Times analysis.)

“I mean, for example, they asked a question about U.F.O.s,” Mr. DeSantis said. “They didn’t ask about things like D.E.I. in universities and corporate settings.”

It’s not uncommon for candidates to use different rhetoric on the campaign trail or in fund-raising requests to activists than they may use during debates to primary voters. And in many settings, Mr. DeSantis is still invoking “woke” issues to stir up his base.

In a fund-raising text last week sent to supporters, Mr. DeSantis wrote, “Across the nation, I am witnessing radical ideology, brimming with hate and guilt, shoved down the throats of children from their earliest days of school.”

One possible motive for candidates to de-emphasize education in culture-war terms is the lesson of the 2022 midterms at the local level. In nearly 1,800 school board races nationwide, conservative candidates who opposed discussions of race or gender in classrooms, or opposed mask mandates during the pandemic, lost 70 percent of their races, according to Ballotpedia, a site that tracks U.S. elections. A Republican National Committee memo from last September warned candidates that “focusing on C.R.T. and masks excites the G.O.P. base, but parental rights and quality education drive independents.”

“These culture-war arguments are falling flat,” said Karen M. White, deputy executive director of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. “Banning books and talking about gender identity is not the approach parents and educators and students want.”

Traditionally, Republicans have sought to push control of education down to the local level and minimize federal involvement. Under President George W. Bush, the party briefly changed course with the No Child Left Behind Act, which created a rigorous federal program to compel schools to raise student achievement.

But sentiment shifted again with Republicans’ rejection of the Obama administration’s promotion of Common Core learning standards a decade ago. Now, some candidates, most visibly Mr. DeSantis, have suggested that the federal government intervene more vigorously with policies like banning critical race theory in schools nationally, and defunding diversity, equity and inclusion offices in higher education, as he has done in Florida’s public colleges and universities.

“We’re going to do similar things across the United States,” Mr. DeSantis said in Rock Rapids, Iowa, during a campaign swing on Friday.

At the same time, he, too, supports eliminating the Education Department. First proposed by Ronald Reagan in the presidential campaign of 1980, killing the department has been a Republican talking point ever since.

In the debate last week, Mr. Pence, Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who styles himself as a millennial embodiment of Trumpism, all said that the department must go. Mr. Ramaswamy called it “the head of the snake.”

But no Republican administration or G.O.P.-led Congress has seriously tried to shutter the Education Department. Its major programs are widely popular. They include Pell grants for low-income college students, so-called Title 1 subsidies for schools in low-income communities and funds to ensure that students with disabilities get an equal education.

“Given that Republicans don’t even want to trim Medicare and Social Security, it’s incredibly hard to see any credible path forward on defunding the major Department of Education programs,” said Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

“There’s no way you can get even half the Republican caucus in the House to zero out money for kids with special needs,” he added. “Nobody wants to zero out Title 1. And nobody wants to zero out Pell grants.”

Ann Klein contributed reporting from Dyersville, Iowa.

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