Political candidates—both Democrats and Republicans—are too focused on race and gender issues in education when they should be putting their energy toward recovering learning lost during the pandemic, voters said in a recent Democrats for Education Reform poll.
Impact Research, a data research firm, conducted the poll from June 14 through June 21 on behalf of DFER, a national organization that supports the election of Democratic candidates who are dedicated to what it describes as progressive education issues, and its think tank partner, Education Reform Now.
Although DFER is aligned with Democratic candidates, the poll was inclusive of voters across the political spectrum, with 31 percent of the 800 voters surveyed identifying as either a “strong Democrat” or “not so strong Democrat,” 33 percent identifying as a “strong Republican” or “not so strong Republican,” and 31 percent identifying as independent. All of the voters live in one of 62 Congressional battleground districts, according to the poll analysis.
The results, which were released July 12, also show that poll respondents trust Republican candidates more than Democrats to “handle issues related to schools and education ,” by a margin of 47 percent to 43 percent, a sharp reversal from past trends captured in other national polls. For the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats far outpaced Republicans in gaining public trust on education issues, according to Gallup, Pew Research Center, and the Wall Street Journal polling results.
Voters believe politicians are not prioritizing learning recovery
Respondents were feeling a disconnect between their own priorities and the priorities of candidates on both sides of the political spectrum.
Of the voters surveyed for the poll, 66 percent said they want schools to focus on helping students make up for lost ground during the COVID-19 pandemic, and only 22 percent said they’d like to see more focus on race and gender issues.
Asked if candidates on both sides of the political spectrum were more focused on race and gender issues or learning recovery, voters said both Republicans and Democrats were more likely to focus on race and gender than catching students up.
“Parents and voters are really focused on the fact that while schools were closed, kids fell way behind,” DFER President Shavar Jeffries said. “Parents across diverse identities, from race to gender to geography, are focused on getting their kids caught up to speed.”
Democratic candidates were especially targeted for having misaligned priorities with voters. In the poll, 54 percent of voters said they believed Democrats were prioritizing race and gender issues over helping students catch up, and 60 percent also said Democrats were more focused on higher education student debt relief than learning recovery.
But GOP candidates were also seen as failing to meet voter priorities with only 33 percent of voters saying they believe Republicans are more focused on learning recovery than race and gender issues. Forty-seven percent of voters said Republicans are more focused on race and gender issues and 19 percent said they don’t know which issue Republicans focus on more.
Media and public attention on “culture wars” involving Critical Race Theory, laws that limit how LGBTQ issues are discussed in the classroom, and efforts to ban books in conservative states may have led to this perception, Jeffries said.
Democrats have long counted on a high level of public trust in their support for education issues. In a 2017 Gallup poll, for example, 54 percent of voters said they believe Democrats would do a better job of dealing with education. In a 2021 Washington Post-ABC poll, 44 percent of voters said they trust Democrats to handle issues related to education and schools and 41 percent said they trust Republicans to do the same. The DFER poll finds the opposite.
Going forward in the 2022 election cycle, Democrats need to “not get caught up in the culture war back and forth,” Jeffries said. “Voters are frankly, according to this poll, fatigued by that conversation.”
Voters push for high-quality tutoring
In addition to surveying voters on their priorities, the poll asked about potential education proposals. Expanding one-on-one and small group tutoring drew the most interest with 37 percent of voters polled by DFER putting it in their top two choices. Twenty-nine percent put “expanding high impact tutoring programs for any student who needs it” in their top two choices.
Other proposals like “improving security and safety on school grounds,” “increasing teacher salaries and improving benefits,” and “expanding after-school and summer school programs” also scored high on the list of proposals.
Democrats in recent weeks have taken actions that could be sign as aligned with some of those priorities. For example, the Biden administration launched two initiatives focused on supplying 250,000 tutors and mentors to schools and expanding access to summer learning and after-school programs.
“I do think we see the potential for Democrats to make up for the ground they’ve lost on education,” Matt Hogan, a partner at Impact Research who worked on the poll, said. “Voters respond well to Democratic proposals,” like those listed in the survey, he said.