A new poll from the nation’s largest teachers union found that culture-war attacks on public schools largely fell flat in the 2022 midterm elections, proving less important to voters than concerns about school shootings and traditional concerns over school funding.
The findings help explain why a number of Democratic governors and gubernatorial candidates ― including Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Arizona Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs ― were able to successfully fight off conservative Republicans who made the treatment of transgender students, and the previously obscure academic framework known as critical race theory, into prominent issues in their races.
“A huge, huge amount of time and money was invested in CRT by conservative politicians and media,” said Margie Omero, a pollster at the Democratic firm GBAO Strategies who conducted the survey for the National Education Association. “Voters rejected what Republicans were offering, and their attempts to create a wedge issue on public schools.”
In Wisconsin, Evers successfully portrayed GOP Gov. Tim Michels’ support for school choice as a threat to public schools. In Kansas, Kelly fought off multiple ads attacking her veto of legislation to bar transgender students from competing in sports aligned with their gender identity. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was able to shrug off ads suggesting that schools were more focused on a “woke” agenda than on reading, writing and arithmetic.
Republicans first become excited about the electoral potency of culture-war attacks during the 2021 Virginia governor’s race, when a host of education-related controversies ― including whether schools in the state taught critical race theory, a major suburban school district’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, pandemic-era closures and Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe downplaying of the role of parents in education ― helped now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin win.
But the precise role of critical race theory in Youngkin’s win was up for debate among political analysts. And even before the 2022 midterms, there were clear signs the GOP was struggling to turn the education culture wars into a winning issue. Just 1.7% of Republican ads mentioned CRT, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. A September memo from the Republican National Committee told GOP campaigns they needed to connect culture war issues to existing voter concerns, including pandemic-era learning loss.
The survey found that a full three-fifths of midterm voters said school shootings were a major factor in their vote, more than any other education issue.
Voters placed far less importance on right-wing culture war topics. Forty-three percent were worried about schools teaching critical race theory to be “politically correct,” while 42% said they worried about indoctrination from “radical left-wing teachers.”
By comparison, voters were notably more concerned about book bans and conservative attempts to censor history. Fifty-five percent said a major concern for them was students “not getting a complete, honest history of our country,” and an identical percentage expressed worry about “too many politicians … banning books or topics that don’t align with their personal beliefs, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Holocaust.”
The findings reflect that while the idea of critical race theory fired up Republican base voters, it did not significantly move persuadable voters in 2022. “Culture war issues do not resonate with independent voters much at all,” the poll bluntly states.
Voters also had more practical and traditional concerns about education funding and learning. Fifty-five percent said schools failing to get enough funding was a major concern, while 54% said the same about pandemic-era learning loss and about low teacher salaries causing a staffing shortage at schools.
Moreover, the poll found that a relatively low percentage of voters were animated by school choice issues. Just 38% of voters said school vouchers taking money from public schools was a major factor in their vote, and only 29% said the lack of school choice options for parents was a major factor.
The poll also found that the public still has positive views of public schools and teachers. Fifty-seven percent said they have a favorable opinion of K-12 schools in their neighborhood, with just 18% holding an unfavorable opinion. Nearly two-thirds have a favorable opinion of teachers, with just 15% holding a negative opinion.
Notably, very few voters view themselves in political opposition to teachers. Sixty-two percent of voters said they are aligned with teachers on public education issues, while only 17% said they are opposed. Even among Republicans, a 39% plurality of voters said they are aligned with teachers, compared to 34% who are opposed.
There are still signs that Democrats have not fully regained the edge they had on education issues before the pandemic, with a number of pre-election surveys showing them with a smaller edge than would be typical. Some successful GOP campaigns, including the reelection effort of Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.), attacked their Democratic opponents for supporting pandemic-era school closures.
GBAO conducted the poll from Nov. 10 to Nov. 19 via landlines and cellphones, surveying 1,200 voters who cast a ballot in the midterms. The margin of error on the poll is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.