BLOG: Woke Goes to Die Over Education at the Ballot Box

Donald Trump’s announcement that he will seek the White House in 2024 serves as a timely reminder that, while many of the high-profile candidates he endorsed in 2022’s midterms performed below expectations, the policies he embraced as a candidate and as president, particularly relating to education freedom and parental rights, have proven enormously popular among the millions of Americans who disagree with the direction the country is heading but previously felt no affinity with the Republican Party. Candidates in the midterm elections who recognized the turning of the tide in voter sentiment toward putting parents in control of their children’s learning and future thus rode what one might call the red wave of parent-centered policy that gained momentum under Trump and that will continue to break in favor of conservatives.

In July, Randi Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers published the results of a poll the union commissioned showing that a sample of voters in key swing states trust Republicans more than Democrats on education issues. These survey results represent a sea change from how Republicans have performed in such polls in the past, shattering the double-digit leads Democrats have enjoyed on education issues over the past few decades.

Conservative gubernatorial candidates with a track record of promoting policies putting parents at the center of decisions about their children’s education capitalized on this momentum in 2022’s midterm elections. They successfully touted their victories over the woke education agenda of Weingarten and other public school union bosses and sold their agenda for reform to promote parental rights and education freedom to voters tired of the status quo.

In August, 15 Republican Governors issued a statement “reaffirming” their “commitment to parents and students,” pledging to “ensur[e] our students experience no disruption to their education and parents have the choice for any option they believe is best for their child,” and asserting that education funding “should be student-centered.” Of the 15, the ten Governors who ran for reelection in 2022 won their races. Seven of those ten candidates won a higher share of the vote in 2022 than they received in the previous election. (One additional signer, Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, extended his margin of victory from his performance in 2018—the latest midterm election in which he competed prior to 2022.)

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida famously took on the unions, the education establishment, and later the Biden administration by keeping schools open during the pandemic and signing laws banning the instruction of young children in gender identity and sexual concepts. He saw his margin of victory rise in Florida from an unconvincing 0.3 percent in the 2018 election to a stunning 19.4 percent in 2022. 
Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa has made education freedom a priority in Iowa by drawing up a bill that would create 10,000 scholarships for school choice and, when it failed, backing Republican primary candidates to help her challenge the school unions’ hegemony. Voters rewarded her with an astounding 18.6-percent margin of victory over her 2022 opponent, as compared with a scant 2.8-percent margin in 2018.

Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia earlier this year signed legislation doubling the cap on donations to the state’s scholarship program for school choice and installing a Parents’ Bill of Rights that requires schools to share with parents instructional materials used to teach their children. His margin of victory over union-backed challenger Stacey Abrams increased from an anemic 1.4 percent in 2018 to a decisive 8.5 percent in 2022.

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidates faced the unpalatable option of deciding whether to back the unpopular status quo or risk the wrath of the union bosses by supporting education freedom initiatives. Some chose the latter. In Pennsylvania, for example, Governor-elect Josh Shapiro’s campaign added language to its website supporting education savings accounts. In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis criticized the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rule change earlier this year that would make it much harder to operate charter schools throughout the country. In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker had to reverse course in October and support a state tax credit scholarship program he attacked as recently as 2018.

In fact, data suggest that victorious Republican candidates received a boost from parental frustration with prolonged school closures in their districts. In Georgia’s Fulton County, where Atlanta schools remained closed through May 2021, and Chatham County, where Savannah’s schools stayed closed during the same time period, Governor Kemp siphoned off an extra four to five percent of voters in 2022 as compared to Donald Trump’s performance in 2020. Nevada’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak, competing with now-Governor-elect Joe Lombardo, performed worse than President Biden in 2020 by three percentage points in both Clark and Elko Counties—both of which remained closed for portions of the 2020–21 school year.

Beyond these gubernatorial races, candidates for statewide education offices won their races on platforms of freedom and parental rights. In South Carolina, Ellen Weaver won the race for Superintendent for Education with pledges to expand school choice and promote “total transparency” for parents regarding what their children are taught. In his victorious bid to become Oklahoma’s next Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state’s current Secretary of Education Ryan Walters won more votes than incumbent Governor-Elect Kevin Stitt (who also won his race and extended his margin of victory) on a platform of opposing politicized indoctrination in the classroom and promoting school choice. Conservatives won decisively in races for the state boards of education in Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas with promises to halt indoctrination in CRT and gender identity in the states’ schools. 

The clear lesson is that conservatives running for election at the state level can win with a solid policy agenda pledging to advance parental rights and education freedom, and by backing up that agenda with solid victories over the unions and their progressive allies while in office. Conservative candidates who heed this lesson and pledge to counter the union command-and-control agenda are poised to improve their performance in future elections. Progressives who cater to union bosses—and political opportunists who fail to make good on their campaign promises to expand education freedom—have a long road ahead in a world that is leaving them and their tired policies behind.

To borrow a phrase, the political battlefield over education in America might just be where woke goes to die.

Paul Zimmerman, Policy Counsel
Defense of Freedom Institute
This piece was originally published on