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Republicans turn to new political races: school superintendents

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

State superintendents of education used to be somewhat obscure, and in many states, they are appointed, not elected. But after pandemic shutdowns and debates around curriculum, public schools have become a new political battleground in everything from district school board elections to statewide races for governor. In six conservative-led states, Republicans are moving intently to get their candidates for superintendent elected in November. Juan Perez Jr. is following all of those races for Politico, and he joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JUAN PEREZ JR: Thanks so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. OK. So in the six states you have focused on in your reporting, what types of issues are these candidates running on?

PEREZ: Well, there's a lot of concerns about critical race theory. There's a lot of concerns about parents' rights in education. There's a lot of concerns about state legislation that's so far targeted kind of cultural concerns that we've long talked about and noted, like the ability of transgender students to participate on sports teams that match with their gender identity, the role of curriculum, race in history. What kind of books should or shouldn't be in classrooms? These issues have predominated conservative primary campaigns in a lot of these states for clear reasons. They help motivate the base, for starters. But one of the interesting throughlines that we're going to have to watch here are whether moderate voters, whether independent voters and moderate Republicans are kind of put off by some of the culture war concerns and more focused on something like academics, bringing students back onto track after the pandemic.

SUMMERS: OK. Let's dig into the details a little bit here. Can you give us some examples of how Republicans are supporting these candidates? Like, what kind of money are we talking about here?

PEREZ: OK. We're not talking tens of millions of dollars, but it's still pretty notable. OK? Let's go to Oklahoma for a moment. For starters, the Americans for Prosperity Group and some other education organizations in the state have poured in a combined hundreds of thousands of dollars to back the campaign of Ryan Walters, who's the Republican candidate for superintendent in that state. It should be noted, of course, that former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also put in thousands of dollars of her own money and her family has as well. We're not talking huge amounts here, but it is clear that there is substantial attention on these issues.

SUMMERS: You know, it's a little surprising to me. It feels like Republicans are investing more attention into down ballot public education races and these issues even perhaps than during the Trump administration. Is that what you've seen?

PEREZ: I think that's true. For starters, I think we should note - education and schooling have always been political, right? Yet the pandemic, our nation's ongoing reckoning with race, gender identity, have made it clear that the environment was ripe for a shift, a pendulum swing. Recent polling from one Democratic education advocacy group from this summer concluded that parents and voters of color in dozens of congressional battlegrounds, they were more likely to trust Republicans on education policy than Democrats.

SUMMERS: OK. So we've talked a lot about the attention that conservative Republicans across the country are paying to these offices. Have Democratic candidates offered any sort of counter narrative or funding to match that intensity on the right?

PEREZ: I think they're working on it. The challenge is whether it's actually breaking through, particularly in red states, where, again, this stuff is so potent, such a potent issue for base voters. There's emerging polling and messaging, guidance and strategy coming out of Democrats right now that are trying to get candidates focused on, I guess, what I would describe as bread-and-butter issues, back on academics, back on the classroom, back on teacher pay, back on what we need to do to make sure children catch up after years of disrupted schooling amid the coronavirus pandemic. And I think that's partly because they want to appeal not only to voters who are very concerned about these issues, but also, again, moderates and independents who may be turned off by some of the far-right culture war messaging that's been animating primary campaigns.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Juan Perez Jr., education reporter for Politico. Thank you so much.

PEREZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.