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Vanity Fair: Republicans Have Staked Their Claim on Education. Democrats Can Take It Back

President Biden and his allies should rally not only around affirmative action and student loan forgiveness—both of which were struck down by the Supreme Court last week—but education more broadly.

July 6, 2023 

Eric Lutz


GOP frontrunner Donald Trump says he’ll make America “tops in education” if he’s elected in 2024, promising to rescue the country’s children from the “pink-haired communists” teaching them. Ron DeSantis, his next closest challenger, has dubbed himself the “Education Governor,” and essentially premised his presidential campaign on nationalizing the Orwellian program he’s imposed on Florida’s schools. Their rivals, meanwhile, have followed their lead, vowing to rid America’s classrooms of what they perceive as “woke ideology” and rallying around a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.

It’s a cynical political play, of course—a moral panic led by Republicans to leverage their base’s fears and prejudices into votes. But it’s also part of a broader “war on ideas,” as my colleague Molly Jong-Fast put it recently—a quest not just win elections but to erase, rewrite, and marginalize ideas, people, and history it deems threatening.

This dangerous anti-education crusade has arguably been most potent at the state level, where Republicans are, among other thingsbanning books; barring discussion of racegender, and sexualityundermining public education; and intimidating teachers and librarians. But their crusade also reared its head at the Supreme Court last week, when the conservative majority the GOP installed struck down affirmative action and President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan—both programs that, either in practice or in promise, strove to make education more accessible to all Americans.

“Turning back the clock…the Court indulges those who either do not know our nation’s history,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in a scathing dissent in one of the two affirmative action cases decided this term, “or long to repeat it.”

That could become something of a 2024 rallying cry for Democrats, who are seeking to use the Supreme Court decrees as a cudgel against Republicans—the same way they used Dobbs against the GOP last November. Biden and a number of Democrats sharply criticized the court’s precedent-breaking affirmative action decision, promising to find a “new path forward” to ensure colleges and universities don’t “abandon their commitment to ensure student bodies of diverse backgrounds and experience that reflect all of America.” The president also said he was seeking out another way to provide relief to the millions of Americans whose educations have buried them deep in debt—an issue Democrats hope could animate their base, as well as moderates, next year.

“You have a clear person who is trying to get this done, and you have a clear entity that’s not,” as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Politico Thursday. “And so I think that we have to fight instead of just complaining about it.”

To be sure, public opinion on the programs in question has been more mixed than on, say, the right to an abortion, which the same six Supreme Court justices struck down last year. That decision not only upended the American healthcare system but sent shockwaves across the political landscape, weakening Republicans’ standing in a 2022 midterm cycle they had expected to dominate. Where Americans overwhelmingly support abortion access, polls suggest most of the country disapproves of race-conscious admissions policies. It's also hard to say whether voters will be as animated by student debt relief—a comparatively new movement—as they were around the longstanding movement for reproductive freedom, as Mike Pierce, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, noted to Politico. “To sell it to the American people,” he said, “you need to be more political than you do to convince the median Biden White House staffer that what you’re working on is a good idea.” 

Democrats and their allies have already begun making their case: On affirmative action, they are expanding their pitch, arguing that, unlike Republicans, they are working to provide greater opportunity for everybody—across both racial and class lines. “What we’re fighting for is equal opportunity,” as Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro told the New York Times last week. “If they get rid of affirmative action and leave rampant legacy admissions”—which was quickly challenged in a lawsuit against Harvard filed by a trio of civil rights organizations after the affirmative action ruling—“they’re making merit a slogan, not a reality.”

Meanwhile, Protect Borrowers Action—a student loan relief advocacy group—is taking direct aim at Republicans who have fought forgiveness, notably through a new ad campaign launched Thursday. “We’re gonna make sure they hear from their constituents who they kept drowning in debt,” the narrator says in the ad, naming 13 House Republicans, including Scott Perry, chair of the hard right Freedom Caucus, who had signed an amicus brief against Biden’s relief plan.



It remains to be seen whether admissions and student debt will prove as galvanizing as abortion. But Democrats could use them to gain back ground they’ve ceded to the GOP on education—and help make the case to voters that they will address the foundational issues facing the country’s education system, while their opponents wage increasingly absurd classroom culture wars. “Educators have champions in the White House,” Biden told the National Education Association Annual Meeting on the Fourth of July. “There’s so much we can do,” he added. “We’re on the edge. And the American people are figuring out what the other team is talking about, and they don’t like it.”

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