GALLOWAY – A group of Hilliard parents gathered inside a warm suburban home earlier this week to air grievances about the state of their children’s education.
The parents said they don’t get answers from school board officials or teachers about curriculum. They lamented a departure from personal responsibility and claimed schools promote “divisive teaching” while making students feel guilty for being white.
Put simply, these moms and dads are ticked off.
“Because of COVID, we’re waking up,” said Lisa Chaffee, who recently lost a bid for Hilliard City School Board. “The silent majority isn’t silent anymore.”
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Local education issues inspired first-time candidates to run for school boards across Ohio in last month’s election. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe after Youngkin railed against critical race theory and blasted his opponent for saying parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach.
Now, some Republicans in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race see the rise of parent politics as key to winning a contentious primary in the spring.
“I think this is a movement,” former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken said. “They’ve poked the mama and papa bears, and they’re stepping up.”
COVID-19 and critical race theory
For these parents, COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Frustration mounted as families juggled at-home learning and jobs for months on end. The return of in-person learning came with mask requirements, followed by encouragement for children to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Increasingly, parents like Chaffee began to question the decisions of their elected school officials.
“For the longest time we thought, hey we’re in charge of the schools, we pay the property taxes, we send our kids to schools,” said Bernie Moreno, a businessman running in the GOP Senate primary. “But it turns out bureaucrats are in charge of schools, teachers’ unions are in charge of schools, and that’s what really got them upset.”
At the same time, conservative parents and politicians latched on to the war against critical race theory – the idea that racism has woven itself into American laws and institutions. Critical race theory itself is an academic study that isn’t taught in K-12 schools, and experts say the field is separate from diversity and inclusion initiatives that focus on individual behaviors.
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Still, critics claim children are being taught the “tenets” of the theory in classrooms across Ohio.
“It’s being used essentially as this dog whistle to signal people that they’re trying to brainwash your children,” said Brianna Mack, a politics and government professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Local issues in a federal race
Ohio’s GOP Senate candidates hear angry parents and have espoused talking points about critical race theory, woke culture and the inclusion of transgender athletes in girls’ sports. Timken, though, has made these issues central to her campaign and gone around the state listening to parents such as the group gathered in Galloway.
If elected, Timken said she would push for cuts to the Department of Education and ensure federal officials aren’t advocating for initiatives like the 1619 Project. She believes Democrats federalized education and Republicans – who paint themselves as proponents of local control – need to counter that influence.
“Taking back our country starts with taking back our classrooms, and parents want to be involved,” she said.
Whether hot topics like critical race theory drive people to the ballot box next year remains to be seen. A November memo from U.S. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana to the Republican Study Committee said Republicans “can and must become the party of parents” after Youngkin’s victory in Virginia.
But some observers don’t see education trumping issues like health care and the economy. Beth Hansen, a GOP consultant and former top aide to Gov. John Kasich, said the Virginia race was less about critical race theory and more of a referendum on whether people want bureaucrats telling them what to do.
“It was because they were a stand-in for what’s the appropriate role for government?” she said.
Democrats also don’t see it as a silver bullet for their opponents and say parents have always cared about their children’s education. Justin Barasky, a consultant advising U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s Senate campaign, said it’s hypocritical for Republicans to claim they’re on the side of parents while opposing policies that aim to make child care more affordable.
“I think if (critical race theory) is a major issue on the campaign trail in the fall,” he said, “it’s because the Republicans are in trouble.”
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.