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How schools (but not necessarily education) became central to the Republican primary

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When pollsters ask Republican voters for the issues that are most important to their votes, the economy often leads the list. Immigration also ranks high, foreign policy sometimes. Education tends to be towards the bottom, which may be surprising, given how much Republican presidential candidates talk about schools. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports on the puzzling role education now plays in the Republican primary.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Talking about schools is a reliable applause line for Republican candidates. Here's Donald Trump this month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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DONALD TRUMP: On Day 1, I will sign a new executive order to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity...

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: ...And other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content.

KURTZLEBEN: Schools are even more central to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' campaign, as when he spoke in November at a restaurant to Davenport.

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RON DESANTIS: And as the father of 6-, 5- and a 3-year-old, I believe that kids should be able to go to school, watch cartoons, just be kids without having an agenda shoved down their throat.

(APPLAUSE)

KURTZLEBEN: The issue of how gender and race are taught in schools has been a major focus for Republican candidates, even while the issue may not really drive votes. Frank Luntz is a Republican strategist.

FRANK LUNTZ: People confuse the yelling for the priorities. They confuse passion for prioritization. It's actually - that's the - I need to write that down 'cause that, actually, for me, is a great way to explain it.

KURTZLEBEN: After conducting many voter focus groups, here's his big takeaway.

LUNTZ: Yes, transgender and all of that gets people to yell, but that's not what is really - that's not what people really care about.

KURTZLEBEN: One thing that's going on - in this primary, talking about schools and talking about education are often different things. A lot of the Republicans' campaign rhetoric hasn't been about student achievement, school choice or standardized testing. Rather, it's about playing out culture wars on the battleground of K-12 schools. That's a mistake, according to Luntz's analysis. He points to DeSantis as the candidate getting this the most wrong.

LUNTZ: He's using it as a surrogate for the culture wars, and that's not the way to approach education. The public wants to take partisan politics out of education.

KURTZLEBEN: The story of Republican candidates talking about schools goes back to school closures during COVID, Luntz says. In addition to worrying about learning loss, parents also got a view of school curricula, and some didn't like what they saw - whether it was about culture or simply about how reading and math were taught. All of that may be true. But, according to Heather Harding, schools also got weaponized for political purposes. Harding is educational director of the Campaign for Our Shared Future, which focuses on equity in education.

HEATHER HARDING: I think that the political strategists then leverage that fear and discontent to really gin up a lot of things in misinformation.

KURTZLEBEN: In conversations with Iowa voters over the last few months, few brought up education or schools as a top priority. However, when asked directly, many did have strong opinions. Dave Meggers is a farmer who came out to see Trump in Davenport in September. He said the price of fuel is his top concern. But when I asked about schools, he talked about working with other parents to influence the district.

DAVE MEGGERS: We're tough on our school board down there on different such situations. One thing was, you know, the books in school and stuff like that, and we were one of the first ones down there to get our kids out of masks.

KURTZLEBEN: Lori Tiangco was volunteering for DeSantis at a November rally in Des Moines. Cultural issues in schools are a top priority for her. She pointed to her grandson and how his parents reacted to the school's teaching about LGBT issues.

LORI TIANGCO: They pulled him out and homeschooled him because they didn't want that being forced on them, which goes against our - you know, the Christian moral values that we have.

KURTZLEBEN: But there's a wide range of opinions. At a recent Nikki Haley event in Clear Lake, Stacy Doughan, the president of the city's chamber of commerce, said the focus on culture war issues leaves her cold.

STACY DOUGHAN: I think that when you take it down to race and gender, you're really missing the point. So whatever we need to do to make it so our kids are able to go to school, to enjoy going to school and to learn what they need to learn to be competitive in an international market today is what's really important.

KURTZLEBEN: Indeed, Haley's event had at least one voter who says she disagrees with a key Republican culture war issue - how to treat LGBT kids. Here's Michelle Garland, a psychology professor at nearby Waldorf University.

MICHELLE GARLAND: The suicide rate among gay teens is the highest of all groups. And they have a right to be called by whatever gender they prefer to be called by.

KURTZLEBEN: That makes Garland unusual among GOP primary voters. But then, this is the thing about prioritization - trans kids aren't her top priority. Israel is, and she likes where Haley stands on Israel. If focusing on education and not culture will win voters over, it may mean any candidate would have to back off of those talking points in a general election. Haley, meanwhile, does sometimes talk about improving the education system. Here she was in Waukee this month.

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NIKKI HALEY: Only 31% of eighth graders are proficient in reading. Only 27% of eighth graders are proficient in math. If we don't do something about this, we're going to be in a world of hurt 10 years from now.

KURTZLEBEN: Then again, she later leaned into culture war issues, as well - specifically, transgender girls playing girls sports, which Haley calls, quote, "the women's issue of our time."

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HALEY: Strong girls become strong women. Strong women become strong leaders. None of that happens if you have biological boys playing in women's sports. We've got to cut that out.

(APPLAUSE)

KURTZLEBEN: Once again, the line got big applause, but it's not clear how much it might sway voters.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.