Conflict over education in America is getting more intense, and more central to the country’s politics, as it’s become more about culture and identity. Former U.S. President Donald Trump, now officially a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, released a video last month saying that America’s public schools “have been taken over by the radical-left maniacs” and warning against “pink-haired communists teaching our kids.” One of Trump’s potential rivals, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is now among the United States’ most prominent opponents of “woke” progressivism in education—and one of many Republican governors to have passed significant restrictions on how schools teach about U.S. history and issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

Jeffrey Sachs and other critics of these new laws associate them with a new climate of confusion and fear among educators, while others—including prominent Democrats—frame them as reactionary, even “authoritarian.” Yet Republican leaders argue they’re just responding on behalf of voters to educational institutions that have gone out of control. According to a recent study by David Houston of George Mason University, meanwhile, American voters themselves are now developing their views on these issues increasingly along partisan lines. Why is this happening?

Rick Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the center-right American Enterprise Institute. To Hess, this growing division in American life represents a major departure from the last few decades of political debate about U.S. schools—an era defined more by technocratic, often bipartisan, efforts to reform primary and secondary education through standardizing testing, accountability measures, changes to funding mechanisms, and charter schools operating independently of the traditional public system. But the new division isn’t entirely new, either, Hess says—or entirely bad.

Graham Vyse: How unprecedented are the cultural battles we’re seeing today over education in America?

Rick Hess: You mightn’t imagine it, but it’s actually been normal throughout U.S. history for cultural tensions to drive public debate about education. In the 19th century, there were major disputes about compulsory schooling, what languages were acceptable in schools, who could attend them, or the status of parochial schools—all of which were along ethnic or religious divides.

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