This election year, Georgia classrooms are on the front lines in culture wars

The momentum of conservative proposals that bring culture wars to the classroom is reshaping Georgia’s 2022 campaign trail and dominating an election-year legislative session.

Legislation that would ban some transgender students from participating in sports is gaining traction after years of gridlock, this time with backing from Gov. Brian Kemp, who faces a tough reelection contest.

Other proposals that could change how race and gender are treated in the k-12 school system seem likely to pass this year, including efforts to restrict “obscene” books in public schools and limit how race can be discussed in classrooms.

And a flap last week over Stacey Abrams’ photos at a Decatur elementary school, which triggered attacks from the nation’s most powerful Republicans, put on vivid display how quickly the battle lines over education policy can shift.

A day after the Democratic candidate for governor apologized for taking off her face covering in photos with masked students and teachers, Kemp vowed to sign legislation that lets parents decide whether to send their children to schools in masks.

“We’ve got to continue to move back to more normal operations,” the governor said this week of the bill.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

He and other Republicans are trying to tap into frustration among conservatives with school policies in pandemic-era education, embracing the same strategy that fueled Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory last year in the race for governor in Democratic-leaning Virginia.

While debates over school funding typically dominate legislative sessions, financing has taken a back seat this year, given the state’s flush coffers. Instead, ruling Republican politicians are devoting a level of attention to school policies that is unprecedented in recent Georgia history.

“It’s a red-hot issue right now. And what stands out to me is that these are mobilizing issues,” said Brian Robinson, a veteran Republican strategist.

“They could switch a person’s vote and encourage Georgians to go to the polls in a way that calling for more education funding or teacher pay raises just can’t,” he said.

The critics of these measures, including prominent educator groups and leading Democrats, have often found themselves on the defensive, pushing back against a range of proposals that are moving through the Legislature at a rapid pace.

“In piling on and on, Republicans run the risk of looking like a McCarthy-era witch-hunt. These issues are not the most pressing for most Georgians. They are a distraction from the real concerns facing Georgia families,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, a Decatur Democrat.

“The candidates may find what animates the Republican base has turned off the middle of the electorate in November,” she said.

‘People are tired’

In most legislative sessions, any one of the array of education-related bills up for consideration this year would grab headlines. But in 2022, education policy is dominating the political discussion to a degree it hasn’t in past campaign seasons.

Kemp set the stage during his State of the State address in January, when he vowed to sign legislation that seeks to control how race is taught in public school classrooms.

Among the proposals are several measures designed to restrict educators from teaching that the U.S. is “fundamentally racist” and other topics deemed to be divisive by legislators. There is no evidence any k-12 schools in Georgia teach them now.

“I will not allow a child, regardless of their skin color, believe the system is rigged against them because of the way they look,” said state Rep. Brad Thomas, R-Holly Springs.

Though some parents have stampeded to local school board meetings to clamor for new restrictions, others are baffled by the backlash. Heather Gay, the mother of a Coweta County high school student, said her son’s teachers have not remotely approached contentious racial topics, such as critical race theory.

“They still don’t think the Civil War was about slavery, so they’re not even in the same swimming pool as CRT,” said Gay, who is white. “This is, just to me, a political sideshow to get as many people as they possibly can to be upset and vote red.”

Other Kemp-backed proposals working their way through the Gold Dome would give parents the right to inspect textbooks in their children’s classrooms and make it easier for parents to object to “obscene” books in public school libraries.

The latter has sparked fears of First Amendment advocates and other critics who worry that prize-winning literature dealing with topics of race and gender, such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” could be targeted in Georgia schools.

The higher education system hasn’t escaped legislative scrutiny, either.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A Republican lawmaker recently sent an 11-page letter to the University System of Georgia seeking details of coursework on anti-racism and social justice. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue has pledged to champion conservative values if he’s selected as the new chancellor of the higher education system.

While Democrats oppose many of the proposals, they are also wary of alienating exhausted and anxious parents upset with school-related disruptions and other aftershocks of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s debut TV ad this election cycle opened with an acknowledgement that “people are hurting, people are tired, people have seen what they’ve worked their entire lives to build turned upside down at a moment’s notice.”

Just as notable: There wasn’t a face mask in sight during the minute-long spot.

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat, said she “of course” wants to know what her three school-age children are learning. But she added that she didn’t want them “limited by what I determine to be important.”

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

“Ultimately, the goal of education is creating independent thinking adults,” she said. “Yes, eventually even independent from parents. As parents, we want more for our kids than we alone can provide. We want their worlds to be bigger than ours. That world is what education provides.”

‘Unmask our kids’

The shift to education policy is shaping elections up and down the ballot.

Republican state Sens. Burt Jones and Butch Miller, rival candidates for lieutenant governor, have traded shots over who is the more outspoken opponent of critical race theory coursework.

Other contenders for statewide offices have frequently invoked buzzy classroom issues even if they have little to do with the jobs they seek.

But no race has been rocked quite like the contest for governor, where Kemp faces challenges from Republican David Perdue and Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Perdue, who rarely brought up education policy during his two campaigns for the U.S. Senate, has now made it a mainstay of his stump speech.

“One of the sidebar benefits of having parents at home with their children during COVID — if there is such a thing — is that they started to see firsthand what they were being taught,” he said in an interview after a recent stop in Cartersville.

“And I know for a fact, traveling around the state,” he said, “that a lot of people are upset about that.”

Both Perdue and Kemp found common cause in condemning Abrams after she went maskless in pictures with masked elementary school students. Conservatives accused her of hypocritical behavior and demanded that politicians “unmask our kids.” She soon apologized after intense backlash.

“Protocols matter, and protecting our kids is the most important thing,” Abrams said. “And anything that can be perceived as undermining that is a mistake.”

Though Abrams struck a conciliatory tone, her campaign has stepped up the criticism. Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ top aide, said ruling Republicans should focus their attention on public health care rather than classroom policies.

“We are still facing filled-up hospitals and folks suffering from a pandemic in this state,” she said.

“Meanwhile,” “Groh-Wargo said, “the Legislature seems to be focused on banning transgender kids from playing sports and changing campaign finance laws to thwart their opponents rather than addressing the needs of actual Georgians.”

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.