Rethinking Schools was glad to see the midterm elections bring significant setbacks to MAGA Republicans and the most egregious “election deniers.” But overall the results were a decidedly mixed bag for supporters of public education and a reflection of the limits of our not-so-democratic electoral system.
U.S. elections are defined by two political parties both beholden to corporate interests, one worse and more dangerous than the other, especially as Republicans have become the party of unapologetic white supremacy and reaction. But half the eligible population doesn’t vote at all, and the Trump years have shown repeatedly that corporate Democrats are not a reliable line of defense against the rising threat of fascism and racist violence. U.S. elections have real stakes, but they are not the sustained democratic social mobilization our society desperately needs.
To be sure there were victories worth celebrating:
- Colorado raised taxes on the wealthy to fund free meals for students in the state’s public schools.
- New Mexico voters supported increased spending on early childhood education and public schools with taxes on oil and gas revenues.
- California’s Proposition 28 increased spending on art and music education for all K–12 public schools.
- In Wisconsin and Michigan, pro-public education governors were re-elected, providing public schools some protection from multiple right-wing assaults, including expanded voucher plans.
But there were also discouraging defeats.
In Ohio, progressive candidates captured control of the State Board of Education, only to see the gerrymandered Ohio legislature strip the Board of its policymaking powers a week later.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has sponsored some of the most reactionary, homophobic legislation in the United States, endorsed 30 local school board candidates. Almost all of them won and immediately began firing superintendents who had resisted rightwing COVID and curriculum policies.
The Texas State Board of Education was captured by reactionary Republicans who made purging critical race theory the centerpiece of their platforms and who set their sights on wrecking the state’s social studies curriculum standards, up for revision in 2025.
In Arizona, Tom Horne, a former superintendent who tried to outlaw bilingual education and abolish the Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, was narrowly elected superintendent of public instruction. According to The New Yorker, in addition to attacking CRT, Horne vowed to increase police presence in schools because “the police are what make civilization possible.”
In some ways, this was the first “CRT election.” It was just about a year ago that Christopher Rufo, the right-wing ideologue who led the effort to turn critical race theory into an all-purpose bogeyman, declared it was time to “abolish the teacher unions, and overturn the school boards.” Absurd rhetoric about how “woke” schools were “indoctrinating children instead of educating them” became what Rufo called “the most successful line of argument in GOP politics.” In an overheated boast on election day — before the votes were counted — Rufo spouted “The Left has spent the past two years pushing chaos in our economy, critical race theory in our schools, and radical gender surgeries onto our children. Tonight, they pay the price.”
Mercifully, enough young people and women voted in impressive numbers to turn the predicted red wave into a red washout. But there is no denying the growth of a right-wing, anti-public schools movement fueled by a toxic mix of dark money, sickening and dangerous anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and fever dreams of all-out voucher privatization.
Frenzied messaging about critical race theory will continue to be a tool of this movement, mobilizing right-wing activists like Moms for Liberty and threatening educators who stand up for teaching the truth about both the past and the present to their students.
But in the wake of these midterms and in preparation for future elections, there’s another, more appropriate use for critical race theory, and that is to shine a lens on the historical and structural aspects of the U.S. voting system that continue to undermine democracy. These include:
- An electoral system borne of the slavery era that installed Donald Trump and George W. Bush as presidents despite their loss of the popular vote.
- The gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 civil rights-era legislation that for the first time in the nation’s history made a multiracial democratic voting system even a possibility. Reauthorized unanimously by the Senate in 2006, the far-right capture of the Supreme Court has led to the evisceration of its most important provisions, while Republicans now use the filibuster to prevent its restoration.
- The partisan gerrymandering that allows perpetual minority rule and disenfranchisement of communities of color and urban voters.
- The very structure of the Senate that allows 18 percent of the population to capture 52 of 100 seats and control the most powerful body in Congress.
- The domination of the news and social media by corporate and billionaire interests that substitute cynical horse-race punditry for real voter education about policy choices and special interest influence.
Perhaps the most telling recent example of why civics education in U.S. public schools must continue to draw lessons from this history is the story of the Florida voting rights referendum. In 2018, 65 percent of Florida voters supported a state constitutional amendment to retore the voting rights of those who had been convicted of felonies and completed the terms of their sentences. More than 1.6 million Floridians had lost their voting rights through such felony disenfranchisement, including more than 20 percent of the adult Black population. It was a stark example of what author Michelle Alexander famously called “the New Jim Crow.”
In the 2018 midterms, 5 million Florida voters said “yes” to Amendment 4, which went into effect on January 1, 2019. Within six months, newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through legislation that echoed the “poll tax” laws of the post-Civil War period and required former felons to meet ill-defined financial obligations before their voting rights would be restored. A federal district court found this “pay to vote” system unconstitutional, but that ruling was overturned on appeal.
Not content with overturning the will of Florida voters, this year DeSantis created an “election police force” to hunt down virtually nonexistent “voter fraud.” Twenty former felons were charged with voting illegally, including several who had received voter registration cards from the state in the mail. This racist stunt was wholly orchestrated by DeSantis, who has never challenged the “big lie” that Trump won the 2020 election.
The struggle to make elections and voting rights fair and meaningful is a crucial one. For valuable curriculum resources about these issues, see Ursula Wolfe-Rocca’s suite of lessons, “Who Gets to Vote? Teaching About the Struggle for Voting Rights in the United States,” at the Zinn Education Project.
U.S. elections won’t save us from the existential crises we face: climate catastrophe, unsustainable social and economic inequality, and a political system designed to protect the powers that be. The limitations of our elections reflect an acute lack of democracy throughout our communities, workplaces, media, and economic institutions. Changing that landscape will take massive social struggle, the work of a movement, not a midterm. l