How Democrats Can Turn the Tables on Republicans’ Education Politics

Progressive Policy Institute
4 min readFeb 5, 2024

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By Tressa Pankovits

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. It’s one of the most important education-related pieces of legislation ever passed, in no small part because of its Title I provision.

House Republicans on the Appropriations Committee just voted to gut Title I. Specifically, they want to slash an astonishing 80% of its budget. With a Democrat-controlled Senate and President Biden’s veto pen ready, House Republicans have zero chance of enacting this funding cut. Democrats should waste no time making hay out of their maleficence.

Johnson designed Title I as “the” federal funding vehicle to help close skill gaps in reading, writing and math between urban and rural children from low-income households, and middle or upper-class children in suburban school systems. Johnson considered the U.S. poverty level a national disgrace that demanded a national response. He understood that poor children were not at fault for their socioeconomic status and, without resources dedicated to equalizing educational opportunity, many would be condemned to a life of hardship and want.

Now, without the safeguard of a Democratic Senate and White House, Republicans’ proposed Title I budget would kick 220,000 teachers out of classrooms and kneecap learning for millions of children. House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), while arguing in favor of the bill, acknowledged, “While Title I funds are distributed to school districts everywhere, including rural schools in districts like my own, these funds disproportionally support big-city public schools, the same public schools that failed to educate the most vulnerable children entrusted to them by closing their doors for almost two years.”

Aderholt is right — schools were closed too long in many places, and his district is really rural. There’re no big cities in his district, but there’s plenty of poverty; some towns have a poverty rate more than double the national average of 11.6% and more than the 19% national poverty rate at the time Johnson enacted ESEA. In Florence, Ala., 20.1% of residents live in poverty; in Tuscumbia, 23.1% do, and Gadsen records a whopping 27.2% poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But Aderholt — and his House Republican colleagues — are wrong to use the upheaval of education systems and subsequent pandemic mitigation funding packages to undermine public schools. Their assertion is that large urban districts, in particular, have left piles of federal money lying around. That is false.

In October, the nonpartisan Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) released its COVID Relief Data Project. CCSSO found that states have allocated a collective $4.2 billion for tutoring and accelerated learning efforts and $2.9 billion for out-of-school learning like summer and after-school programs. Another $1.4 billion is dedicated to recruiting and retaining teachers and staff. States have dedicated more than $1 billion to closing digital gaps and another billion to aid mental health and well-being. Using pandemic relief funds as a justification for cutting federal funding while students are still failing to catch up is boneheaded.

This presents an opportunity for Democrats heading into the 2024 elections. Cutting education funding that supports low-income children and their schools would be wildly unpopular with both liberals and moderates — and probably quite a few independents and conservatives. Most voters understand that the future of our economy and our national security depends on an adequately educated populace. Democrats need to shout from the rooftops that Republicans are so dedicated to their culture wars against America’s urban centers that they would irresponsibly slash critical education supports for their own constituents — including voters in Florence, Gadsen, Tuscumbia and towns like them across the country.

With regard to House Republicans, such performative escapades are barely news anymore. But what makes this a godsend for Democrats is that since 2020, Republicans have furiously — and to some extent, successfully — painted Democrats as the fringe party on public education. Now, they want to slash a 58-year-old funding program that supports almost 50% of schools nationwide. Even students in non-Title I schools would be impacted if such foolishness prevailed. Education agencies would be forced to divert funds from schools serving middle-class students in an attempt to fill an unfillable federal responsibility that has outlived the terms of 11 presidents.

Democrats must take the gloves off. Education was their strength, the issue on which the party consistently had a favorability edge over Republicans. But Republicans seized on issues, including masking and other COVID-19 safety measures, to apparently manufacture political outrage, and now have taken aim at banning books and “parents’ rights” protests. The result: an erosion of public trust that put Democrats on defense on a core issue. In a recent example, Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin rode to victory in 2021 because he capitalized on his Democratic opponent’s ill-conceived remark about parents’ role in education.

Republicans’ war on Title I presents a chance to aggressively remind the electorate of the GOP’s true stripes on public education. If it’s an academic — rather than a cultural — issue, it seems they could care less. If it’s an equity issue for marginalized kids, they appear to care even less. Republicans’ votes on Title I reauthorization are now recorded for history. Democrats should seize this opportunity with equal fervor.

Tressa Pankovits is co-director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute.

This story originally ran in The Messenger on July 31, 2023.

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Progressive Policy Institute

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