WASHINGTON ― Republicans have declared themselves the party of parents.
Democrats are working on legislation to send families direct cash payments and slash child care costs — a historic reorienting of the welfare state in favor of parents — but Republicans are hoping inchoate rage at public schools will outdo any material benefit Democrats provide.
“Republicans are the party of parents, of education, of small businesses, of freedom and of family,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said Wednesday. “Democrats are the party of big government socialism creating crisis after crisis.”
Republicans are trying to seize momentum from Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for governor of Virginia, in which he took up the mantle of angry parents screaming at local school boards over masks, “critical race theory” and one school district’s mishandling of a sexual assault case.
Congressional Republicans amplified the message in tandem with Youngkin, theatrically denouncing the Biden administration’s efforts to protect school board members from threats of violence.
“You are attempting to intimidate them, you are attempting to silence them, you are attempting to interfere with their rights as parents and, yes, with their rights as voters,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said last month, scolding a Justice Department official at a hearing. “This is wrong. This is dangerous.”
Republicans will soon release a “parents’ bill of rights,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced Wednesday.
“You have a right to know what’s being taught in school,” McCarthy said. “You have a right to participate.”
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the Republican Study Committee, a group of right-wing House Republicans, said after Youngkin’s victory in Tuesday’s election that Republicans must “become the party of parents,” partly with legislation targeting critical race theory, a catchall term for seemingly any curricula that describe systemic racism or white supremacy in U.S. history or contemporary society.
Democrats are also busy on the education front. Their signature initiative is universal prekindergarten, or making sure parents have the option of a classroom or Head Start program for kids younger than 5. The “Build Back Better” package that Democrats are scrambling to finish would also seek to limit child care expenses to 7% of a working family’s income, increase the availability of child care and boost pay for providers. And the bill would continue sending parents monthly payments worth as much as $300 per child.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) called Build Back Better “a good policy answer” to the right-wing furor over school policies, but Democrats can’t necessarily count on good policy winning elections.
“Some of this is more than policy,” Warner told HuffPost. “Some of this is an emotional answer, and that’s not always been our strongest suit.”
After all, expanding access to health insurance didn’t save Democrats from an electoral shellacking in 2010, when Republicans flipped the House of Representatives halfway through Barack Obama’s first term.
Nevertheless, Democrats view their bill not only as the best hope to keep their majority in Congress but also as a legacy-defining achievement. The monthly child tax credit payments, for instance, have already cut child poverty, and Democrats think it will one day be as popular as Social Security.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is running for Senate, said Republicans are foolish to condemn universal prekindergarten and other policies that will directly benefit voters.
“All of this is money in their pockets,” Ryan said. “When you look at the data coming back from the tax credit, it’s being spent on diapers and school and after-school programs and all these things to help kids.”
Most voters tell pollsters they know the child tax credit payments resulted from Democratic legislation, but the payments, which started in July, didn’t help a Democrat win the Virginia governor’s race.
Republicans say the monthly payments, which go to 36 million households, contribute to inflation and make parents less likely to work (though real-world surveys suggest they have had a negligible effect on parental work effort). And Republicans say expanding access to prekindergarten is either a scheme to control people’s lives or a handout to special interests.
“This universal pre-K is really about helping teachers unions,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told HuffPost.
President Joe Biden has said Build Back Better would restore people’s faith in government, a sentiment he repeated this week when asked if he bore responsibility for Democrats’ losses in Virginia and elsewhere.
“People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things, from COVID, to school, to jobs, to a whole range of things,” Biden said. “If I’m able to pass and sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I’m in a position where you’re going to see a lot of those things ameliorated quickly and swiftly.”