COMMENTARY: Murphy’s Disdain Towards Parents’ COVID Priorities Spells Trouble For the Democratic Party

New Jersey parents are divided on the state Department of Education’s new standards on sexual health and gender awareness but unified though the commonality of their confusion, a result of the Murphy Administration’s mixed messaging. Some are also angry at the presumption of the government intruding on topics they regard as the provenance of the family while students try to recover from learning loss.

This approach may have worked pretty well before COVID-19. It doesn’t work anymore and spells trouble for the Democratic Party at both the state and national levels. 

Education policies that deal with sensitive topics should be clear and nuanced, right? Yet in June 2020, during the start of the pandemic when people were otherwise occupied, a divided State Board of Education passed the 66-page Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Student Learning Standards. (NJ Education Report was the only news outlet to report on the Board meeting.) Over the last six months school board meetings have been battlegounds as members and residents argue about whether the more controversial lessons about gender fluidity and anal sex should require parent sign-offs or whether districts have to teach the standards at all.

Gov. Murphy and Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan’s responses make it worse. During an April “Ask the Governor” broadcast on WNYC, Murphy said, “shame on the folks that were trying to turn it into [culture war stuff]…Enough already in laying into LGBTQIA+ community members.” But then he announced the DOE would reexamine the age-appropriateness of the standards and ordered Allen-McMillan to issue a “clarification” that clarified nothing. Finally last week, as multiple school boards decided to not comply, the DOE announced districts that didn’t follow the rules would be “penalized,” a clear contradiction to Allen-McMillan and Murphy’s drumbeat of  “the DOE does not mandate curricula or lesson plans; this is the sole responsibility of local districts.”

In some ways this mess is just predictable noise in our culture wars over the appropriate role of governmental policies in issues of racial and gender equity. But here’s where it gets scary, at least for this lifelong Democrat: over the course of the pandemic, parents have lost faith in the ability of districts to teach their children and this is a major reason why Democrats no longer have the upper hand on education issues. Maybe that was inevitable as schools stayed closed for no good reason, remote instruction failed, and kids, especially those with the most to lose, fell dangerously behind. But instead of Democratic leaders meeting that loss of faith with a commitment to rebuild it, instead of accepting that, just as the workplace has permanently been altered by the work-from-home movement, the schoolhouse has been permanently altered too, they’ve doubled-down on returning to the past.

COVID-19 has changed the world. This includes public education, particularly (non-wealthy) parents’ newly-discovered authority over what their children learn and where they learn it. 

Yet the Democratic Party seemed determined to ignore these signals that getting back to “normal” isn’t good enough. 

Just as the GOP is diminished by Trumpism, Dems are diminished by their dismissmal of parents’ voices. One example in NJ is the Murphy Administration’s disdain for parent preference for public charter schools, increasingly popular among Black families who comprise a key part of the Party base. Yesterday the Star-Ledger Editorial Board described how Murphy is “actively sabotaging the best charter schools in New Jersey” for political reasons–in this case, to maintain strong ties with the state teacher union and its deep pockets. Yet when Murphy and his DOE decided to deny a previously-approved expansion for Newark’s North Star Academy, they were not denying the school’s request as much as those of parents who, in a more family-centered state, would have the license to control whether their child goes to a school like, for instance, Malcolm X Shabazz or a top-performing charter school. 

When Murphy imperiously limits parent choice, he falls into the same political trap that drove Virginia voters to elect Glenn Youngkin instead of Terry McAuliffe (and shrank his own win last November to three points): Instead of listening to families, he confirms their belief that their political leaders are deaf to what they want from their public schools. This “let them eat cake” approach further erodes the trust Democrats have traditionally invested in their Party’s education platform.

So what do Democratic leaders need to do? They can start by listening to parents and respecting their priorities: drilling down on catching kids up through data-driven methods like high-dosage tutoring instead of getting distracted by the progressive meme of the week; expanding public school choice by supporting charters, as well as some version of educational savings accounts/vouchers (like this proposal); creating statewide high-quality remote learning platforms; cutting the umbilical cord between teacher union leaders and the Democratic Party. 

The old days of parental compliance in education are over. Until leaders like Murphy catch up, Democrats are going to lose elections and the support of once-faithful members.

(Graph courtesy of the 74.)

Laura Waters

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