How “Education Freedom” Played in the Midterms

Jessica Winter:

The 2022 midterm elections offered many snapshots of the contemporary school wars, but one might start with the race for Superintendent of Education in South Carolina, a state that languishes near the bottom of national education rankings and that’s suffering from a major teacher shortage. Lisa Ellis, the Democratic candidate, has twenty-two years of teaching experience and is the founder of a nonprofit organization that focusses on raising teacher pay, lowering classroom sizes, and increasing mental-health resources in schools. Her Republican opponent, Ellen Weaver, who has no teaching experience, is the leader of a conservative think tank that advocates for “education freedom” in the form of more public funding for charter schools, private-school vouchers, homeschooling, and micro-schools. “Choice is truly, as Condi Rice says, the great civil-rights issue of our time,” Weaver stated in a debate with Ellis last week. In the same debate, Ellis argued that South Carolina does not have a teacher shortage, per se; rather, it has an understandable lack of qualified teachers who are willing to work for low pay in overcrowded classrooms, in an increasingly divisive political environment—a dilemma that is depressingly familiar across the country. Ellis also stressed that South Carolina has fallen short of its own public-school-funding formula since 2008, leaving schools billions of dollars in the hole. Weaver countered that the state could easily persuade non-teachers to teach, so long as they had some relevant “subject-matter expertise,” and warned against “throwing money at problems.” The salary floor for a public-school teacher in South Carolina is forty thousand dollars.

In short, the two people vying to run South Carolina’s public schools were an advocate for public schools, and—in her policy positions, if not in her overt messaging—an opponent of public schools. The latter won, and it wasn’t even close: as of this writing, Weaver has fifty-five per cent of the vote to Ellis’s forty-three. Weaver didn’t win on her own, of course—her supporters included Cleta Mitchell, the conservative activist and attorney who aided Donald Trump in his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election results; the founding chairman of Palmetto Promise, Jim DeMint, a former South Carolina senator who once opined that gay people and single mothers should not be permitted to teach in public schools; and Jeff Yass, a powerful donator to education PACs—at least one of which has funnelled money to Weaver’s campaign—and the richest man in Pennsylvania. (Yass, as ProPublica has reported, is also “a longtime financial patron” of a Pennsylvania state senator, Anthony Williams, who helped create “a pair of tax credits that allow companies to slash their state tax bills if they give money to private and charter schools.”)

Weaver borrowed the sloganeering and buzzwords of right-wing activist groups, such as the 1776 Project and Moms for Liberty—which, as my colleague Paige Williams recently reported, have turned public schools into the national stage of a manufactured culture war over critical race theory (C.R.T.), L.G.B.T.Q. classroom materials, the sexual “grooming” of children, and other vehicles of “woke leftist” indoctrination, as well as lingering resentment over COVID-19 lockdowns. During the debate, Weaver railed against C.R.T. and the “pornography” supposedly proliferating in schools, and associated Ellis with a “far-left, union-driven agenda.” (Incidentally, South Carolina’s public employees are prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining.) “They believe in pronoun politics. They believe parents are domestic terrorists, much like Merrick Garland,” Weaver said. (Weaver may have been referring to an incident in May, 2021, when Ellis’s nonprofit cancelled a protest after it “received harassing and threatening messages from groups with extreme views about masking,” including death threats.) “These are people,” Weaver went on, “who are out of touch with the mainstream of South Carolina values, and these are the people who my opponent calls friends.” Ellis maintained that those who profess to be hunting down proponents of C.R.T. in schools are “chasing ghosts.”