Washoe County School Board January 12, 2022 meeting - screenshot

Typically a new year brings optimism, but so far, Americans are experiencing widespread malaise.  Covid’s unpredictable nature continues to pummel whatever hopeful outlook people attempt to muster. As we trudge onward into a politically significant year, it is wise for candidates and political parties to keep in mind how this outlook can create unpredictable behavior at the ballot boxes. 

One common assumption that doesn’t hold true this year is that education is not a major election issue. While the economy will certainly be on the minds of voters, what’s happening in the schoolroom is going to be the issue that is flying under the radar for many political candidates. 

In November of last year, the Virginia Governor’s race was certainly a wake up call for Democrats. Exit polls showed that a rising number of college educated suburban voters cast their ballot for the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, despite proclamations in 2020 that Democrats had secured this demographic. A poll by Monmouth showed that 41% of all voters felt education was the most important issue in the Governor’s race. This is especially surprising since the economy and inflation only scored 4 points higher. 

Election results soon confirmed what the polls predicted. In Virginia, heavily suburban counties that went for Biden turned to Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, largely because of education issues.  McAuliffe may have seen the writing on the wall, but he responded inadequately, equating parental concern over education as “personal culture wars.” Obviously, this response did not resonate. 

Like Virginia, Nevada is a swing state with Democrats dependent upon groups of suburban voters and nonpartisans to carry the day, especially in the more moderate Washoe County. This year, the suburban vote is not a shoo-in for Democrats. In the wake of the Virginia defeat, Democrats in Nevada should heed the warning signs and resist simplifying Republican education campaign issues as cultural calls to action that only appeal to racists or, simply as misinformation about the teaching of Critical Race Theory. Many voters will be impacted by education issues that have very little to do with CRT. Centrist think tank Third Way emphasized this point in a recent memo about the Virginia election. While the teaching of CRT itself wasn’t a primary issue for most voters, it tapped into a general frustration with inconsistent school closure policies and concerns over learning loss. 

Traditionally, the Democratic Party is an avid supporter of public education. But their messaging has proved insufficient in the last two years. Education issues extend far beyond funding. Since 2020, Nevada has received over $1.07 billion dollars in additional federal assistance for school Covid relief. And yet, districts still struggle with staff shortages that significantly impact the day-to-day instruction of students. Repeating the mantra that “schools need more funding” is an overly simplistic message that fails to address the problems parents, teachers, and students are facing today.  

In late 2020, a UNR survey of parents found that only 47% were satisfied with their school district’s pandemic response. 

Washoe County School District’s letter to parents, January 11, 2022

Conversely, in March of 2021, the US Secretary of Education predicted that, by the fall, school will look “more like what it was before Covid.”

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urges schools to stay open on December thirty first 2021 – source: Instagram

Fast forward to January 9th, 2022, there are 5,409 schools in the US that have returned to distance learning. Some because of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. But many other districts simply don’t have enough staff to weather even small increases in the number calling in sick. Still reeling from earlier periodic closures due to wildfire smoke, students in Washoe County School District now contend with centralized bus stop locations due to driver shortages. Students in Clark County Schools District have reported waiting up to seventy-five minutes for buses. While Governor Sisolak urges schools to stay open, schools nevertheless may be forced to close due to lack of substitute teachers. With continuing instability, parents are becoming more frustrated

The Omicron variant, as well as current labor shortages have further stressed a system that has already been struggling for years under a lack of sufficient funding and dwindling qualified applicants. And Nevadans notice. 

In 2021, Education Week ranked Nevada schools as last in the nation in regards to educational opportunities and performance. NAEP, the national gold standard for academic assessment, shows test scores for Nevada students continue to lag behind most other states. Despite Nevada schools receiving a necessary injection of federal funding and a 22% jump in student-specific spending from the Nevada Legislature, education leaders say the money is a drop in the bucket due to years of public neglect

Granted, most parents may not be aware of all these details, but they are aware of large class sizes.  In 2020, according to the National Education Association, Nevada had some of the highest class sizes in the country

And it’s not only K-12 parents and students struggling. During the 2020-21 school year, the national number of high school graduates enrolling in college was down by 21.7% compared with last year. Low income and minority students were hit hardest. While the Nevada State Board of Health attempted to ensure that campuses would no longer close by mandating Covid vaccinations for students, the Nevada Legislative Commission blocked their move, making viral spread once again a concern. Unfortunately, like K-12 schools, colleges may again face disruptions to learning due to the pandemic.

Last fall, Nevada students, teachers, and parents were promised a better year with an influx of funding and newly approved vaccinations, but they are still largely dealing with large class sizes and potential further disruptions caused by Covid. If schools go back to distance learning, despite a general agreement of the need to take Covid seriously, parents will burn out. And whoever is in power will, fairly or unfairly, take the blame. Despite the fact most school decisions are made by districts, incumbents will face the brunt of voter discontent. 

Republicans are two steps ahead already. They are banging the parent discontent drum, and despite their use of trigger phrases such as “CRT ” and “cancel culture,” it’s not the words that are drawing voters, it’s the overall weariness with education. 

If Democrats want to win this election, they need to talk about what’s happening with students and parents in our schools. They need to acknowledge the frustrations parents are experiencing. While most parents say they like their child’s school and they understand the need for Covid precautions, they are still worn out. All it takes is one more round of distance learning to push them over the edge. So who is waiting at the bottom to catch them? 

As of 01/12/2022, Clark County School District announced that due to staffing shortages, they will be extending the Martin Luther King holiday break another two days.

As of 01/12/2022, Washoe County School District announced they will minimize the 10-day exclusion period due to COVID to 5 days for staff and students. 

Shelley Buchanan is the Sierra Nevada Ally’s education reporter. She is a forty-year resident of Northern Nevada. After working as an English teacher, school librarian, and school technology specialist, she now writes about education, technology, and social justice issues. Support her work here.

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