Comments from the Education Truth Project

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Colts Neck, NJ school buses
Colts Neck, NJ school buses

Op-Ed

Public polling can provide a snapshot in time that offers a window into the mindset of the voter. There were two polls released this week relating to opinions surrounding Public Education in NJ and both provide extremely interesting data that is essential to understand if we are going to effectively discuss these issues.

First, we saw an FDU Poll which said that “A majority of New Jersey residents — 52% — say parents should have some control over what’s taught in schools, the poll shows. One in four say parents should be able to choose what schools do and do not teach, and about the same number — 22% — say parents should not influence what schools teach.”

My response to this poll is simply, “Did we need a poll to know that parents have an interest in what is being taught to their children? The only surprise to me was that the percentage wasn’t larger!”

The more interesting and important part of the survey is that “When asked about the parental control issue, voters are six points more likely to support the Republican candidate in their district and nine points less likely to support a Democrat in the upcoming election, the poll shows.”

Reading this I asked myself the following questions:

What is the Republican plan on parental control?
Are voters even aware of what they mean by this?
What is the Democratic position that is against parental control?

Try taking 30 seconds to come up with an answer to these questions. The reason you can’t is there has been no answer provided to these questions and that goes right to the heart of the issue: Democratic leaders in NJ have failed on messaging and ceded this ground to Republicans which has now opened a door that was previously shut to them.
Because of these failures, Republicans have been able to equate parental control with mandating teachers and school administrators outing students who confide in them about their sexuality and/or gender. This is not even an Education issue. This is about a question of privacy, mental health, safety and yes suicide prevention. Should a student have the right to speak to someone in confidence about very personal issues with the knowledge and safety that the conversations are private? Well an overwhelming majority of NJ residents believe it should be.
According to a poll released this week by the NJEA which corroborates another poll I have been privy to:

By a 56-point margin (74%-18%) voters agree with the statement: Politicians shouldn’t force teachers to “out” a student who is gay or is using a different pronoun. Forced outings can harm students mentally or cause bullying. It should be up to the student, not politicians, to decide when to reveal their gender identity.

Well maybe the parental control issue voters care about has something to do with protecting our students from certain books and literature that Republicans continue to reinforce. Let’s take a look at this in that same NJEA poll to see an even larger margin:

By a 65-point margin (80%-15%) voters agree with the statement: parents have the right to choose what their children read, but they do not have the right to restrict the reading choices of other children. Banning books limits a parent’s right to make informed decisions about what is appropriate for their own children.

Why do voters prefer Republican’s when it comes to parental control?

So I ask again, what is the issue or reason NJ voters prefer Republican’s when it comes to parental control?

The FDU poll offers us the conclusion that “Republican candidates are using these attacks because they work,” said Dan Cassino, a professor of Government and Politics at FDU, and the director of the poll. “If voters are thinking about parental control of schools when they go to the ballot box, Democrats are in real trouble.”

But how do we reconcile these two polls and how do we start addressing the issue more effectively? It doesn’t take a professional political consultant to conclude NJ Democrats have a messaging problem when it comes to Public Education. At this point it is approaching political malpractice failing to have a clear and concise response.

Our organization has been working feverishly to inform and engage state political leaders. Unfortunately there has been little enthusiasm to develop a counter narrative to the one being incorrectly put out by Republicans, even though those same Republicans are publicly and actively working with extremist groups like Moms for Liberty.
As NJ political strategist Michael Muller noted: “The poll’s findings make it clear that this is an important issue to New Jersey voters, and Democrats across the state should attack it head on, according to Michael Muller, a Democratic political strategist who is managing races in southern New Jersey.
“There is a very strong messaging lane for Democrats to talk about protecting parental rights and also empowering teachers to have a voice in the education curriculum while not being trapped by Republican rhetoric,” Muller said. “To not fight back on this issue, you do it at your own peril.”

The Education Truth Project was created to help address that vacuum of information surrounding these issues. We have observed far too many local school board candidates running on national social issues, mimicking groups like Moms for Liberty with successful results that have left numerous school districts with extremists majorities. I fear because of the lack of pushback again this cycle, there will be even more after this election.

While state democratic leaders have been avoiding these issues that is not the case for activists throughout NJ. Working with our partners, the NJ Public Education Coalition and a network of multiple groups have been focused on educating the public on issues facing public schools, and more importantly warning the public of the dangers of these extremists running on lies and fear. Our coalition has assembled thousands of volunteers working hard to keep the coalition informed about what is going on in just about every district in NJ. Right now the coalition has representation in 80 percent of school districts in NJ. These volunteers are working tirelessly and often spend their own resources to do so.

The public education activists are waiting for a leader on this issue. Which State leaders want to lead this group? It would be wise to not only engage with us but support our efforts, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also politically beneficial. There are thousands of us who will follow. In 2024 Education Truth Project intends to lead in informing our coalition members of leaders that support our effort and those that do not. Unfortunately, I hear too many times “where is all this money coming from to support these extremists” and how come nobody is supporting our efforts?

Polling also makes abundantly clear that the people of NJ love their teachers, and their schools. And more importantly, they want the continued partnership among parents, students, and teachers that make NJ schools among the best in the nation.
To the political leaders in NJ: Say something, stand up and speak out when the extremists call our teachers and school librarian’s groomer’s.! When extremists activists like James O’Keefe walk into Westwood regional school board meetings and offer students’ hidden cameras to film their teachers, make your voice heard. Our school board members and activists have been waiting long enough for support and I believe it is time they get it.

Matthew Kazmierczak is the founder and executive director of the Education Truth Project
educationtruthproject.org