Biden ally to take on school culture wars as White House weighs broader response

 A top White House ally plans to paint Republicans’ focus on issues around race, gender and sexual identity as part of a GOP strategy to undermine public education as White House officials debate how forcefully to engage in the so-called culture wars dominating the right.

In remarks prepared for the National Press Club on Tuesday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is expected to say state and local laws that ban certain types of books or restrict what can be taught in the classroom are “fueling hostility and fear” and aren’t serving students, parents or teachers, according to an advance copy of her speech provided to NBC News.

“What started as fights over pandemic-era safety measures has morphed into fear mongering — false claims that elementary and secondary schools are teaching critical race theory; disgusting, unfounded claims that teachers are grooming and indoctrinating students; and pronouncements that public schools push a ‘woke’ agenda,” Weingarten will say. “This is an organized and dangerous effort to undermine public schools.”

Weingarten will lay out steps that would address issues like mental health, school safety and learning loss from the coronavirus pandemic but also call for others to more forcefully push back against culture wars.

Legislation passed or pending in states across the country is designed to “create a climate of fear and intimidation” to allow conservative activists to advance an agenda that includes shifting funds for education away from public schools, Weingarten will say.

“Our public schools shouldn’t be pawns for politicians’ ambitions, or defunded and destroyed by ideologues,” she will say.

A senior White House official who spoke with Weingarten said her remarks focus primarily on education policy.

So far, the Biden administration has launched something of a scattershot response to the GOP’s culture war campaign, largely calling out specific bills as they move forward or addressing them in passing at events with relevant communities.

At a Black History Month reception in late February, for instance, both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris indirectly criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for rejecting a proposed Advanced Placement course about Black history for high school students.

“Black history is American history,” Harris said. “And let us all be clear: We will not, as a nation, build a better future for America by trying to erase America’s past.”

Biden said at the event: “History matters. And Black history matters. I can’t just choose to learn what we want to know. We learn what we should know. We have to learn everything: the good, the bad, the truth and who we are as a nation. That’s what great nations do.”

The administration also hit back at DeSantis with an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times this month by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who argued that classroom discussions about America are hampered “when politicians try to hijack them to promote their own partisan agendas.”

“Ironically, some of the very politicians who claim to promote freedom are banning books and censoring what students can learn,” Cardona wrote. “Parents don’t want politicians dictating what their children can learn, think and believe. That’s not how public education is supposed to work in a free country.”

A White House official pointed to the op-ed as an example of how the White House plans to engage on the issue — however intermittently — until Biden fully leans into the debate.

At some point, Biden will weigh in more fully, but as of now the White House sees it as a 2024 conversation and doesn’t believe he should be focused on it, the official said. “We don’t think this is the time,” the official said.

Biden’s wading into the debate could be seen as his going toe to toe with DeSantis, and the White House’s goal is for the president to appear above that. The official also said polling doesn’t suggest it is an issue Biden should give much attention, given it shows Americans’ top concerns are inflation, health care and their personal economic circumstances.

“I’m not naive and underestimate the potential of wedge issues in certain races. But the average voter is just so much more wary of bulls— issues,” a Biden adviser said.

Biden last year twice explicitly referred to “culture wars,” once as he honored the Council of Chief State School Officers’ national and state teachers of the year and again in his prime-time address from Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where he said the nation shouldn’t focus on “divisive culture wars” or “the politics of grievance, but on a future we can build together.”

Officials say to expect Biden for now to continue to focus on topics like manufacturing and supply chains. On Tuesday, he is launching an administration-wide “Investing in America” tour at a stop in North Carolina.