Michigan governor nominee Tudor Dixon pushes GOP 'culture war' rhetoric about education

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Michigan gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon focuses on favorite Republican themes such as 'critical race theory,' 'school choice,' and 'parents' rights' in campaign appeals to the GOP base.

Several of the Republicans who ran in their party's primary for governor of Michigan this summer cited their opposition to the COVID-19 safety policies of incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, such as mask mandates and the closures of schools and businesses, as their motivation to run for office. They blasted Whitmer for policies put into place on the recommendation of public health experts that were intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives.

Now that Tudor Dixon has clinched the GOP nomination for governor, she is repeating the criticisms on which she based her primary campaign, tweeting on Aug. 11, "Parents will be the decision makers in the 2022 elections and liberal lockdown governors face particular peril due to their policies' harsh impact on children. @GretchenWhitmer was the cruelest of them all."

Dixon, the only woman on the statewide GOP ticket, promotes herself as a champion of families and children, focusing much of her campaign on talking point issues Republicans have used in previous cycles to engage their base voters, including "parents' rights," "school choice," and "critical race theory."

Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, told the American Independent Foundation that Dixon has "picked up on the fact that there are parents out there that are angry. Pandemic closures, transgender issues, CRT: Moms don't like what schools are doing, but she hasn't fully fleshed that out yet into a coherent policy."

Centering Whitmer as the enemy of education and families in Michigan, Dixon attacked the governor over gender issues, saying during her primary election night speech on Aug. 2, "This is going to be an epic battle between a conservative businesswoman and mother and a far-left birthing parent and career politician"; tweeting the next day, "Thank you President Trump! It's time to elect a real woman in Michigan"; and responding to a statement from Whitmer's campaign on the race between her and Dixon, "What is a woman? @gretchenwhitmer."

Dixon is also repeating charges that Whitmer's closures of schools in response to pandemic threats has caused damage to Michigan children, telling Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt during an appearance on "Fox & Friends" on Aug. 11 that she shared on Twitter:

We really believe that parents are going to get involved in this election in a way they never have before, because not only do we have this attack on women, an attack on our young girls, but we've also had an attack on education from this governor. She shut our schools down longer than almost any other state. In fact, we even had schools shut down at the beginning of this year, and she said nothing. And then when our students were desperately in need of a chance to catch up, she was given an opportunity to have reading scholarships and she vetoed that. So parents are going to look at this and say, Now our schools are failing, we had a 50% failure rate on our literacy exams after those reading scholarships were vetoed, and parents are saying, Who is going to do something to get our kids back on track?

The educational issues page on Dixon's campaign website includes "Preserve Parents' Rights," "Protect Girls' Sports," and "Create Education Savings Accounts." The brief descriptions under each heading reveal a focus on cultural issues: The section on "Parents' Rights" says that Dixon would "Require school districts to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to see and ban school personnel from talking to Kindergarten-3rd grade children about sex and gender theory secretly behind their parents' backs," for example, harking back to Florida's recently enacted "Parental Rights in Education" law, known by opponents as "Don't say gay."

The section under the heading on girls sports misgenders and dismisses the rights of transgender girls: "Protect young girls from being forced to compete against biological boys in school sports by banning born boys from playing on girls' teams in school-sanctioned, gender-specific sports." It meshes with recent efforts by the Michigan Legislature, which in April of this year passed a bill prohibiting athletes who are "biologically built like a boy" from participating in girls sports.

When it comes to funding education in the state, Dixon's website says, "Empower parents to decide which education environment is best for their child. Allow families to use the state's per-pupil funding amount on public, private, charter, virtual, or homeschooling options."

"Think of it like this," MSU's Cowen told TAIF. "If her overall strategy is the gender, dog-whistle, anti-woke agenda, the tactic is school vouchers, which Betsy DeVos has been pushing nationally for decades."

DeVos, a long-time right-wing Republican activist and donor, is a supporter of unregulated charter schools and school vouchers that would redirect public funding from public schools to private and charter schools. DeVos served as secretary of education under former President Donald Trump and recently said she thinks the Department of Education should be abolished. She and her family endorsed Dixon in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Allowing such funding would require an amendment to the state Constitution, which currently bars it.

In a website post on so-called "school choice," the ACLU said in 2016 that "voucher and tax credit programs typically funnel taxpayer funds into private and often religious schools that are free to discriminate against students on a variety of grounds and are exempt from meeting the same educational requirements as public schools. ... Beyond classroom material, private religious schools can and do discriminate, for example, by excluding students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or disability."

Cowen noted that Michigan already has one of the largest "school choice" programs in the country, and that this year 1 in 4 kids will go to school outside their districts. 

In a recent column published by the Detroit News, Cowen pointed out, "The plan that Tudor Dixon and Betsy DeVos are proposing not only complicates the tax code further, it's also unnecessary if the idea is to simply support kids where their parents choose to send them."

In July, Whitmer's office celebrated the state's school budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which allocates $9,150 per pupil in every school district, the highest amount in the state's history, and includes $475 million for school infrastructure, funds for mental health resources and special needs children, and an additional 1,300 spots in preschool programs. The budget passed with bipartisan support.  

This month, however, in an effort to have the Republican-led House pass school voucher legislation, a DeVos-backed group called Let MI Kids Learn turned in more than 500,000 signatures on a petition calling for the Legislature to vote on establishing publicly funded student savings accounts that could be used for private schools or tutoring costs. Whitmer vetoed a similar proposal last year,  saying it would reduce state revenue by $500 million annually while effectively making private schools tax shelters for the wealthy. 

The Bureau of Elections is reviewing the petition.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.