We saw this coming. The GOP candidates for President have decided, for now, to focus their campaigns against “critical race theory,” Black history, the threat posed by transgender students, and any teaching about race, sex, and gender.

Juan Perez of Politico reports:

CULTURE CLASH — Once upon a time, back when people used fax machines, education policy — test scores, spending, school choice and the like — were a notable feature of Republican presidential campaigns.

Former President George W. Bush’s support for education spending and the transformative No Child Left Behind Act was enshrined in the party’s 2004 platform. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee railed that a general lack of concern about education in the 2008 presidential field “frustrates the fire out of me.” Bush’s brother, Jeb, invoked Martin Luther King Jr.in 2016 when he proposed a detailed education platform before his campaign fizzled.

This year, education is re-emerging as a prominent issue for the budding 2024 GOP field. But America is poised to witness a presidential contest where the debate over school policy sounds dramatically different — with discussions over academic standards and the stunning, once-in-a-generation hitto test scores taking a back seat to issues with a more distinct culture war bent.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is salting a back-to-basics education mantra with brimstone, targeting school lessons on race and sexuality. Former Vice President Mike Pence has put a small Iowa school system’s gender identity policy in the national spotlight. And Former President Donald Trump is stirring up concerns about “pink-haired communists teaching our kids.”

Haley’s campaign launch last week offered a sign of the heightened role the education wars are about to play in the GOP primary.

“They’re talking about critical race theory, where if you send a five year old kindergartner into school — if she’s white, you’re telling her she’s bad, and if she’s brown or Black you’re telling her she’s never going to be good enough and she’s always going to be a victim,” Haley said of the academic practice to a New Hampshire crowd last week. “That’s abusive.”

She added that a Florida ban on sexual orientation and gender identity lessons for young students — championed by rival Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — “didn’t go far enough.”

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have sex ed until seventh grade,” Haley said to applause in New Hampshire. “That’s the kind of stuff you do at home, you don’t do that at school. That’s the kind of thing parents do.”

For his part, Pence has focused attention on an Iowa dispute, in which the conservative Parents Defending Education organization is suing the Linn-Mar Community School District to stop it from enforcing a policy that directs educators to protect their students’ gender identities on campus.

The court case has garnered supportive briefs from the Pence-backed Advancing American Freedom organization plus a coalition of Christian groups and Republican state attorneys general. The legal battle is also the focus of a Pence political initiative— funded with an initial budget of $1 million — that will advocate for “parental rights” policies embraced by conservatives.

“We’re told that we must not only tolerate the left’s obsessions with race and sex and gender but we must earnestly and enthusiastically participate or face severe consequences,” Pence told supporters last week. “Nowhere is the problem more severe, or the need for leadership more urgent, than in our public school classrooms,” he said.

Trump’s education plan, unveiled last month, calls for cutting federal funding for any school or program that includes “critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content onto our children.”

Trump would also open civil rights investigations into any school district that has engaged in race-based discrimination, particularly against Asian American students. He also called to “keep men out of women’s sports,” make significant cuts to school administrative personnel, elect school principals and end teacher tenure.

“As the saying goes, personnel is policy and at the end of the day if we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids we have a major problem,” Trump said.

Sen. Tim Scott, who is testing the waters on a potential presidential bid, is taking a less combative approach. Speaking at a GOP Black History Month event in Charleston last week, the South Carolina senator said “the story of America is not defined by our original sin, the story of America is defined by our redemption” and urged Republicans to “be the party of parents.”

Scott and others are responding to the GOP grassroots energy surrounding issues at the intersection of race, gender, culture and education — which Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin successfully harnessed in his 2021 blue-state victory.

The sharp-edged rhetoric might get sanded down for the general election. But for now, not getting outflanked on education controversies that currently animate the right appears to be the first order of business for the 2024 field.