Against the Education Status Quo

“I do not believe parents should tell schools what to teach.”

That is how once-and-coming Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe described himself. Terry McAuliffe started a culture war that ended with Glen Youngkin, a Republican neophyte, taking over the executive office.

When the race began, parents were already spitting mad—the worst kind of mad to be in a respiratory virus pandemic. Virginia had the seventh most closed K-12 system during the 2020–21 school year, joining California, Oregon, and other blue states in offering minimal in-person instruction during COVID-19.

Virginia’s public schools were closed after learning that there was no risk to children in school. This happened even though the vaccine had been made readily available for teachers and administrators. Private schools within the state continued to be open despite the fact that they had returned to their original location.

As their children sat around at home day after day in chaotic classes, tinnily echoed on Microsoft Teams, the parents heard a lot about what their children did at school. A lot of their children weren’t happy with what they were seeing. It wasn’t just hot topics. This often disheartening information was delivered directly to parents’ heads at a time when they had already lost faith in the educational system.

Public school curricula were a long-standing black box. McAuliffe didn’t propose anything revolutionary when he suggested that parents shouldn’t be able to decide what children learn. He was simply describing the status-quo.

Parents were shocked when their children returned to school and began learning again in person. For more than one year many people resented the fact that they were being asked to stop talking and that they had to be a teacher or coach.

Open mics are an open forum for parents to vent their anger at school closings, rolling quarantines and masking. Ballotpedia reports that there were 84 recall attempts against 215 school board members this year, a dramatic increase from the average 23 recall actions against 52 board members per annum since 2006. A surprising number of school board members were recalled and decided not to run for re-election. There was also a large number of incumbents who lost their seats (though many of them survived well-funded challenges). As this magazine goes to press, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved COVID vaccination for kids age 5–11, a new front in an education-adjacent culture war and one that does not promise to cool the superheated waters.

Due to their long-standing pent-up frustrations, school board disputes were amplified. And the powers that be—the teachers unions, the school administrators, and their politician bosses—were slow to recognize that the deep well of goodwill they’d long enjoyed had run dry.

Many families were dissatisfied and chose to leave the system. The enrollment rate in Virginia’s public schools dropped by nearly 40K students last school year. The largest district of schools in Virginia, Fairfax County has more than 10,000 fewer students this school year than pre-pandemic. Virginia’s unusual off-cycle elections offered parents an unique opportunity to voice their opinion in a race that is always receiving a lot of national attention.

In the midst of election season, parents who made the decision to remain and fight were immediately mocked. Jeffrey Toobin, a former pundit, said that it was important to recall why school boards are being discussed at all. “It is about white supremacy and that’s rising in the Republican Party.”

It’s a nefarious interpretation to put it this way. Virginia defeated Joe Biden 10 points last year. An Echelon Insights survey found that Youngkin outperformed K-12 parents by 15%. One theory is that all the pro-Biden Karens suddenly remembered they were racist and decided to vote accordingly. Joy Reid (commentator) stated that “education” is code for “white parents aren’t happy with the idea of teaching about race .” Perhaps a lot of politically independents didn’t like being told they shouldn’t have any say over the education of their children for the past year because Donald Trump was not their favorite person.

It was not an effective strategy to stick up for the status-quo, while wreaking havoc on unhappy parents.

McAuliffe and Youngkin weren’t sent to this war on culture. Both were eagerly enlisted.

McAuliffe wanted to make his voters mad. McAuliffe hoped that they would still be mad at Trump. This is a sensible campaign strategy in an otherwise blue state. It was complicated by some muddled stage work. An anti-Trump Republican group known as The Lincoln Project claimed credit for an act in which people dressed up as Charlottesville tiki torchers, and pretended to support Youngkin. If that isn’t clear, it’s okay. At the time, it didn’t make much sense. Youngkin gave the cosplayers a fruit bowl after his win, because their inept behavior almost assuredly earned him votes. Democrats wanted to change the race from one about race.

Youngkin received applause at one of his last rallies when he stated, “We’ll teach history all, both the good and bad.” A few minutes later, Youngkin drew further applause as he stated that “on Day One, I will ban Critical Race Theory in Our Schools.” These two promises are not compatible—the language of CRT bans is universally vague and punitive in ways that will certainly chill the teaching of “all history, the good and the bad”—but they clearly signaled which side he was on.

Youngkin’s strongest ad features a mother who is appalled at her high school student being assigned Toni Morrison. Be loved and angry that, during his previous stint as governor, McAuliffe had twice vetoed a bill requiring parental notification for explicit content.

The fact that the events in question happened over a decade ago—the boy is now in his late 20s—shows that politicized battles about education are nothing new. The ad’s most charitable interpretation is that White people don’t want their kids to know about slavery, and Youngkin was dogwhistling to them. This whistle is especially loud because the book wasn’t named in the ad. It is possible to interpret this as parents wanting to be informed about their children’s day so they can have input or even have the possibility to discuss it at home.

Youngkin used his platform to pledge to increase the number of charter schools by 20 and reverse certain changes that were made to state magnet schools. This was in addition to his transparency efforts. These reforms have been resisted by Virginia for a long time. It will be fascinating to see how Youngkin implements them, and whether elections are won using school choice substance, and not culture war-style.