In Virginia, a reliably blue state that President Biden won by ten points in November 2020 and that hadn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in more than a decade, gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin just led the GOP ticket to a clean sweep. He upset former governor and 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe, whose ran a campaign boosted by visits from Democratic celebrities like Biden, President Obama, and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Youngkin’s victory has national implications. Vice President Harris told Democratic voters last week, Virginia is a “bellwether” with big implications for next year’s midterms, the Biden administration, and its floundering $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” bill. (Former Obama adviser David Alexrod asked on CNN, “If you are a Democrat sitting on Capitol Hill and you are from one of these swing districts in suburban areas, are you rethinking tonight your vote on this reconciliation package?”)
While every election can be understood in multiple ways, this contest was ultimately framed by education. Fox News exit polling found Youngkin winning better than two-to-one among those for whom education was the most important issue, upending the historic Democratic advantage on schooling. In fact, the race’s turning point was McAuliffe’s insistence in an early October debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
McAuliffe struggled to limit the damage, especially when the National School Board Association asked the Biden administration to go after unruly parents, seeming to intimate that irate parents should be regarded as domestic terrorists. McAuliffe also had trouble convincing voters that his statement was merely a gaffe and not a window into his core convictions, especially after a Youngkin ad showed McAuliffe uttering some formulation of the sentiment more than a half-dozen times. McAuliffe wasn’t helped by an October USA Today/Suffolk poll that reported that, when asked “should parents or school boards have more of an influence on a school’s curriculum,” 79 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents said parents—but just 16 percent of Democrats did.
The question of parental influence was backlit by a fierce, sustained back-and-forth over Critical Race Theory. McAuliffe took to national Sunday morning news shows to label Youngkin’s attacks on CRT a racist “dogwhistle”, a charge echoed by a series of high-profile surrogates. Those attacks made it especially notable that exit polls showed Youngkin winning independents, claiming about a third of the Latino vote, and doing better than expected with Virginia’s Black voters. The “racism” explanation of the Youngkin victory also has to reckon somehow with the fact that the voters who backed Youngkin simultaneously elected the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, a Black woman who immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica as a child, served in the Marines, was vice president of the Virginia State Board of Education, and is the first woman of color to win statewide office in Virginia. The Republican slate also included the party’s candidate for attorney general, Jason Miyares, who is on the cusp of upsetting the Democratic incumbent to become Virginia’s first Latino attorney general.
The gubernatorial campaign can perhaps be distilled to its ubiquitous “Parents for Youngkin” signs. In its final poll, Echelon Insights found that Youngkin was trailing by a point among non-parents but cleaning up among K-12 parents. As Echelon’s Kristen Soltis Anderson put it, “You can bet every Republican in the country is going to run on education in 2022 because of what happened in Virginia tonight.”
That sounds about right. But it’s worth asking just what educational lessons should be taken from what unfolded in the Old Dominion.
First, to say this race was about “education” is to say it was really about school closures, parental frustration, and concerns that ideological extremists are calling the shots on public education. Other than insisting that schools stayed closed too long last year, that parents need to be heard, and that there are serious problems with what falls under the label of Critical Race Theory, Youngkin didn’t get especially concrete on education. This is not education policy as we’ve grown used to debating it over much of the past two decades. Sure, Youngkin, a private-equity executive, had the standard five-point plan, which featured planks like “getting every student college or career ready,” “raising teacher pay,” and creating charter schools, but his breakthrough on education wasn’t fueled by his stance on accountability, standards, school spending, or the rest of the familiar school improvement checklist. It was all about values, frustration, and parental empowerment. And that is potent, deeply personal stuff.
Second, while McAuliffe, Harris, and the talking heads at MSNBC described Youngkin’s critique of CRT as a race-baiting appeal to the base, a quick look at the polling suggests something very different. In an election where turnout was almost 50 percent higher than expected, Youngkin won independents and made notable gains with women and minority voters. This has a lot more in common with how Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama used education to court the middle than with how Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Biden used it to energize the base in 2016 and 2020. The map suggests that going after the ideological extremism underlying CRT helped Youngkin win back suburban voters that Trump lost, a fact Democrats ignore at their peril.
Third, on that note, the coverage featured a drumbeat of commentary insisting that Critical Race Theory is a manufactured issue and isn’t actually found in Virginia’s schools. Such complaints are fundamentally dishonest, and Youngkin’s attacks resonated because parents know it. First off, it is found in Virginia’s schools. Second, and more important, for a half-decade, education advocacy, leadership, and philanthropy have been rife with bombastic, ideologically doctrinaire pledges of “anti-racism”—including the insistence that every single idea, policy, and action (from pot legalization to academic testing) is either “racist” or “anti-racist” and that schools must instruct students to choose “correctly.” Conveniently for those who are selling it, “anti-racist” doctrine is damn hard to oppose—due to its too-clever-by-half rhetorical trick of casting any would-be skeptic as, well, racist. But once these ideas are stripped of that protective shell and rebranded in less favorable terms, it seems that lots of parents, of various races and creeds, reject the premise that the United States was founded as a “slavocracy” and continues to be plagued by “systemic racism” and take issue with “anti-racism”/CRT’s toxic doctrines, suspect practices, and assertions that all manner of civilizational virtues—from “hard work” to “independent thought” to “objectivity”—are troubling legacies of “white supremacy culture.”
Fourth, if progressives (and educational leaders) can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the legitimacy of these parental concerns, they’re going to keep winding up crosswise with huge swaths of the public—including lots of Black and Latino Democrats. It just wouldn’t have been that hard over the past 12 months for McAuliffe, Biden, or embattled school board members to say, “Of course I don’t think that ‘hard work’ or ‘independent thought’ are ‘white’ things. That’s ludicrous, and we need to get any diversity consultants saying this garbage out of our schools. Of course I don’t think elementary schools should have sexually explicit content in the library. I don’t know how it wound up there, but we’re going to address it and ensure it never happens again.” This kind of simple, commonsense response could have drawn much of the venom out of the now-seething parent rebellion. But, for reasons that escape me, progressive politicos and school leaders have chosen to hem, shrug, and obfuscate.
Ultimately, in the past half-decade, the left-leaning education community has abandoned the Clinton-Obama formula of seeing education as a chance to court the middle and champion broadly shared values like personal responsibility, fairness, and opportunity. Today, advocates, funders, education leaders, and even Democratic politicians sound aligned with a progressive base that seems increasingly contemptuous of such values. Education is following the pattern of the “defund the police” campaign, where the most militant elements of the progressive base framed criminal justice reform in a way that hurt Democrats at the ballot box while undercutting the possibility of working towards serious solutions. Youngkin’s win in Virginia was a consequence, and unless the left adjusts course, it won’t be the last one.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.
Last updated November 3, 2021