The Virginia governor’s race has upended education politics overnight

I’ve been in education for two decades, starting as a public school teacher at the dawn of the No Child Left Behind era. At no time in those twenty years has the relationship between Americans and their public schools felt more “in play” than at the present moment. A contentious election for governor of Virginia to be decided next week could be a tipping point that makes angry and activist parents a political force to be reckoned with in next year’s midterm elections and in races nationwide from statehouses to school boards.

The combination of uncertainty and discontent brought on by three consecutive school years affected by COVID-19 has already led substantial numbers of parents to seek out alternatives or take charge of their kids’ education. The US Census Bureau says homeschooling rates have “exploded” since the start of the pandemic, and school choice advocates have already crowned 2021 the “Year of School Choice” on the strength of new and expanded choice initiatives in more than 20 states. But next week’s gubernatorial election in Virginia could have ripple effects that will dwarf all of these developments.

Robbin Warner puts pro-McAuliffe signs up as people gather to protest during a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Virginia, U.S., October 26, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Until a month ago, Democrat Terry McAuliffe seemed poised to reclaim with relative ease his prior position as governor of Virginia. For most of the summer, the pundit class was handicapping the race against Republican Glenn Youngkin as a referendum on President Biden, who is now viewed negatively by a majority of Virginians. But just a few weeks ago, a gaffe changed the complexion of the race overnight. At a September 28 debate, Mr. McAuliffe bluntly declared, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

That breezy dismissal came as parents were already rubbed raw by school closures, ensuing masking battles, and fights over critical race theory. At nearly the same moment, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) was sending a letter to Biden requesting federal action “to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” aimed by parents at school boards and educators, and likening their protests “to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” One of the incidents cited in the NSBA letter concerned a Loudon County, Virginia man arrested during a school board meeting ostensibly because he was upset with the school district’s stance on critical race theory and equity issues. In fact, the man’s daughter had been sexually assaulted by a student self-identifying as gender fluid, triggering an angry confrontation in front of the school board.

Overnight, education became the number one issue in the campaign, with polls showing voters prioritizing it ahead of jobs, COVID-19, health care, taxes, the environment, and gun control. Parents with school-aged children have broken strongly for Youngkin in a race that is now a statistical dead heat. McAuliffe’s complaint that his words were taken out of context prompted a Youngkin campaign ad consisting of little more than clips of McAuliffe repeatedly taking the side of school boards over parents in disputes over what gets taught in schools.

The bleeding hasn’t stopped. Last week, The Washington Post ran an op-ed dismissing the emerging “parent’s rights” movement, and arguing that education should “prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents.” Reliably misreading the moment, teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten tweeted the piece approvingly. In damage control mode, the McAuliffe campaign brought out former President Barack Obama, who made matters worse, seeming to dismiss parent anger as the product of “phony, trumped-up culture wars.”

The battle lines are drawn and clear. By overwhelming margins, Virginia Republicans and crucial independent voters are telling pollsters parents should have more influence than school boards on what children learn.

As the campaign enters its final days, McAuliffe is seemingly befuddled by a rising and undimmable tide of parental anger with evident political legs. The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley A. Strassel observed that Democrats are “concerned that Terry McAuliffe’s stumbling gubernatorial campaign has gift-wrapped the GOP a winning issue for 2022.”

The relationship between parents and their local public schools is one of the most enduring and resilient relationships in civil society. Americans have long given poor marks to public education at large while still holding their local schools mostly in high regard. The most stalwart public school supporters tend to be suburban parents whose kids attend strong schools.

There are now unmistakable cracks in that sturdy foundation. With astonishing speed and intensity, an interest group is being born. It consists of angry parents whose patience has been exhausted, and whose trust in education professionals and the politicians who support them has been stretched to the breaking point, if not beyond repair. It resembles nothing as much as a parent-led, education-focused version of the Tea Party.

Watch what happens in Virginia very, very carefully. Political professionals already are. Nervously.

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