Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign, through a combination of default, design, and political energy, has become both a focal point for national angst about schools and a showcase for how local education issues can fuel high-profile political campaigns.
The close election, pitting Democrat Terry McAuliffe against Republican Glenn Youngkin, has highlighted national tensions about what schools teach, parental control, and COVID-19 protocols. These divisions are not new, but they could fuel an evolution in how politicians use schools in campaigns, at least for the short term.
Stories stemming from local school districts in voter-heavy northern parts of the state—including controversy over a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about slavery, and a case of sexual assault at a high school—also have played an outsize role in the campaign. And McAuliffe’s remark during a late September debate with Youngkin that downplayed the role of parents in determining school curricula has become a touchstone for the campaign.
Percolating right alongside is the month-old controversy over the National School Boards Association’s push for the Biden administration to address threats and violence targeting local school officials nationally, which many Republicans have characterized as an outrageous attempt to silence certain members of the public.
“This is no longer a campaign,” Youngkin said in a recent speech. “It is a movement where we are all standing up for our children. ... We are actually standing up and saying, we have a fundamental right to be engaged in our kids’ education.”
The potential impact of the race and its result stretch beyond Virginia. National Republicans have used McAuliffe’s remark, for example, to cast themselves as the party of parents and the Democrats as the party of unaccountable, disdainful, and radical education bureaucrats.
McAuliffe has pledged to raise teacher pay and expand pre-K. But in the race’s final days, his attacks on Youngkin aren’t strictly about policy.
“Glenn Youngkin uses education to divide Virginia,” McAuliffe said at a rally. “He wants to bring his personal culture wars into our classrooms.”
Other state and local officials, if not federal politicians, could look to leverage education in their own races next year using Youngkin’s strategy, especially in swing states where COVID-19 rules and curriculum concerns have divided the public or made headlines.
State policy issues haven’t been off the political radar. Virginia’s move to overhaul math instruction earlier this year generated some controversy, and Youngkin criticized a previous state-mandated school closure in the early stage of the pandemic. But the combination of 2022 midterm politics and increased attention to divisive local education issues, in short, might prove to be a potent combination.
Virginia has a unique role on the political landscape
As a swing state where the gubernatorial election falls the year after a presidential one, and where incumbents are barred from seeking a second consecutive term, Virginia is often viewed as a national political temperature check.
Youngkin’s appeal to parents relies much more on emotion and not on a detailed policy platform, said Robert Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia’s school of education. In his view, the call from Youngkin and his allies to support parents really refers to a particular group of parents unhappy with what they see as the liberal political agenda of northern Virginia school officials, not parents in general.
“They’re asking for influence around a particular set of policies,” Pianta said of parents in Virginia protesting local school board actions related to curriculum and other matters. “In other states, at other times, parents are asking for the opposite.”
The 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that riveted the nation, along with controversy about things ranging from Confederate monuments to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s past appearance in blackface, have created a particularly tense environment in Virginia that has influenced the political climate for school leaders, Pianta noted.
In addition, it’s hard to know whether the issues and events playing a role in the Virginia race will factor into voters’ opinions a year from now.
Nevertheless, Youngkin’s tactic of making schools a rallying cry for discontented or uncertain voters makes sense, given that President Joe Biden won the state by 10 percentage points last year, said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a founding partner of Echelon Insights, a polling firm based in Virginia. She said the issue’s growing influence in the campaign shows how education can be more potent as a state and local political issue than as a truly national one.
“With Republicans eager to win over suburban voters they have struggled with in the past, a whole range of concerns—whether schools are focused on the right issues, whether they have responded to COVID appropriately, whether they are setting students up for success—can bridge beyond the normal partisan lines,” Anderson wrote in an email.
Education surges as a top campaign issue
The Virginia race has even featured a quintessential political moment that happened to be about education: the remark broadly seen as a gaffe, in which McAuliffe said during a September debate with Youngkin, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
McAuliffe made that comment during discussion of a 2016 bill he vetoed that would have let parents block their children from reading sexually explicit books from schools. The remark, and its connection to content some parents find objectionable, has come to dominate Youngkin’s campaign messaging. A recent ad from Youngkin featured a mother who several years ago opposed the inclusion of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in the Fairfax County, Va., school curriculum.
McAuliffe’s campaign eventually responded with its own ad to try to explain the remark after it drew nationwide scrutiny and criticism. Subsequently, he cast Youngkin’s position on the Beloved controversy as prejudiced and retrograde, saying that the GOP candidate wants to ban books by award-winning Black authors.
Regardless, education’s power to draw attention and excitement to the race has been clear. A local curriculum decision had, at least indirectly, become part of a national political story.
Meanwhile, conservatives’ interest in changing the playing field for local school boards nationwide has burgeoned in recent months. Recent developments on this front include guides for parents and pushing to align local board elections with national ones in order to boost voter turnout and accountability.
When Don Kusler heard McAuliffe’s remark about parents, he said that if he had been McAuliffe’s campaign adviser, he probably would have put his head in his hands.
The national director of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal nonpartisan advocacy group that has not endorsed McAuliffe, Kusler (who said he’s worked in Virginia politics for over 20 years) cautioned that the issue isn’t so much education or schools as practical concerns. Instead, he said, its power draws on growing anxiety among parents, particularly among white middle-class voters in the state’s suburbs, who are concerned not just for their own children but for their own standing in a country with a heated culture war over topics like race.
“There are a lot of well-meaning people who are feeling challenged, and feeling a little boxed in. The manufactured controversy over how that’s playing out in education, it’s a vehicle, it’s a conduit for that anxiety. It wasn’t even on the radar screen in 2017,” Kusler said, referring to the last time Virginia had a race for governor.
Previously, he said, education’s place in the gubernatorial campaign often took the form of debates about relatively staid topics like levels of education funding and teacher pay.
Polling indicates that Youngkin’s attempts to move the issue from staid to explosive are working. A Monmouth University poll of the race from late October found that 41 percent of registered voters in the poll said education was a top issue for them in the race, up from 31 percent in September. The survey also reported that Youngkin and McAuliffe were tied in terms of which candidate was more trusted to handle schools.
An earlier October poll from CBS News and YouGov found that those who voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election last year were much more likely to say that curriculum about race and history were a major factor in their choice—76 percent—than voters who backed Joe Biden, 48 percent of whom said the same.
A popular playbook for 2022?
Anderson said although candidates for federal office would likely find it challenging to replicate Youngkin’s strategy, she foresees many Republican candidates using his playbook if he wins the election, or just comes close.
Kusler isn’t so sure. A year from now, if the pandemic has eased and coronavirus-related restrictions in schools are no longer a divisive issue, it might be harder to galvanize voters about their local schools in the same way, he said.
But he added, if current racial politics and culture-war divisions remain intense, they could continue to impact education’s place in elections in 2022.
“I don’t know that you’re going to just be able to pull this off the shelf as a strategy if you’re a Republican. I also assume that Democrats will probably learn from Terry McAuliffe’s gaffe,” Kusler said, referring to the ex-governor’s comment about parents. “There’s a way to answer that that’s not going to be a soundbite.”
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as How One Governor’s Race Channeled National And Local Anger Over Schools