Last week, Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia, upsetting former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in a blue state that President Biden won by 10 points and where no Republican had won statewide in more than a decade. While much of the leftist commentariat quickly concluded that this was all a case of racists responding to “dog whistles” from Youngkin, this seems an odd explanation. After all, Youngkin, a former CEO and mild-mannered suburban dad, won alongside ticket-mates Winsome Sears, who will be Virginia’s first black woman to serve as lieutenant governor, and Jason Miyares, who will be the state’s first Latino attorney general. Attributing the victories to racism also doesn’t explain the fact that Youngkin won due in large part to inroads with voters in a blue state who had backed Biden in 2020—not the usual suspects for racist dog whistles.
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,” uttered even as the National School Boards Association was catching blowback for its controversial letter to the Biden administration. In its final poll, Echelon Insights found Youngkin trailing by a point among non-parents but winning big among K-12 parents. Echelon’s Kristen Soltis Anderson observed, “You can bet every Republican in the country is going to run on education in 2022 because of what happened in Virginia tonight.”
In an election where K-12 schooling was widely regarded as the central issue, Youngkin’s victory has important implications for education. For readers interested in more detail, I offered a fuller accounting over at Education Next. But here, I’ll flag five points that deserve more attention than they’ve received.
First, the big education issues were school closures, parental frustration with district bureaucracies, and concerns that ideological extremists are calling the shots on the larger direction of K-12 education. This is not education policy as it’s usually been addressed over the past two decades. Sure, Youngkin had the standard five-point plan, with planks like “getting every student college or career ready,” “raising teacher pay,” and creating charter schools, but none of this featured very heavily in the actual campaign debate. Even school choice, where Youngkin’s enthusiasm offered a clear contrast with McAuliffe, didn’t get much attention except as another reflection of Youngkin’s stance on empowering parents. To say this election was about “education” is to say it was about values, frustration, and parental empowerment. And that, not surprisingly, is potent stuff.
Second, while many progressive pundits characterize Youngkin’s attacks on critical race theory as an appeal to the Republican base, I think that misses the mark. In a high-turnout election, Youngkin won independents and made notable gains with women and minority voters. Youngkin’s argument that McAuliffe was excusing or embracing ideological dogmas was less about revving up the base than winning over centrists and disaffected Biden voters. This is precisely the kind of thing that progressive analysts David Shor and Ruy Teixeira have warned Democrats about—the danger of embracing positions that are rejected by huge swathes of centrist (and even Democratic) voters. Indeed, while the specifics were very different, Youngkin’s approach has a lot more in common with how Bill Clinton, Bush, and Obama used education to appeal to the middle than with how Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Biden used attacks on the common core or calls for loan forgiveness to energize the base in 2016 and 2020.
Third, the coverage has 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 have seen the numerous examples of CRT that have surfaced in Virginia. For a half-decade or more, education has been rife with leaders, advocates, and experts urging schools to embrace the doctrine of “anti-racism”—including the premise that every idea, policy, and action (from school discipline to testing to pot legalization) is either “racist” or “anti-racist,” and that schools must teach students to think rightly. Many schools and systems have responded, including in Virginia. Indeed, CRT was showing up as far back as when McAuliffe was governor last time. For instance, take the state’s department of education PowerPoints from 2015, directing schools to “embrace critical race theory” and “engage in race-conscious teaching and learning.” Conveniently for its adherents, of course, “anti-racist” doctrine benefits from the rhetorical trick of casting all criticism as being “pro-racist.” But once “anti-racism” is stripped of that protective rhetorical shell, it turns out that lots of parents and voters reject the premise that the United States was founded as a “slavocracy” and is “systemically racist;” take issue with “anti-racism”/CRT’s suspect practices; and don’t believe that all manner of civilizational virtues—from “hard work” to “independent thought”—are troubling legacies of “white supremacy culture.”
Fourth, if progressives (and educational leaders) can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the legitimacy of the parental concerns on display in Virginia, they’re going to keep winding up crosswise with huge swaths of the public—including lots of Black and Latino voters. It just wouldn’t have been that hard over the past 12 months for McAuliffe to say something like, “We need to teach a full history, the good and the bad. We must help our students wrestle with the inequities and racist legacies that are still with us. But, of course, I don’t think that ‘hard work’ or ‘independent thought’ are ‘white’ things. That’s ludicrous. It’s offensive. And if schools are paying for this nonsense with public funds, we need to put an end to it.” This kind of simple, commonsense response could have lanced the boil, I suspect. Instead, McAuliffe opted to hem and haw, shrug, and obfuscate. It didn’t work so well.
Finally, in recent years, the left-leaning education community has abandoned the Bill Clinton-Obama formula of approaching education as a chance to win over the middle and to champion broadly shared values like personal responsibility, fairness, and opportunity. In any event, I don’t think education leaders, advocates, and funders realize how often they’re locking elbows with a progressive base that seems increasingly contemptuous of such values. To appreciate where this path leads, it may be useful to consider the trajectory of “defund the police.” There, the most militant elements of the progressive base framed criminal justice reform in a way that hurt Democrats at the ballot box while making it more difficult to forge coalitions that can pursue practical solutions.
What happened in Virginia matters so because it has implications for the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election. And, it matters because of what it might tell us about what Americans want from our democratically governed schools.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.