During the course of his exultant victory speech after winning last week’s Virginia gubernatorial election, Glenn Youngkin brought up an aspect of education that was largely overlooked during his campaign. Highlighting what was easily the most important issue that helped him defeat Democrat Terry McAullife, he said his administration was “going to embrace our parents, not ignore them.” He promised to “press forward with a curriculum that includes listening to parents’ input.”
That was a clear reference to the spread of critical race theory (CRT) in the schools via curricula that, while ostensibly seeking to educate about America’s troubled past and promoting inclusion, was actually about indoctrinating kids with ideas about white privilege and other radical notions. Beyond that, Youngkin said “We’re going to introduce choice within our public school system,” starting with 20 charter schools.
Conservatives have been talking about school choice for decades. The idea remains popular among parents, especially minority families, who are often stuck in failed public schools. A recent survey showed that 74 percent of Americans backed school choice, with 70 percent of families wanting to send their children to a private, parochial, or charter institution or to home school.
Twenty states have some form of school choice or offer tax credits to aid private and charter schools. Yet nationwide 82 percent of families are forced to attend local government schools and have no alternative they feel they can afford. The forces opposed to the idea — Democrats and their powerful teachers union allies — have consistently stymied the efforts of school reformers.
That was true during the Trump administration too, although the president endorsed choice and appointed a secretary of education dedicated to the idea. Betsy DeVos was a rare Trump cabinet official who served for the entire four years of his presidency, yet she made no headway in promoting school choice. Even during 2017 and 2018, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, the faltering leadership had other priorities.
Enough of the Name Calling
The results in Virginia are not merely a wake-up call for Democrats, most of whom still seem to believe the nationwide parent revolt, which prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to issue a directive calling for parents to be treated like domestic terrorists, isn’t a product of genuine concerns. Indeed, post-election analysis from leftist pundits like MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace put Youngkin’s win down to racism, dog whistling, and CRT, despite the latter “not being a real thing.”
That head-in-the-sand attitude reflects the elitism of the corporate media and leftists. They exploited the moral panic after the death of George Floyd to spread the toxic myths of The New York Times’ “1619 Project” about American history and to push training sessions in business and government that focused on shaming those with “white privilege.”
This attempt to brand ordinary Americans as racists generated enough outrage to help flip Virginia, which even Republicans assumed had been transformed by the shifting demographics of the DC suburbs into a solid blue state.
A Chance to Vanquish Teachers Unions
While celebrating this development, Republicans need to understand that they have been presented with not just a golden opportunity to beat back CRT but also a chance to finally vanquish the teachers unions voters rightly associate with pointless Covid restrictions and school closings as well as leftist curricula and policies.
McAuliffe was signaling to the teachers unions and their leaders, such as American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, when he handed Youngkin the election on a silver platter by asserting that, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Weingarten, who campaigned hard for McAuliffe, understood what was at stake in the election. Youngkin’s victory has demonstrated that the teachers unions are not sacrosanct. The election results are a clarion call for Republicans to understand that an education platform that includes choice is a political winner, not the afterthought it has largely been for the party these past 20 years.
As former Obama aide Stephanie Cutter said after the Virginia vote, the greatest danger for Democrats is for Republicans to become the “party of the parents.” She’s right. Exit polls in Virginia showed that voters in general and parents of school children in particular disagreed with McAuliffe about who should control the schools. A majority of parents of schoolchildren also broke for Youngkin.
Minorities Need School Choice the Most
The issue should resonate particularly with minority voters. Youngkin improved on Trump’s 2020 showing in Virginia by getting 13 percent of the black vote. That’s still small but it is black parents in particular to whom school choice can be a pivotal issue. They are the ones who need to be given more choices, lest their children continue to be the chief victims of government schools with big budgets but a record of failures on teaching the fundamentals needed to succeed in life.
Giving families the freedom to choose the schools their kids attend is often depicted as evidence of racism. But school choice gives Republicans an opportunity to campaign on an issue that transcends race and economic class.
In a country where a choice of school is usually restricted to the wealthy, advocacy for it allows conservatives to remind both legislators and voters that the children of the poor, working class, and middle class are made in the image of God just as much as those of the wealthy. They deserve the same chances for advancement that are being denied to them by a government education monopoly that all too often rewards mediocrity and failure while discouraging both excellence and accountability.
Opportunity May Be Thwarted
Change won’t be easy. In Virginia, a state Senate that is narrowly controlled by Democrats may be able to thwart Youngkin. Indeed, as a Washington Post article noted, the system is set up to be able to resist the kind of political groundswell that elected him.
Opposing these policies has worked for Democrats until now because they have been allowed to get away with hiding behind accusations of racism. Boosting the power of the unions has been a sweet deal for both Weingarten and her political allies, who benefit from the campaign cash the teachers can distribute.
The attention given to CRT and the establishment’s contempt for parents is the opening that school reform has long needed. But this moment can be squandered if Republicans are not prepared to actually fight for school choice instead of merely paying lip service to it as they have done for many years. The GOP must understand that instead of a hobby horse for conservative intellectuals and school reformers, school choice offers a path to victory.