Whoever comes out on top in the Virginia governor's race, one undisputed winner is education as a galvanizing issue. In a state shifting blue, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was the favorite to win—right up until parents loudly challenged public school polices and the candidate essentially told them to sit down and shut up. That arrogant jibe made Republican Glenn Youngkin, with his focus on education concerns, a serious contender. The question is whether that means just another opening for the culture war, or an opportunity to gain support for school choice policies that offer just about everybody what they want.
In recent months, an ordeal of controversial pandemic policy and creeping politicization of school curricula with social justice ideology resulted in protests at school board meetings across the country.
"Constituents have shown up at normally placid meetings to voice dissent of everything from mask mandate policies – or the lack of them – to teaching critical race theory and policies around transgender students," noted CNN.
Unaccustomed debate prompted the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to ask for federal intervention against angry parents, a move its own board of directors repudiated as state associations disaffiliated from the national organization. In Virginia, where protests were especially vitriolic and school board members denied knowledge of a sexual assault in a Loudon County school bathroom, Terry McAuliffe decided to do the NSBA one better in a manner guaranteed to infuriate the public.
"I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," McAuliffe huffed during a September 28 debate against Youngkin. Suddenly, he was no longer the obvious favorite to win.
"Polls show Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin are neck-and-neck in the race for Virginia governor," a local CBS station reported in mid-October. "With just two weeks until Election Day, education is proving to be a top issue for voters." The piece pointed to the frustration parents felt with being maligned by public school bureaucrats when they raise concerns over masking or racialized curricula.
Averages of polls at both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics showed Youngkin moving from behind to a very slight edge over McAuliffe as the education controversy broke. Voters told Monmouth University pollsters that education was the second-most important issue to them, with Youngkin favored by one point on the matter. A late October poll by Cygnal gave Youngkin a strong lead over McAuliffe among parents of K-12 children—no surprise when 78 percent of parents say they should have a major say in what their kids are taught.
Youngkin improved his odds in the gubernatorial race by emphasizing education. But he did so in two ways that aren't necessarily compatible: His website pledges him to "Ridding Political Agendas from the Classroom by Banning Critical Race Theory" but also to "Creating at least 20 New Innovation Charter Schools across the K-12 Spectrum to Provide Choice." The first option is guaranteed to please parents and students offended by racialized lessons, but to alienate those who think schools gloss over America's faults and by doing so continue the culture war over schools into the future. The second policy would allow both constituencies to go their own ways with schools that cater to divergent preferences and might actually put an end to classroom battles.
At the moment, Virginia parents unhappy with public schools have limited options. The state offers only eight charter schools with little autonomy. There's also a modest tax-credit program for donations supporting private-school tuition. The state is considered "moderate" in terms of burdensome regulation on homeschoolers, leaving that as a possibility for families. And, of course, those able to afford private school tuition on top of taxes for public schools can always opt out of classroom battles.
Among the people with such resources is Terry McAuliffe, who sent his children to a pricey private school even while he opposed making such options available to people without means. As governor from 2014 to 2018 (Virginia doesn't permit consecutive terms) he vetoed legislation that would have eased the creation of new charter schools and that would have allowed families to use education savings accounts to pay for services that they choose themselves.
That demand exists for education options is obvious from growth in homeschooling and private schooling even as public–school enrollment declines. That's impressive given that Virginia families exiting the government system must still pay to support its institutions.
But Virginia's families don't all want the same thing. Some opt for homeschooling because they fear possible infection with COVID-19 and oppose the in-person instruction favored by other families. And a few of the nastier battles over curriculum have taken place between parents on opposite sides of the ideological divide. It's difficult, if not impossible, for government-run schools to simultaneously accommodate families ready to return to normal life and those who want to continue pandemic-inspired social distancing. It's even more challenging to craft lessons for families insisting on race neutrality in the classroom that will appeal to those who favor an "anti-racist" agenda. Politicians like Youngkin and McAuliffe can either pick sides in these battles and hope that they'll ultimately triumph, or they can offer a way out of endless culture war by letting students escape the battleground.
School choice offers an exit ramp from school board battles and conflicts among parents by letting funding follow students to the education that families want for their kids. Neighbors with different preferences can peacefully choose options that suit them without any need for disagreement. Increasingly, people seem to understand that fighting over government monopolies is a dead end and that choice is the way to go.
"Public support for school choice is at an all-time high," Tommy Schultz, CEO of the American Federation for Children, commented in June. In polling by his organization, 74 percent of respondents supported letting parents "use the tax dollars designated for their child's education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs."
In September, 74 percent of school parents polled by EdChoice supported education savings accounts, 70 percent supported school vouchers, and the same percentage favored charter schools. Choice is slightly more popular among the Virginians who vote this week.
The race for governor between Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin shows that parents refuse to be pushed aside when it comes to their kids' education. It will undoubtedly fuel an emphasis on education as a campaign issue in political races across the country. If done right, the battle in Virginia won't result in winner-take-all victory, but in outcomes that benefit everybody.