While former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's loss to Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin was cemented very late on election night, in practice the day that he forfeited the gubernatorial race was September 28. That was when, during a debate with Youngkin, McAuliffe, a Democrat, made the statement that "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
That was his response to questions about school curriculum and the fury that had taken hold at many local school board meetings, where irate parents assailed education leaders for allegedly supporting what has been termed "critical race theory" by right-wing activists who oppose it. CRT is a divisive concept, in part because progressives and conservative disagree sharply about what it even is. Many members of the liberal media don't even believe it exists, and have accused the GOP of fabricating the issue. As Youngkin's victory became apparent, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace lamented that critical race theory, "which isn't even real," had swung the suburbs 15 points in Republicans' favor.
MSNBC in full meltdown mode. pic.twitter.com/MtBKJjYxC0
— Ian Miles Cheong @ stillgray.substack.com (@stillgray) November 3, 2021
Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and the architect of the current CRT framing, has claimed a well-deserved victory: There's no question that his efforts to supply a memorable name—critical race theory—for the series of semi-related, clumsy diversity initiatives and questionable curriculum choices in some public schools helped raise the salience of the issue.
But the other piece of the puzzle, undoubtedly, was public schools' utter failure to serve kids and families throughout the pandemic. Schools shut down for months, offloading teacher duties to frustrated parents all over the country. The education system forced families to take more responsibility for educating kids. It catered to the every whim of teachers union leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, no matter how unreasonable, while kids and their parents were left to fend for themselves. It put public employees ahead of citizens and taxpayers. And it continued to subordinate the needs of families for more than a year. Even at present—long after it has become perfectly clear that COVID-19 is not a significant threat to children—many public schools in blue municipalities continue to force kids to wear masks. Some kids even have to wear masks while playing sports outdoors.
What happened in the Virginia gubernatorial election is that a reckoning finally arrived. Parents rightly objected to the idea that they should assume more and more of the school system's responsibilities but should not enjoy any authority. And they clearly blamed Democrats for taking the side of teachers unions: K-12 parents broke decisively for Youngkin.
You can bet every Republican in the country is going to run on education in 2022 because of what happened in Virginia tonight. (Even if in reality education was just part of the picture and "education" is an umbrella for a hundred different sub-issues.) pic.twitter.com/S11lYm0AXW
— Kristen Soltis Anderson (@KSoltisAnderson) November 3, 2021
Critical race theory has now taken center stage in this unrelenting culture war, to the extent that Joy Reid now thinks "Education is code for 'white parents don't like the idea of teaching about race.'" That attitude is a recipe for continued failure—for alienating Democratic voters. The more the media calls parents racists for wanting to exert some influence over their kids' educational options, the worse off Democrats will be.
If Republicans truly wish to capitalize on their better-than-expected showing, they should deliver on what parents of all political stripes want: school choice. Pass laws that expand the ability of families to choose the education option that is best for individual students. Rather than having bitter arguments about what policies schools should be allowed to implement, parents should simply have the right to take their dollars and find a school that aligns with their values on COVID-19 protocols, curriculum, and everything else.