"I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
With those words, once and aspiring Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe set off a bout of culture warfare that culminated with his Republican rival, political neophyte Glenn Youngkin, taking the executive mansion.
When the race began, parents were already spitting mad—the worst kind of mad to be in a respiratory virus pandemic. Virginia had the seventh most closed K-12 system during the 2020–21 school year, joining California, Oregon, and other blue states in offering minimal in-person instruction during COVID-19.
Virginia's public schools stayed closed even after it became clear that the risks to school-aged children from the virus were relatively limited; even after the vaccine was made available to teachers and administrators; even after private schools in the state reopened without major incident; even after public schools in redder neighboring states successfully welcomed children back.
While kids sat at home, day after day, chaotic classes tinnily echoing on Microsoft Teams, parents got an earful of what their children actually do at school. And a lot of them didn't love what they saw. Not just on hot-button topics, but on the more mundane stuff of phonics, social studies, and math. That often-disheartening information was blared directly into parents' brains right at the moment when their faith in the education system was already at a low ebb.
Before that, public school curricula had long been a black box. McAuliffe wasn't proposing something radical when he said parents shouldn't have a say in what kids learn; he was describing the status quo.
When kids did get back to learning in person, that status quo struck parents differently. After doing the jobs of teacher, coach, and cafeteria monitor for more than a year, many resented being told to sit down and shut up.
In school board meetings around the country, open mics were and are a scrum of parents angry about school closures and rolling quarantines, masking, race issues, gender issues, banned books, and probably dress codes too. This year saw 84 recall efforts against 215 school board members, up dramatically from an average of 23 recall efforts annually against 52 board members since 2006, according to Ballotpedia. There were also unusually large numbers of resignations and decisions not to run again, as well as an unusually large number of incumbents defeated (though some incumbents did survive well-funded challenges). As this magazine goes to press, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved COVID vaccination for kids age 5–11, a new front in an education-adjacent culture war and one that does not promise to cool the superheated waters.
The usual school board squabbles were magnified by the fact that they'd been pent up for so long. And the powers that be—the teachers unions, the school administrators, and their politician bosses—were slow to recognize that the deep well of goodwill they'd long enjoyed had run dry.
Discontented, many families simply chose to exit the system. Enrollment in the Virginia public schools was down by nearly 40,000 kids last school year. In Fairfax County, the largest school district in the state, rolls are more than 10,000 below pre-pandemic levels this year. Virginia's peculiar off-cycle elections also offered parents a unique chance to exercise their voice in a race that always receives outsized national attention.
The parents who chose to stay and fight in the bright spotlight of an election year were immediately vilified. "It's really important to remember why we are talking about school boards at all," formerly disgraced pundit Jeffrey Toobin lectured CNN viewers, "because it's about white supremacy, and that's on the rise in the Republican Party."
That's an uncharitable interpretation, to say the least. Virginia went to Joe Biden by 10 points a year ago. Youngkin took K-12 parents by 15 percentage points, according to an Echelon Insights poll. There are a couple of available theories: Perhaps all these pro-Biden Karens suddenly remembered that they were virulent racists and voted accordingly. (This theory was most succinctly limned by commentator Joy Reid, who declared that "'education' is code for 'white parents don't like the idea of teaching about race.'") Or maybe an awful lot of political independents who didn't love Donald Trump also didn't enjoy being told that they, the people who had administered their children's education for the last year, should not have a say in it.
Sticking up for the status quo while lobbing ad hominem attacks at unhappy parents was not a winning strategy, as it turns out.
Youngkin and McAuliffe weren't drafted into this culture war. Both gleefully enlisted.
McAuliffe wanted his voters to be mad. He hoped they were still mad about Trump, a reasonable enough campaign strategy to pursue in a recently blueish state. Some fumbled bits of stage business complicated matters, with an anti-Trump Republican outfit known as the Lincoln Project claiming credit for a stunt in which folks dressed as Charlottesville tiki torchers and pretended to be Youngkin supporters. (If that doesn't make sense, don't worry about it. It didn't really make sense at the time. Suffice it to say that Youngkin sent the political cosplayers a fruit basket after his victory, as their trollish behavior almost certainly inadvertently won him some votes.) Failing that, Democrats hoped to make the race about race.
At one of his final rallies, Youngkin drew applause when he said, "We will teach all history, the good and the bad." He drew more, minutes later, when he pledged that "on day one, I will ban critical race theory in our schools." These two promises are not compatible—the language of CRT bans is universally vague and punitive in ways that will certainly chill the teaching of "all history, the good and the bad"—but they clearly signaled which side he was on.
Youngkin's most effective ad featured a mother appalled that her high school son had been assigned Toni Morrison's Beloved and angry that, during his previous stint as governor, McAuliffe had twice vetoed a bill requiring parental notification for explicit content.
The fact that the events in question happened over a decade ago—the boy is now in his late 20s—shows that politicized battles about education are nothing new. Again, the least charitable reading of the ad is that white people don't want their children to learn about the horrors of slavery and that Youngkin was successfully dogwhistling to them. (The book was not mentioned by name in the ad, which makes this whistle especially high-pitched, if it exists at all.) The most charitable interpretation is that parents would like to know what their kids are up to during the day and be allowed some input, or at least the opportunity to supplement what they are learning at school with conversation at home.
Youngkin campaigned on pledges to add 20 new charter schools to the state, as well as to reverse some changes to the state's magnet schools that had been made largely in the name of equity, in addition to his transparency initiatives. Virginia has long resisted such reforms, so it will be interesting to see if he can actually implement them and if, in the end, elections can be won with school choice substance and not just culture war style.