In the aftermath of a stunning Republican victory last week in Virginia, that seemingly uncontroversial statement now seems poised to represent the key rhetorical battleground for next year’s midterm elections. While Republican Glenn Youngkin’s narrow victory can also be attributed to several additional factors—most notably Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s focus on former President Donald Trump in an election in which Trump was not on the ballot—Youngkin was able to take control of the education issue by framing it in the context of parental involvement in the schools.
National GOP leaders are already trumpeting the power of the parental rights discussion in next year’s campaigns. Democrats, of course, do not hate parents, but McAuliffe never found a way to satisfactorily explain a tremendous gaffe he made in the final candidate debate when he stated, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” More challenging for Democrats than one highly visible misstatement from a defeated candidate, though, is a growing resentment among many parents as to how decisions are made in their children’s schools—and a belief that Democratic leaders are much more likely to be involved in those decisions.
The most high-profile aspect of this debate is the controversy over critical race theory (CRT), an academic movement forwarded by civil rights scholars and activists as a way to describe what they claim to be systemic racism in American society. Despite what many conservatives say, CRT is not taught in elementary or secondary schools. Despite what many liberals say, it does influence the way many public schools discuss race-based issues with their students. But if this was the sole basis of disagreement in public education, it’s more likely than not that the argument would be confined mainly to the most passionate partisan advocates on both sides of the aisle.
In addition to the disagreement over Critical Race Theory, Youngkin’s campaign was harshly criticized for using acclaimed African-American author Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” as an example of objectionable content in public-school curriculum. While there is unquestionably deeply disturbing content in the book that some parents believe is not appropriate for their teenagers, the selection of a story told by such a celebrated minority voice to illustrate the point undoubtedly added to an already tension-filled debate.
But Youngkin’s campaign recognized that questions of parental involvement cut much deeper. The fact that Virginia public schools remained closed and relied on distance learning while other aspects of society (and most charter and private schools) were reopening seems to have been their primary source of dissatisfaction. Even as schools have largely returned to in-person instruction, the frequent reminders of last year’s difficulties and the ongoing debates over mask and vaccine mandates have kept these memories alive for them.
Another aspect of the parents’ rights discussion which received much less attention is the growing movement away from advanced and accelerated learning for students who demonstrate unusually high aptitude in certain subjects. While terms like “gifted” and “talented” may be counter-productive, large numbers of suburban parents became greatly upset that their children would not be given these additional opportunities, especially in this “Varsity Blues” era of heightened competition for college admissions. The argument against these types of classes is that they undermine efforts toward educational and economic equity, and the commitment to help students from underrepresented communities and other disadvantaged circumstances, which complicates the topic even further for Democratic candidates.
There are also some echoes here of California’s recent efforts to navigate the combustible topic of ethnic studies. While the one-party nature of California politics kept this from becoming a partisan issue, it did force different factions within the Democratic party to seek common ground rather than attempting to leverage the issue for political benefit. But in a battle for control of Congress next year, neither party will be nearly so restrained.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.