Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin said his hard-fought win was not a campaign. It was a movement. It sure looked like one with packed events in the closing weeks, even in traditionally Democrat areas. A significant part of that movement focused on the K-12 curriculum. As a result, Republicans nationwide are already commenting on the need to incorporate education issues into campaigns in 2022.
Traditionally, Democrats have owned the education issue. Former Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter appeared on MSNBC after the Virginia election. She said, “The one thing that we need to make sure of is that Republicans in 2022 don’t become is the party of parents. Because we need to be the party of parents.” She continued, “And we [Democrats] are. We’re the ones that care about school funding. We’re the ones that care about making sure parents can send their kids to school because they have jobs to go to.”
So, how has the Democrat formula of more money and absent parents worked? Since the 1970s, education policy has dramatically increased the number of administrators while holding down teacher salaries and increasing classroom size. The administrative burden has only increased since Congress established the Department of Education. Our performance is declining in K-12 compared to other countries.
Alleigh Marré is the mother of two and a Virginia resident who was part of the movement of parents concerned about K-12 education. She is president of Free to Learn Action, a 501(c)(4) that is determined to get politics out of the classroom. The organization produced hard-hitting ads before and during the election talking about education quality, school safety, and curriculum. Marré believes education is a non-partisan issue because parents want effective and safe education for their children no matter what they think about tax policy.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) last Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018, the United States ranks 22nd globally on mean math, science, and reading scores. Children take the PISA assessment at age 15 due to different educational systems globally. Years of these assessments show that the United States is the wealthiest country and routinely spends more than any other nation per student. Yet, a significant number of former Soviet satellites, China, and Japan, have overtaken us in the top 10.
“Parents have come together to build a united coalition that elevated K-12 education to center stage — placing value in academics over activism and safety over politics,” Marré said about the Virginia election. “That powerful coalition’s message should be heard loud and clear by groups like the National School Boards Association and other special interest leaders that all tried to discount the merit of parents’ frustration. Parents deserve a seat at the table because there’s nothing more important than our kids.”
Marré wants to emphasize that the issues are broader than critical race theory. She uses the phrase “activist content” to describe what is going on in schools. It does not just affect how schools teach history or what books children read. Activist content is about more than just race. It seeps into math and science. It also appears in the new “social and emotional learning” (SEL) curriculum getting pushed into the school districts. SEL is lessons about relationships, mental health, and well-being infused with radical ideas about gender and sexuality.
Cam Edwards, editor of our sister site Bearing Arms, echoed Marré’s thoughts. He lives with his family in a more rural part of Virginia. He said that Youngkin leaned into it when it bubbled up. “It is a matter of using what comes out organically and reacting and to try to open up a new part of the campaign or fold that issue into one of your existing policy positions.”
“Retail politics can work. You can meet voters where they are,” Edwards added, noting that Youngkin traveled the state incessantly and his campaign was accessible to meeting with a broad range of constituents. “You don’t need to be frothing at the mouth. I think that turns people off,” he added. Despite the focus on anti-CRT sentiment in the corporate media, Edwards said the campaign was on message and very disciplined. “He [Youngkin] was laser-focused. He kept it on the parents. It wasn’t about ‘Oh, you know there was this book I saw in school’.”
Instead, according to Edwards, “The message was, parents are being disrespected. You are not having the say that you deserve. And look at what the state is doing here in terms of teaching them stuff you don’t want them to learn. And they’re lying to you about sexual assaults that are happening in the school districts. It was very voter-oriented.”
Ultimately, education is a local issue. In approaching it during 2022, Republican candidates will need to measure the local mood and respond accordingly. While there is some commonality in activist curriculum nationwide, there are variations. For example, in Georgia, we have an online library system. Parents have found some age-inappropriate content in that system and are working to eliminate it statewide. A gubernatorial candidate here should lean into that issue.
Republicans nationally need to define the 3Rs for the 21st Century, including ways to prepare our children for professional, technical, and skilled trades careers outside of obtaining them through expensive university degrees. Send an aspirational message that public education is an integral part of the American Dream. It is part of how our children obtain the knowledge and skills they need to become productive members of society. As such, we have a duty to make it effective at a baseline that makes sense in the 21st Century.
In an interview on Thursday with The Hill, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Calif.) said, “I think that Democrats are the party of parents, not Republicans. We are the ones that are looking to pass universal childcare, universal pre-K.” Republicans need to counter that with a message that makes it clear that public education is not simply a place to warehouse children so parents can work. Our children deserve more than that.