How will fights about race and suburban schools change education politics?

Several citizens hold American flags and signage while protesting at a school board meeting. The sign closes to the front of the crowd reads, “FREEDOM OVER FEAR” in large block letters.
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters gather during a Portland Public Schools board meeting to discuss a proposed vaccine mandate for students on October 2021. Across the country, education has emerged as a top political issue. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

When it comes to national political issues, education is typically relegated to the kids’ table. Not anymore.

Since the Virginia governor’s election — where Republican Glenn Youngkin won with an education-focused message — schools have become a national political focus. Youngkin vowed to ban “critical race theory” and castigated the closure of school buildings due to COVID last year, among other issues. 

“We had to find a place to play offense on education,” a Youngkin strategist said after the election.

What does all this mean for education politics and school policy going forward? Is this a new playbook for Republicans? The start of a new era focused more on the experiences of white students? Or just the extension of the growing polarization on education issues?

Chalkbeat asked a range of experts and advocates, and combed through polling data to find out what parents and voters have said, too. Here are a few takeaways.

Fights about schools — including how they teach about race — are likely to continue.

Youngkin’s electoral success campaigning on critical race theory and other school issues means we can expect to see others pick up the strategy leading up to next year’s midterm elections, when most states are holding elections for governor. In New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli came surprisingly close to an upset victory, and he also attacked critical race theory and COVID restrictions.

“It sends a message for other Republicans and in other states that CRT works,” said Michigan State University’s Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist who focuses on education.

It’s worth noting that the degree to which critical race theory or schools in general catapulted Youngkin to victory is ambiguous. Republican gains in Virginia were fairly uniform across the state.

“Two things happened. Youngkin rose in the polls in a way that corresponds with Virginians saying that education was a more important issue,” said David Houston, an education researcher at George Mason University in Virginia. “But at the same time, historically, Virginia tends to vote against the party in power.” Biden’s approval ratings were falling as Youngkin gained ground, he noted.

But at this point, the perception that education concerns translated into Republican success is enough to ensure these debates remain front and center for a while. Already, Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy has promised to unveil what he described as a parents’ bill of rights. “You have a right to know what’s being taught in school,” he said.

In an inversion of typical education politics, suburban schools and schools serving mostly white students may get more attention.

The focus on the curriculum choices in suburban schools, and schools serving mostly white families, is unusual in recent history of education politics. 

National discussion among both Democrats and Republicans has typically focused on low-income students and students of color — think No Child Left Behind and many school choice programs. Some efforts have foundered when schools serving more white and affluent students felt targeted by them, fueling the testing opt-out movement and the backlash to Common Core standards, for example. 

“This taught lots and lots of suburban parents that school reform wasn’t about them or their kids,” said Rick Hess, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. 

The suburbs are where Republicans lost the most ground in the 2020 election. They have also been where some of the biggest fights about schools have flared in recent months around COVID safety and curriculum, including in Virginia. 

The attacks on critical race theory seem like an attempt to win back those predominantly white voters. One recent poll found that 42% of white voters believe that there is too much focus on “issues related to race and racism.” That compares to just 7% of Black voters, most of whom believe there is not enough focus on those issues. Hispanic and Asian American voters were somewhere in between.

Critical race theory refers to an academic concept positing that racism implicates all aspects of American society. But conservatives have turned it into a catch-all term for topics related to race and racism in schools — including separating students into affinity groups by race or reading books about school desegregation.

The size of the ‘parents’ coalition’ remains to be seen.

One theory for the electoral swing in both Virginia and New Jersey is what might be described as a coalition of pissed-off parents, including many who were previously happy with their local schools. 

In this telling, some combination of factors — including COVID schooling disruptions — have galvanized parents as a political force. Notably, both Virginia and New Jersey are governed by Democrats and had longer than average school building closures.

“The dysfunction that is normally visited on low-income families of color who don’t have a lot options showed up in the tony ‘burbs of well-off white folks who thought they had great schools built into their mortgages,” said Derrell Bradford, the New Jersey-based president of the school reform group 50CAN.

“For the last two years, parents have witnessed the catastrophic failures of America’s education system, oftentimes from our own living rooms,” said Keri Rodrigues of the National Parents Union, a group that favors giving families more choice in education.

It’s certainly true that parents are concerned about the academic and social-emotional effects of COVID on their children. Constant disruptions to school have meant some have struggled to get back to work. Others are frustrated by masking requirements — and they’ve shown up at school board meetings to voice their perspectives. Enrollment in public schools has declined.

Still, whether that translates into political action remains unclear. In Virginia, polls were mixed on whether parents were especially likely to support Youngkin. This year, hotly contested school board elections in which issues around masking and critical race theory dominated had uneven outcomes

More broadly, national polling shows that most parents think their local schools have done a pretty good job during the pandemic, suggesting that anecdotes of parents being horrified by what they saw in Zoom classrooms amount to more the exception than the rule. Two other polls from the middle of last school year found that a strong majority of parents were getting the type of instruction for their child that they wanted.  

That’s not to write off the idea of parents as a new political force. Even a small number of highly motivated and frustrated voters can swing a close election. Plus, families may be feeling frustrated at their elected officials’ choices, even if they’re pleased with their local schools. 

It’s possible that, as virtual school recedes further in time, it has become less of a potent political issue — but it’s also possible that it has grown in importance as politicians train their focus on it and long-term effects of the pandemic grow clearer.

Progressives face a decision on how to respond to critical race theory.

The message from Youngkin and other Republicans about the purported dangers of critical race theory has been quite clear. The messaging from McAuliffe and many Democrats has been a lot more muddled.

A seeming turning point in the campaign was when McAuliffe said during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The comment proved unpopular, with one Virginia exit poll showing that more than 80% of voters believed that parents should have at least some say in what their child’s school teaches. McAuliffe also responded to the backlash to critical race theory by saying that it’s not really taught in schools, which has emerged as a common refrain nationwide.

“Whether CRT is the appropriate label to apply, I think, is a reasonable discussion to have. But schools have been examining what they teach about race,” said Reckhow. “I don’t see how it’s helpful to deny that and act like there’s nothing to see here.”

“The Democrats have a problem,” she added. “They do not have a proactive defense about what teaching about race and racism in schools should look like.” 

Some progressives agree. “The response to that can’t be, let’s have an academic and theoretical debate about whether or not the words you’re saying are accurate,” said Khalilah Harris, managing director for K-12 education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Instead, she argues, the left has to say, “Here’s what we want for children. This is what we stand for.”

Education is only continuing to polarize.

In recent history, education was an unusually bipartisan affair at the national level. There was a consensus about the need to improve schools for children from low-income families through new standards, tougher accountability, and expanded choice. Republican President George W. Bush decried the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — in a frank acknowledgement of systemic racism in a speech to the NAACP — and worked with liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy to pass No Child Left Behind. In 2011, President Obama joined Republican former Florida governor Jeb Bush to offer their shared perspective on education. 

The alignment between parties has been unraveling in recent years, though, and newer issues like critical race theory, masking, and vaccine requirements have already largely divided along partisan lines. Red and blue state legislatures are approaching education issues in starkly different ways.

That’s not all that surprising. The recent discussions about racism highlight profound differences in the worldviews of progressives and conservatives that manifest in how each side wants to approach schooling.

“We’ve been seeing bipartisan ed reform dismantled over years now through the Trump administration,” said Reckhow. “CRT and what happened in Virginia is like kerosene on that wreckage of bipartisan education reform and now we’re burning the whole thing down.” 

Biden’s ambitious plans to expand preschool and increase Title I, a funding stream for schools serving low-income students, are expected to get little if any Republican support.

Some advocates are holding out hope for slivers of agreement. After Tuesday’s election, the head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Nina Rees sent out an email touting not only Youngkin’s victory but also Democrat Eric Adams’ win in the New York City mayoral election. Adams, unlike the current mayor, has been supportive of charter schools.

“Yesterday’s election is proof that education matters and supporting more choices for families is a winning policy,” Rees wrote. “Candidates from both political parties won their elections with an education-first message.”

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