If we’re being honest, the most charitable explanation for the handling of a sexual assault by the Loudoun County Public School’s leadership is incompetence. It’s downhill from there. Even if they were under legal constraints relative to placing the accused student in an alternative setting their public communications have been dishonest, and officials clearly did not do right by the first victim’s family. Yes, first victim, because the assailant allegedly assaulted a second student at their new school. That case is still in the courts. But for the sensitivities around how the accused student ID’s and whether transgender policies played a role people would be rightly raising hell about it. A kid was raped. In a school. The atmospherics and politics should be secondary to that. The McAuliffe team is annoyed with Democrats in Washington for the goat rodeo around passing an infrastructure bill. They should be equally annoyed with the Loudoun County School Board and superintendent for striking a match to abundant tinder.
For Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe the Loudoun timing and symbolism is lousy because it allowed Republican Glenn Youngkin to underscore his basic argument that the Democrats favor public school administrators and woke politics over parents in a host of ways. With school board recalls popping up around the commonwealth and a deep well of frustration after the pandemic and haphazard school reopenings it’s a potent line of attack.
It’s easy to forget, with everyone recently tuning in, that this whole issue didn’t begin with Loudoun County. It’s been building with school reopening and other issues. Earlier this year Virginia flirted with capping access to advanced math classes in the name of “equity.” Loudoun had a debate about access to advanced math. Fairfax abruptly changed admissions standards to the coveted Thomas Jefferson math and science magnet enraging a lot of Asian parents. All of that ricocheted around the parent class in the state. So what we’re seeing in polls has been building, it just needed a spark. And it’s not all about “CRT” or masks or whatever.
Are McAulliffe’s particular statements about, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” being taken out of context. To some extent yes. Public schools can’t function as some sort of pure Athenian democracy. McAulliffe’s point that you can’t have 25 people demanding that each class does or doesn’t teach this or that is legitimate as a practical matter. Not everyone will like every book in the library, that’s the deal. If you really want to control the ideas your kid is exposed to then there are other schooling options outside the public sector.
Yet McAulliffe seriously misjudged the potency of the issue. The soothing balm among elite progressives, that this is all racism, amplified by a credulous media is a serious misreading of what’s happening. A successful political strategy will parse the genuinely racist and censorious (and while they’re not the whole story they are part of this for sure) from the parents who just don’t want their young kids getting age-inappropriate or political content. That means getting out of the line of fire when you have teachers freelancing on curriculum so you don’t end up owning all the various anecdotes. This isn’t rocket science. Telling parents who don’t want their young kids in race-based affinity groups or doing privilege walks or aspire to color blindness that they’re racist is a bad way to win elections. These aren’t even popular positions among Black Democrats! And telling people that you are going to make sure schools teach an honest and not rose colored view of American history only alienates people whose votes you won’t get anyway. There is a path. Instead, Democrats are increasingly on the wrong side of the transparency issue with schools and owning all the dysfunction – that’s a problem. In this case it’s a surprising mistake from a guy who is a pretty good retail politician and generally has horse sense about where people are on things.
Is all this enough to put Glenn Youngkin over the top? It’s close, and tricky to handicap. It’s an off year election with new early voting habits so some variance. The polling is not bulletproof. Bleed among parents in the vote rich and Democratic leaning suburban counties surrounding Washington, including Loudoun, is a lethal threat for Democrats who need to run up the score in those places. And it feels like a change election and McAulliffe’s by default the incumbent as a recent former governor of the party holding the governorship now. Few will be surprised if Youngkin pulls this off. This Washington Post analysis is a pretty good look at the state of play and what has and hasn’t changed with voter preference the last month or two.
Regardless, because he improbably made it a race, there will be implications from this campaign. Robert Pondiscio says we’re seeing a preview of the midterms and perhaps a realignment. I’m not so sure. A lot of it is pretty contingent and translating what are essentially state and local issues to federal races is not straightforward. And in politics anger and outrage dissipates and barring an enforced error(s) from the Biden Administration or an unforeseen event keeping all this alive will be a challenge. The fact that education is now the dominant issue is getting attention but that’s obscuring that the economy is right there, too. All that said, if the Rs can settle on “parents rights” as a message for the midterms without that idea being owned by the fringe elements in their party then Dems will have to do better than this to fight it off. Hopefully everyone learned with “Make America Great Again” that obvious sounding messages can resonate especially when the inverse position isn’t one you want to champion.
Either Biden or Secretary of Education Cardona are well situated to give a speech or two seizing the 70 percent position in this “debate.” Most parents are fine with a honest accounting of American history but not with a version of history that says America is nothing more than a litany of sins or implying that children somehow bear responsibility for any of this. Most people want their kids to learn about race and racism but don’t want their second graders getting warmed over Kendiism or being told that aspiring to colorblindness makes them complicit in structural racism. Those are the parents to speak to, which marginalizes the more extreme voices on the right and the left. And substantively there is plenty of important work to be done there and an agenda with PD for teachers, better curriculum, and ultimately ensuring teachers get a firmer foundation in history during their preparation.
In other words, if Democrats stop listening to the activist class* for a moment and instead just think about the mainstream position on this issue, which happily is not at odds with talking honestly about race and racism in this country, they can neutralize this issue. If they throw their lot in with an increasingly imperious and unaccountable public school establishment that’s a problem.
To leave on a happy note, if you vote in Virginia the race for Lieutenant Governor has been overshadowed by the battle at the top of the ticket. Winsome Sears, the Republican nominee for LG, is not my cup of tea. Still, stepping back, if you’ve lived around Virginia for a long time seeing a race between a Lebanese woman (Haya Ayala the Dem nominee, who also is Salvadoran) and a Black woman (Sears) for statewide office is certainly progress.
*As an aside, this is why the whole “CRT” fight is such a curious one for Democrats to want to pick. As soon as you get off campus its major tenets are not even that popular among Black parents while other issues keenly linked to racial justice are more broadly supported.