How the Virginia election could forecast the next race to the bottom for education

It has been 20 years since former President George W. Bush passed the No Child Left Behind law that ultimately discovered the extent to which children were being left behind by failing schools all over the country. The bill's aim was to use testing to discover which states were failing and suggest changes, but what the federal government discovered is that there was no one-size-fits-all solution.

Conservative states have continued to slash funding to schools at both the K-12 level and through higher education, significantly increasing the cost of those seeking a college degree. At a time when the United States must compete on a global scale, the U.S. is losing its lead in education, spending less and less each year.

But at a time when American families should be fighting for better and safer schools, the Virginia governor's race indicates voters are focused instead on an imaginary conspiracy crated by a right-wing activist and broadcast on conservative media. Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe didn't make things any better when he proclaimed that "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."

What McAuliffe meant was that education experts, school boards, communities, teachers, educators and others should all lend their years of expertise to crafting the important curriculum for schools to follow. Instead, it came off as a politician telling parents they can't have control over their children and the government should.

"Perhaps the biggest outstanding question is whether Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin's emphasis on public education was instrumental in focusing voter worry over cultural concerns as diverse as transgender rights, vaccinations and critical race theory," wrote Politico on Thursday's post-mortem of the 2021 race. "Certainly Youngkin seemed to believe it was a winning message, as his closing commercials and stump speeches channeled disparate parental worries in Loudoun County, ground zero of Virginia's 2021 election battle."

The election results reveal that the 220,000 lead by Youngkin came not from significant losses in Democratic Loudoun County, but by increases in almost all rural counties.

Conservatives are claiming that schools are teaching "critical race theory" to indoctrinate children when it isn't even taught outside of law schools. CRT has become synonymous to conservatives as a kind of institutionalized wokism, resulting in far-right activists trying to ban schools from teaching about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks because it is critical of white supremacy.

Those far-right extremists then strike out against people of color claiming, among other things, that they're indoctrinating children with liberalism. Such was the case when a Black principal was placed on leave after an offended parent saw a photo of him kissing his white wife. He was told to remove the photo of him with his own spouse because white parents were so triggered by his interracial relationship.

The conflict isn't a new one. In the 1960s it was about the integration of children of color in white segregated schools. Then in the 1970s, it was about bussing Black children as far as 45 minutes to diversify schools instead of addressing the problem of housing segregation, white flight to the suburbs and inadequate funding for schools in Black neighborhoods. While the numbers showed it was an educational success, it was still a political failure as Dartmouth historian Matt Delmont explained to the educational website Chalk Beat.

While current controversies surround critical race theory, in other communities over the decades it has been about teaching about women's liberation and the right to vote, scientific evolution over Christianity's creationism, medically accurate sex education, or LGBTQ thought leaders and history.

Abstinence-only education, for example, resulted in higher teen pregnancy and STI rates, revealed two scientific papers.

"For every $1.00 per pupil increase in funding for abstinence-only education, the teen birthrate rose by 0.30 per 1,000 in conservative states compared with moderate states, the researchers found," Reuters reported in 2019.

"The jury is still out on the meaning of this week's election in Virginia," the piece closed. "To be sure, concerns over transgender rights, critical race theory, masking and vaccine mandates and school governance didn't begin and won't end in Loudoun County. Some of these conversations began at the national level and have filtered their way down locally. But the symbolic resonance and expressive power of school policy — the way in which education wars have crystallized this particular array of diverse social issues and concerns — has powerful precedent."