The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Parental say in schools, resonant in Va. governor’s race, bound for GOP national playbook

Jean Atkinson holds a sign outside a Loudoun County school board meeting in Ashburn on Oct. 26. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Republican Glenn Youngkin trailed his opponent for much of the Virginia governor’s race, struggling to stir enthusiasm with his criticism of the state’s economy, questioning of U.S. election integrity and self-portrayal as a likable moderate in a red fleece vest.

But in the late weeks of the campaign — which culminated early Wednesday morning in a close victory for Youngkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe — Youngkin found his footing, surging in the polls as he mined a national vein of parent grievance over what and how schools teach about race, racism and American history.

Republican Jack Ciattarelli saw similar tactics almost pay off in the New Jersey gubernatorial race between himself and Gov. Phil Murphy (D), a race that wasn’t called for Murphy until early Wednesday evening. Despite Murphy’s victory, the tight finish is a surprise and a disappointment for Democrats, given New Jersey is a reliably blue state that chose Joe Biden for president over Donald Trump by a large margin.

The Republican swings in Virginia and New Jersey show the efficacy of a new model of conservative politics: appealing to suburban voters by promising greater parental control of schools.

Already, Republican politicians and strategists are vowing to replicate Youngkin’s campaign tactics in local, state and national elections going forward — possibly even in the 2024 presidential contest — while shellshocked Democrats fret over the loss of their once-guaranteed edge on educational issues and struggle to think of a path forward.

Youngkin wins Virginia governor’s race as red wave washes across the state

In a statement Wednesday responding to this week’s elections, the National Parents Union, a parents’ rights group that often opposes teachers’ unions, laid out a vision of the nation’s political future — and a stark warning.

“This is only the beginning of the parent revolution,” said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the group. “Politicians will have to make a choice: Either work with parents and families on reimagining education, listen to their concerns [and] govern in their best interests ... or get voted out of office.”

Youngkin prompted cheers, and apparently earned votes, when he promised at rallies over the summer and into the fall to ban critical race theory, a college-level academic framework that holds racism is systemic in America and which is not taught at the K-12 level in Virginia or anywhere else.

Sensing success, he broadened his approach, vowing to give parents more control in general over what their children learn, or do not learn, in public-school classrooms.

Then came the fateful, final governor’s debate. Amid a heated exchange with Youngkin over parent attempts to remove sexually explicit texts from school libraries, McAuliffe huffed, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Those 12 words immediately became fodder for a massive Republican advertising campaign. And, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, they likely cost McAuliffe the governorship.

“That one less-than-articulately phrased sentence sank his campaign,” Farnsworth said. “Youngkin was in search of a message that would resonate until it was handed to him in that debate.”

In the New Jersey gubernatorial contest, Ciattarelli focused less on local issues and campaigned instead on national concerns, including critical race theory and how much sway parents should hold over school curriculums. During a campaign stop at a gun range over the summer, he told a group of parents, “When I’m governor ... we’re not teaching gender ID and sexual orientation to kindergartners [and] we’re going to roll back the LGBTQ curriculum,” according to a video obtained by news outlet Gothamist.

Ciattarelli added: “It goes too far.”

Va. parents flex at the polls

Exit polls in Virginia show that education was one of the top issues for voters in the state — where Republicans also swept downballot elections. As of Wednesday, Republicans were poised to seize control of the House of Delegates, where all 100 seats were up for grabs, and Republican Winsome E. Sears was projected to win the lieutenant governor’s race.

About one-quarter of Virginia voters said education was the single-most important issue in deciding their vote, according to preliminary network exit polling. Roughly half said that parents should have “a lot” of say over what their child’s school teaches, while another roughly 3 in 10 said parents should have “some” say, according to the polling. Just 1 in 10 said parents should have little or no say over what schools teach, per the exit polls.

Parent anger was on full display at voting stations throughout the day Tuesday. Outside the polls in western Prince William County, one phrase kept cropping up in voters’ conversations with neighbors and reporters: “Parents should have a say.”

“I’d like to not vote for the guy who said it’s not the parents’ responsibility to take care of their kids,” said Michael Smith, just after voting the Republican ticket at Mountain View Elementary School. “What really motivated me was the statement that parents should not have a say in their children’s education.”

Smith, who is Black, said schools should “just teach basics” like math and reading, and leave race and gender as topics for parents to discuss with their children at home. The consultant is so troubled by public-school teaching on social issues that he and his wife have decided to home-school their two younger children, he said.

Late Tuesday, parent indignation shifted to triumph at Youngkin’s election watch party, held at the Westfields Marriott hotel in Chantilly. By 10 p.m., the gathering resembled a disco, with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” blaring and elated Republicans dancing and waving a variety of Youngkin signs, including “Small Business Owners for Youngkin,” “Latinos for Youngkin” and “Law Enforcement for Youngkin.” Most plentiful of all were posters reading “Parents for Youngkin.”

Who is Glenn Youngkin? What you need to know about Virginia’s next governor.

A band of about six women stood together wearing sequined blazers over blue shirts printed with the slogan “Fight for Schools,” the name of a Loudoun County parent group that is seeking to recall members of the school board over their alleged violation of Virginia open meeting laws. One of the women, 49-year-old Ronda Nassib, said she is part of an “army of moms.”

“I’m a pissed-off parent that believes that I have the right to a voice in my child’s education,” Nassib said. “I’m not willing to take a step back.”

Elsewhere in the ballroom, Eric Schnabel gripped a “Parents for Youngkin” sign as he awaited the election results. Schnabel, who recently retired from the Army after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan under Biden infuriated him, turning him off to Democrats. He was also put off by what he called the party’s “divisive” focus on race, including its support for removing Confederate monuments. He said he believed those should have been left in place as a “stark reminder to never go down that road again.”

But above all, he liked what Youngkin had to say about parental input into education and disliked what he was hearing from McAuliffe.

“When Terry McAuliffe said I’m not in charge of my daughter’s education — what is he, nuts?” Schnabel said.

'The party of the parents'

Late Tuesday, as it became clear Youngkin will be the next resident of the Virginia Executive Mansion, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee wrote an exuberant memo to members.

Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.) wrote in the three-page document, titled “Lessons From Virginia,” that there are four clear takeaways from the election. The first? That “the concerns of parents need to be a tier 1 policy issue” for the Republican Party.

“Youngkin’s success reveals that Republicans can and must become the party of the parents,” continued Banks, who was recently suspended from Twitter for misgendering a transgender official. “There is real energy from parents that we need to understand.”

Democrats must also work frantically to grasp parents’ concerns, said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of left-of-center think tank Third Way.

“A lot of the attention that Youngkin got was around things like critical race theory, which was mostly made up nonsense,” he said. “But we think it’s possible parents were reacting to something a little bit broader, which was a feeling of loss of control — we really have to figure it out.”

Youngkin pledged more parental control of education, but changes may prove difficult

Bennett said the results in Virginia should serve as a wake-up call for the party. For a long time, he noted, education has been a sort of an easy A for Democrats: In polling, voters across party lines routinely said they believed Democratic lawmakers were better at handling educational issues than their Republican counterparts.

But now the Democratic Party appears to be losing that advantage, Bennett said. And if Democrats allow education to become an actual liability, there will be serious consequences at the ballot box.

Going forward, Bennett said, Democrats need to take parental concerns more seriously. He said they can no longer afford to ignore Republican attacks — the way some Democratic leaders initially responded to concerns over critical race theory — no matter how ridiculous, far-fetched or false the allegations are.

Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks one of McAuliffe’s fatal blunders was to avoid forthrightly addressing the issue of critical race theory and anti-racism initiatives including teacher-bias trainings.

McAuliffe should have told parents that he wants to ensure every kid feels valued and learns the country’s true history, Hess said — but McAuliffe should have made clear that does not mean letting interest groups or ideologues shape public-school curriculums.

“That would have lanced the boil in a very powerful way, and they could have reset the conversation,” Hess said. “If Democrats start making those decisions and articulating those arguments, I think this could all turn out to be a post-Trump fever and it breaks.

“But if Democrats can’t bring themselves to do that,” he added, “I think this could very well build to a head of steam in 2024.”

Teo Armus, Laura Vozzella and Julie Weil contributed to this report.