The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Glenn Youngkin pivoted hard to education near the end of the governor’s race, firing up his base with promises to give parents more control over what children learn in school. But the governor-elect is unlikely to usher in much immediate change for Virginia students, education policy experts said.

To grant parents radically increased say in what or how teachers teach, Youngkin would have to overhaul the structure of American public-school education in Virginia, which is now determined by state standards and elected school boards that represent all residents of a district, not just parents. Moreover, Governor-elect Youngkin will face an uncooperative state Senate, where Democrats still have control. .

Continued Democratic control of the Senate puts broad policy changes requiring legislative agreement out of Youngkin’s reach, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. But as a candidate, Youngkin never proposed many specific education policy changes anyway, Farnsworth added.

“Youngkin’s policy plans were somewhat thin on the details beyond the mantra of greater parental engagement,” Farnsworth said. “It’ll be interesting to see if education is as high a priority for Youngkin the governor as it was for Youngkin the candidate.”

Youngkin was elected after a close and contentious campaign. The Republican winner, a wealthy 54-year-old former private-equity executive at the Carlyle Group with no political experience, spent much of the campaign lamenting the state of Virginia’s economy and decrying high taxes, spiking crime rates and mask and vaccine mandates.

But throughout the campaign, Youngkin — whose own children attend or have graduated from private school — kept coming back to public schools, tapping a national vein of anger among some conservative parents, who insist their children are being indoctrinated with critical race theory. The theory, a college-level academic framework that holds racism is systemic in America, is not taught at the K-12 level in Virginia — or anywhere else in the country.

Nonetheless, arguments over what and how educators should teach about race, racism and American history came to dominate the final days of the state’s gubernatorial campaign, as Youngkin repeatedly promised to eradicate critical race theory from public schools.

Conservative activists and parents hailed Youngkin’s win Tuesday as the dawning of a new era in Virginia education.

It’s “a win for parents that are looking for a greater role in their children’s education,” said Ian Prior, a Loudoun County father and head of Fight for Schools, a parent group seeking to recall members of the Loudoun school board that also opposes the district’s recent efforts to promote racial equity. “I believe we will see many families keep their children in public schools, and school boards will start collaborating more with parents on the best way forward.”

Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative advocacy group the Family Foundation of Virginia, said Youngkin “will support policies that recognize moms and dads as essential to the education of our children.” Cobb said Youngkin’s governorship will help restore mothers’ and fathers’ trust in the education system statewide.

But Jack Schneider, associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said Youngkin can do very little to increase parental control over school curriculums. The way public education has long functioned in America, he said, is that schools are not directly accountable to parents but are instead governed by democratically elected school boards.

School board members are meant to represent every county resident, whose tax dollars fund the public school system, Schneider said, not just those with children. And the boards have wide latitude to determine what children learn in schools, although they must abide by statewide standards of learning in Virginia.

“If parents alone are deciding what happens inside schools,” Schneider said, “what it would mean is unmaking public education and instead having each individual family pursue their own self-interest in a free market.”

Speeches about critical race theory proved potent campaign fodder, but vague opposition to the theory will not easily translate into actual policies, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank.

Youngkin could attempt to add Virginia to the list of eight Republican-led states that have passed laws forbidding the teaching of critical race theory, Petrilli suggested. But that legislation will face opposition in the Virginia legislature unless it is essentially toothless, he said.

“Doing something on critical race theory that goes beyond the symbolic?” Petrilli said. “That’s going to be a really tough sell to Democrats.”

No governor of a state has banned critical race theory via executive order, and it is not clear whether Youngkin could do so, although he would almost certainly face legal challenges if he tries.

Farnsworth said the point is moot, given that Virginia does not teach critical race theory: “At the end of his four-year term, Glenn Youngkin will be able to claim credit for keeping critical race theory out of K-12 education — just like it was when he was a candidate.”

Apart from criticizing critical race theory — which comprised the vast majority of his education-related speeches on the campaign trail — Youngkin said he would boost teacher salaries, build 20 additional charter schools, rebuild school infrastructure and spend more on special education programs. In response to a Washington Post inquiry in September, Youngkin’s campaign said he would also expand Advanced Placement programs and make Virginia’s accreditation standards for K-12 schools more stringent.

Some of these proposals may prove palatable to Democrats in the General Assembly, Petrilli said, especially the idea of raising teacher pay. The charter schools are probably a no-go, though, he added.

One area in which Youngkin has more power to act is that of Governor’s Schools, the handful of magnet high schools and summer programs in Virginia that serve gifted students. The state Department of Education administers the programs, although local school boards and superintendents are allowed input, meaning Youngkin’s administration could enact change almost unilaterally.

Youngkin has already promised changes to the admissions process at Virginia’s flagship magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a STEM-focused institution that is frequently rated the best high school in the nation.

Fairfax County school officials last year enacted major changes to Thomas Jefferson’s admissions process, eliminating a notoriously tough test and asking reviewers to consider applicants’ “experience factors” such as socioeconomic background. The revisions led to the acceptance of the most diverse class of students in recent memory.

Youngkin’s campaign told The Post in September that he would seek to reverse these changes and ask the school to revert to a solely merit-based process.

Meanwhile, some parents in neighboring Loudoun County are fearful that Youngkin’s ascent will mean an end to the district’s fledgling racial justice initiatives — including holding bias trainings for staff members — that school officials launched two years ago after two high-profile reports found widespread racism in Loudoun schools. The county has since become the face of the nation’s culture wars, with parents feuding at board meetings over critical race theory and transgender rights.

Youngkin spoke at a rally outside the Loudoun school administrative building over the summer, asserting the district had embraced critical race theory and promising he would put an end to it.

Rasha Saad, mother to two children in the district and president of Loudoun 4 All, a parent group formed to push back against misinformation in the district, especially around the school system’s equity work, said Youngkin’s governorship makes her fear the future.

“We’ve made amazing strides in equity,” she said, adding it will be tough “having to see them stop or roll back, to play defense and not be able to move forward — Loudoun County is one of the top school systems in the country, and I want to keep it that way.”