If Republican Glenn Youngkin becomes governor of Virginia — and I’ve already written about why I think that will happen — what could he actually do on the central issue in his campaign against Democrat Terry McAuliffe: education?

When Mitt Romney became governor of Massachusetts, his priority was also education reform. Like Youngkin, Romney entered politics out of an incredibly successful private-sector career as a consultant and investment banker. So, Romney did what MBAs do when facing a complex system burdened by inefficiency and poor performance.

Romney ordered up from the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, a comprehensive assessment of how to move that commonwealth’s public schools in the right direction. The study’s conclusions were emphatic, if not surprising. More than any other factor, it was teachers that determined students’ level of success in their classrooms. “The available evidence suggests that the main driver in the variation of learning at school is the quality of the teachers,” concluded the 2007 report, which was called “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top.”

Like Romney, Youngkin is a believer in following the data, and this study identifies the key variable: great teachers.

Debates about public education generally, but specifically in this election cycle, have focused on the descent of curriculum into a tug of war between progressives and traditionalists, with the latest battle centered on the influence of critical race theory in teaching. What Youngkin has promised to do — return parents to a place of authority over their kids’ educations, and insist on the availability of advanced classes for every student who needs them — would obviously be “must delivers” for him as governor. He’d be well advised, however, to enlist teachers — especially new and promising ones — in his plans.

Before 9/11, George W. Bush set his sights on being an “education president.” In the 20 years since, the idea of a community of interests around educational excellence has been lost as the ever-growing polarization in the nation’s politics have absorbed K-12 education. Youngkin has a chance to set an agenda for not just the GOP but also the entire country if he focuses on teachers in the classroom.

Of course, the problem will be teachers unions, but they are not nearly the insurmountable wall in Virginia that they constitute in, say, California or even were in New Jersey back when Chris Christie took them on. And the very idea of teachers unions as a “stakeholder” in debates about education reforms is itself increasingly discredited, indeed laughable, after covid-19 convinced many parents that these unions are more about members’ benefits than the well-being of students. Youngkin may have the opportunity to sweep aside weakened union opposition to the most important reforms needed in public education.

First, Youngkin can make school choice in Virginia as real as it is in states such as Arizona, where public and private charters thrive and where taxpayers can designate a portion of their state taxes to private schools.

If the Virginia legislature is willing, Youngkin should seek authority for principals to be able to dismiss as poor performers those teachers who either never had the talent to inspire to begin with or who have lost their drive as tenure sapped their energy. School districts have to be able to rank and rate their teachers, and to say farewell to the bottom 10 percent — every year. There’s a bell curve in every setting and that includes public school teachers. Empower principals to dismiss their lowest performers — indeed, insist they do so on an annual basis — and overnight more school kids will thrive in classrooms.

Carrots are needed as well as sticks, though, and Youngkin should simultaneously push for across-the-board hikes in teacher salaries to draw into the profession the most promising of the teaching-inclined. The ability to shed dead weight should be paired with an increased opportunity to attract star talent.

There is no more powerful issue for the GOP to seize on and innovate over than rectifying decades of errors in public education. It’s not an issue for the federal government. Indeed, 2024 candidates for the GOP presidential nomination would be well advised to resurrect the old promise of cutting government, beginning with the federal Education Department. There is no need for it. Education was, is and should remain a concern of states and their subdivisions.

If Glenn Youngkin wins, it will be because he convinced parents that he would tackle the malaise that affects so many public schools. His appointments in that area will be his most important, his legislative priorities his most urgent. And if he succeeds, more than Virginia will be winners.