The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia’s governor’s race may hinge on debates about public schools

Channeling conservative, White anger about public schools is a long-running political strategy.

Robbin Warner puts up pro-McAuliffe in Ashburn, Va., on Oct. 26. Former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) is running against business executive Glenn Youngkin (R), in Virginia's gubernatorial election. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

If Republican business executive Glenn Youngkin prevails over former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday, his stance on public education may be partially responsible. Polls have suggested that Youngkin built momentum among White suburban swing voters by addressing an issue that is not typically front and center in state politics: the curriculum in Virginia’s public schools.

The Republican candidate made headlines when he criticized McAuliffe’s 2016 veto of a bill that would have permitted parents to opt out of allowing their children to study texts considered sexually explicit (one of the books that inspired the bill was Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”). “You believe school systems should tell children what to do,” Youngkin told McAuliffe. “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”

While Virginia’s gubernatorial race might be the most high-profile case, the invocation of “parental choice” in curriculum — not just school selection — is having a national moment. In state legislatures and school board meetings across the country, politicians and parents are decrying transgender rights and the teaching of “critical race theory.”

The history of 20th century conservative movements suggests that the growing call for greater parental control over public education is a winning strategy that has deep, nationwide roots in White resistance to racial equality. It draws on the political education and activism of conservative White women, who have for decades treated schools as extensions of their homes — arenas where they should have authority and training grounds for the next generation of young conservatives.

Conservative women initially fought for explicitly racist goals.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) successfully lobbied statewide textbook selection committees to purge books presenting slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Using the past to shape the present political landscape, the UDC tied the Confederacy’s Lost Cause to the shoring up of Jim Crow, and textbook censorship joined statue-building and essay contests as strategies to recast the White South for a new era.

In the 1950s, White women in Southern California campaigned against the United Nations’ multicultural curriculum, claiming its lessons in human rights weakened the lessons in American exceptionalism they taught at home. And in the 1960s, organizations of conservative Mississippi women focused on shaping public schools to sustain what they called “racial integrity” — preserving Whiteness and white supremacist thought through cultural and curricular condemnation of interracial marriage, sex, dating and socializing.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, conservative White women nationwide joined other right-wing activists in embracing a more “colorblind” political discourse to promote racist goals. As part of the nascent “New Right,” these right-wing activists reached out to White conservatives and liberals, moderates and suburbanites, many of whom felt alienated by the legislative gains of the civil rights and women’s movements or what they saw as too rapid a pace of change. Many New Right activists repackaged explicit opposition to racial equality, instead casting their positions as a racially neutral and constitutionally conservative response to federal overreach.

While many outside the South supported the end of racial segregation, busing to schools to achieve racial integration in northern and western cities stirred national opposition among White people. It threatened what many of them believed was sacrosanct — their choice to buy homes and to educate their children in certain neighborhoods. Anti-busing groups such as Restore Our Alienated Rights in Boston and National Action Group in Pontiac, Mich., along with organizations committed to racial segregation including the Women for Constitutional Government, claimed a new version of states’ rights and decried federal intervention in schools as an attack on parental authority and White motherhood in general.

Part and parcel of this resistance, in many places, public school curriculum also became a focus. What was an unconstitutional erosion of “parental choice” in schools? Sex education, multicultural curriculum, Black Power texts, the banning of school-led prayer, advocacy for the United Nations, water fluoridation for dental health, the promotion of the Peace Corps.

Then as now, as local struggles — most famously the fights over textbooks in Kanawha County, W.Va., in the mid-1970s — made headlines across the nation, right-wing organizations such as the Heritage Foundation swooped in to lend support and financial resources to grass roots activists.

Heritage consultant Onalee McGraw outlined some of the issues at stake in an influential 1976 pamphlet: “Secular Humanism and the Schools: The Issue Whose Time Has Come.” It criticized schools for promoting an ideology that placed people at the center of the universe rather than God. When educators encouraged tolerance of people’s values, histories and world views, McGraw and others saw a direct contradiction to their belief in a set of absolute rights and wrongs determined by God and the Bible.

Thousands of White women turned out to oppose “secular humanism” because they believed what happened in public schools struck at the heart of what they cared most about: their children’s well-being and their duties as mothers to protect and nurture their offspring. They were convinced that the government — via the public schools — was inculcating their children with ideas and values counter to their own. In 1984, James Moffett, the author of one of the textbooks that became a target in the Kanawha County controversy, observed that such fears were not to be taken lightly — parents genuinely worried that their children were being “mentally kidnapped” and that their authority to shape their children diminished each day they walk into a classroom.

These parents were not just challenging the federal government. College students across the nation demanded Black studies and women’s studies programs. Multiculturalism in K-12 education increasingly became, at least rhetorically, widely accepted and understood as central to a modern democracy.

Yet conservatives continued to protest public schools exposing their children to sex education and multicultural histories that contradicted the values they taught at home and won federal support for “abstinence education” as part of the overhaul and lessening of welfare assistance in 1996. Some opted out of the public system entirely, in favor of home schooling or Christian academies. Others supported the charter school movement, moving government money away from traditional public education. Schools, they insisted, were an extension of the home and must reflect parents’ morals and ways of thinking about the world.

While Democrats in the 1970s were caught off guard by these arguments and by the groundswell of local organizing, McAuliffe and others should not be. The events of the last half century have shown that voters recognize the power of public education to shape children’s world views. And they have demonstrated that they will storm school board meetings and vote in local, state and federal elections to rein in what they perceive as the government’s outsized role in raising their children.