he last post Glenn Youngkin shared on his website before winning the Virginia governor’s race was a list of 15 purported “lies” told by his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Eleven concerned schools, and Youngkin’s rebuttals mostly centered on a promise core to his campaign: He would make “parents matter” in the educational decisions that affect their children. Some dismissed this strategy — which evolved from less-controversial talking points, such as raising teacher pay and protecting free speech, to proclamations about banning critical race theory — as purely symbolic. Barack Obama called it “fake outrage” intended only to boost ratings; commentators insisted that anger over education was “phony,” “hysterical nonsense” and a “manufactured culture war.

To be sure, invoking the fraught realms of school and family reliably inflames voters; it’s a political strategy almost as old as the modern school system. In the early 1940s, the superpatriotic American Legion warned parents of the “sinister” aims of a popular textbook series that centered “social problems” to purportedly brainwash children into becoming vengeful communists. In the 1960s, opponents of sex education argued that courses designed by “secular humanists” would turn children against their parents and into pleasure-seeking, long-haired protest marchers. Just a few years later, the curricular boogeyman was a social studies program that supposedly threatened to destroy children’s love of country and family by suggesting that non-Western cultures — or even the animal kingdom — could offer insight into American society. The culprits were a consistent but varied cast of “educationists,” villainized as both incompetent and malevolent: Bloated bureaucrats and lazy union hacks freeloading off tax-funded salaries coexisted with scheming teachers and pointy-headed professors intent on corrupting children with leftist ideologies or sexual perversion.

Hindsight makes clear that these hypotheses were outrageous. But while it’s important to debunk the racism, sexism and homophobia driving these moral panics, it’s just as important to understand why they took hold. During these and countless other “classroom wars,” including Virginia’s contest this past week, schools become sites of such intense controversy precisely because they reflect larger social transformations. Seismic events such as the Great Depression, a world war and the civil rights struggle — or, today, a pandemic and a major reckoning around structural inequality — do change the experience of education. The resulting unease primes people, especially parents, to believe outlandish theories about the nature of these changes and what they represent, and to seize upon curricular issues as a concrete way to exert control over larger, inchoate and often unsettling social and political shifts. School issues, then, are no mere cipher for “real” concerns: They’re central to contemporary political culture, in Virginia and beyond. 

Over the past 18 months, school has transformed, both in high-level policy and in the particulars of classroom practice. Many schools were shuttered for months on end — Virginia had the seventh-fewest number of in-person days in the country last year — and then reopened only semi-functionally, with pared-down extracurriculars, on-screen teachers, and strange new rituals such as silent lunch and masked recess. 

Some of this strangeness stemmed from practical concerns about gathering large groups of children during a pandemic. Other changes derived from a philosophical shift far longer in the making: a broad effort by educators to redress inequality within and beyond schools. Over the past year alone, New York City, the nation’s biggest school system, began phasing out its “gifted and talented” programs, arguing that such differentiation exacerbates disparities. Some states considered “de-tracking” math curriculums, raising concerns that districts would diminish accelerated courses. Institutions from selective public high schools to state universities eliminated or lessened the importance of standardized testing for admissions. After a year when absenteeism skyrocketed and many children attended school only sporadically through a screen, many parents became concerned that their children would regress in their education. But a vocal group of educators and activists questioned whether “learning loss” even existed, and whether assessing academic progress during this period was itself a form of injustice.

This emphasis on equity has made progressive pedagogies more robust in some schools, manifest in new customs such as sharing gender pronouns, participating in identity-based affinity groups and adopting teaching materials that unsparingly discuss the role of racism in American society. Such educational practices did not begin in the pandemic or after the murder of George Floyd, but those events accelerated enthusiasm for their adoption. California became the first state to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement, while in Pennsylvania students successfully fought back against conservative parents seeking to prevent certain texts from being used in the classroom, including Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” as well as an illustrated children’s book about Rosa Parks and a documentary about James Baldwin.

For more than a year, much of this curricular ferment has taken place online and therefore in families’ homes — hypervisible to parents who have new portals into their children’s classrooms. In addition, people are as likely to view these issues through the lens of the national news media as through their immediate circumstances: Viral clips of teachers behaving badly or of school board fights in distant states can seem to foreshadow what’s in the pipeline for their own communities or what might already be underway. 

Conservatives have skillfully harnessed unease about the changing world to furnish evidence for their ideology, casting public schools in general and progressive educators in particular as enemies of “family values.” Indeed, Virginia exit polls (with all the caveats that apply to exit polls) reflect the durability of this strategy: A majority of voters with children under 18, and of those who believe parents should have “a lot” of say in curricular matters, went for Youngkin. It is perhaps unsurprising that White voters without a college education voted overwhelmingly for the Republican. But it was less predictable that the women among that group, who had been more evenly split between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2020, this time overwhelmingly favored the GOP candidate.

Schools have everything to do with it. Democrats do themselves no favors by ignoring concerns about a changed educational environment, or dismissing those who raise questions as entitled whiners (who “just want their babysitters back”) or ignorant bullies (for not understanding that critical race theory is only taught in universities). Notably, schools were closed for the longest periods, and have reopened in the least-recognizable versions of their former selves, in blue areas. These areas are also where newly progressive pedagogies have had the most traction. Public school has transformed in the past 18 months, and denying this is a surefire way to alienate voters — and undermine one of the most important institutions in many Americans’ lives.  

Twitter: @nataliapetrzela