In other words, it’s possible that the focus on how critical race theory, in particular, was allegedly integrated into Virginia schools’ curriculums was not the decisive factor in the outcome of the election, something that The Washington Post’s Scott Clement suggested was possible shortly afterward.
New polling from The Post and ABC News offers some additional insight into partisan views of education. For example, one of the factors that was identified as being a source of frustration for those evaluating how schools are run in each state was the response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s certainly the case that there was a lot of expressed frustration about mask rules. But The Post-ABC poll finds that half of Republicans think the rules governing the pandemic in their local schools were either about right or not strict enough. There is, however, a 41-point gap between the parties when considering just those who think the policies were “too strict.”
The Virginia race also focused heavily on the question of how much say parents should have in educational curriculums, thanks in part to the Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, making a comment that parents shouldn’t dictate what children are taught. Most Americans think that parents should have some say in what children are learning, with nearly half saying that parents should have a lot of say. On that question, there was again a wide partisan divide, with three-quarters of Republicans saying parents should have “a lot” of say, 48 percentage points more than among Democrats.
That question heavily centered on how issues of race are taught in schools. Thanks largely to right-wing activism and the focus of conservative media, the idea that schools are teaching critical race theory — an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — gained traction in the months leading up to the election. Schools almost universally aren’t teaching critical race theory but, instead, have often (though, again, not universally) increased the attention paid to how historic racism still has effects in American society.
The Post-ABC poll asked specifically about that: How much should those lingering effects be taught? More than two-thirds of adults said they should be taught a “great deal” or a “good amount” — but most Republicans thought it should be taught “not so much” or “not at all.”
This is a more nuanced question than one posed by Monmouth University in a recent poll (though, of course, I’m a bit biased). Monmouth asked if schools should teach the history of racism, finding that 4-in-10 Republicans said they shouldn’t. The question in our poll focused specifically on the effects of racism, with a greater percentage of Republicans expressing disapproval.
There have been some efforts to suggest that the attention being paid to this issue is primarily a function of parental discontent, that the conservative media’s emphasis on critical race theory was the hatched chicken, not the egg. This argument is hard to adjudicate since the lines can get blurry, but it is clearly the case that one conservative activist, Chris Rufo, is heavily and proudly responsible for both elevating critical race theory and repurposing the term to refer to a wide array of race-related concepts. It is also worth noting that Fox News’s focus on the issue, frequent during the spring and summer, reemerged in October — and faded quickly after the elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
Perhaps this is because the network was mostly discussing it in the context of schools because it had become a salient issue for the election (again to some significant extent because Fox had helped elevate it and Rufo). Perhaps it was because those on the right who hoped to see Republican gains in the Virginia and New Jersey elections believed that the mission had largely been accomplished.
The targeting of critical race theory and the skepticism of teaching about race broadly overlap, obviously. In North Dakota last week, the governor signed a law banning any teaching of the subject — specifically redefining the range of blocked subject matter to include arguments that “racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.” In other words, they answered “not at all” to the question posed in our poll. Republican lawmakers in other states have passed similar laws.
Whether you expect this change to negatively affect students in those places probably depends on your politics. Whether we might expect this to be a centerpiece of future elections probably depends on Fox News.