It touches most every household in the United States, whether as taxpayers or as parents, but come Election Day, education rarely makes it to the top of voter priorities.
That wasn't the case this week.
Republican Glenn Youngkin made schools, and particularly parental control, his closing issue in his upset win over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor's race. Between September and October polls, education rose 9 points to be the top issue for voters going into the race, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Parents who wanted more voice in schools broke for Youngkin by a large margin in exit polls.
In New Jersey, Republican gubernatorial challenger Jack Ciattarelli similarly took up criticisms about the teaching of race in schools, and about vaccine and mask mandates. He came closer than many expected to beating Democrat Phil Murphy.
And across the country, 215 school board members faced recall elections — quadruple the number in an average year, according to the website Ballotpedia, which also noted a drop in uncontested seats. Ballotpedia separately tracked elections for 300 school board seats where candidates made an issue of race, COVID restrictions and/or sex and gender.
The 1776 PAC, a newly founded national political action committee, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for anti-"woke" school board candidates. They claimed, as of Wednesday morning, to be winning or in the lead in 44 out of 58 races they supported.
However, Ballotpedia says its numbers, which are incomplete, show that so far, incumbents are winning 6 out of 10 races. The usual figure is more like 8 in 10.
Incumbents "are not getting the floor wiped," says Douglas Kronaizl, a staff writer at Ballotpedia. But, he says, the high number of candidates and recall efforts is in itself "a manifestation of the energy that is around these issues. ... We definitely have seen, more often than in previous years, these kind of more national issues being discussed on a local level."
But what was the outcome of that discussion? In their small sample of races that were "nationalized," candidates who were in favor of mainstream medical guidance and in favor of teaching kids about racial injustice won two to one against the 1776 PAC candidates, and others who trumpeted anti-mask positions.
Is it race — or COVID and closed schools?
One reading of this week's results is that Republicans successfully played on the anxieties of conservative white voters who think attempts by schools to address structural racism have gone too far.
For months, angry parents have been showing up to school board meetings — yelling, picketing, sometimes even throwing punches and hurling threats. Things have gotten so heated that the U.S. attorney general pledged to get federal law enforcement involved.
Established conservative groups like the Manhattan Institute are providing aid and support to this movement, in ways such as issuing guides to opposing "woke schooling." There are also newly emerged networks, like Parents Defending Education and Moms for Liberty, and hundreds of local groups on Facebook and elsewhere.
Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty and a former school board member in Florida, said she is "ecstatic" over Tuesday night's results. She says they demonstrate clearly that parents want to get "back to basics," and away from overtly anti-racist education.
"I call it alphabet soup laced with snake oil. It's CRT, DEI, SEL, this word salad of acronyms that are being shoved into every crack and crevice of American education."
CRT means Critical Race Theory, an academic theory of structural racism that is taught largely at the undergraduate level. DEI is diversity, equity and inclusion. And SEL is "social-emotional learning," a largely unrelated set of concepts that has lately been lassoed into the ire over "woke" education.
In Virginia, Youngkin released an ad in the final days of the race featuring a mom complaining about her son being assigned the novel Beloved, by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. The stated reason was the novel's scenes of sexual assault, but this is a masterwork dealing extensively with enslavement and the Black experience.
White women in Virginia swung 15 points toward the GOP, more than any other subgroup of voters, going 57% for Youngkin and 43% for McAuliffe according to exit polls.
A bipartisan push for parent voice
Keri Rodrigues is the president of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group for parent voice founded in early 2020. In that capacity she travels to local school board meetings, talks to parents, and regularly polls them.
She agrees that angry parents swung this election. She disagrees on what they're really angry about.
She says groups like Moms for Liberty, and the people yelling at school board meetings, don't represent the average parent.
"According to our polling, 74% of American families actually support having culturally relevant and factually correct information provided during the U.S. history curriculum," she says.
Instead, the parents she talks to are upset that their children are still struggling, socially and emotionally as well as academically. She likens extended remote schooling to a form of "solitary confinement." Fights are breaking out at school. Bus driver shortages have parents summoned to pick their kids up unpredictably. There are substitutes covering classes.
Justice, of Moms for Liberty, agrees that school closures are probably parents' top issue. "I think definitely COVID restrictions," were top of mind, she says. "There were schools in Virginia that never opened or were only opened partially. Parents have watched their children stagnate."
School closures lasted longer in the United States than in most high-income countries, and much longer in blue jurisdictions than in red ones. Virginia had the seventh-fewest days of in-person learning last year among the 50 states, according to the website Burbio. New Jersey was 10th.
NPR's recent polling with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 69% of parents were concerned that their children had missed learning during remote schooling, and the available evidence suggests that those concerns are justified.
Rodrigues is an executive committee member of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. She points out that in New Jersey, where the Republican candidate far outperformed expectations, anti-woke school board activists haven't been much of a factor. Nor are parents for the most part opposed to masks or vaccines. They're just fed up. "Folks like me have been saying for the past 18 months, you are underestimating the level of anxiety, fear and, frankly, the erosion of the relationship that schools have come to rely on when it comes to parents and families right now," she says.
What happens next: More parent choice? A weakening of teacher unions?
Schools have lots of federal funding available for coronavirus recovery, most of which they haven't yet spent. Rodrigues and Justice agree that schools need to get a lot more responsive to parents' and children's needs. But how, exactly, to do that?
Virginia Gov.-elect Youngkin's actual education agenda won't raise many eyebrows. Besides banning critical race theory — not too hard, as it's not actually taught in schools — he has pledged to open 20 charter schools and put a police officer on every campus. He's also backed paying teachers more.
A major question going forward is whether the Democratic Party breaks further with teacher unions, one of their most reliable constituencies, who are also perceived, fairly or unfairly, as the main factor that kept schools operating remotely in blue states. McAuliffe was mocked in right-wing media for inviting Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to share the stage at the closing of his campaign.
Rodrigues' group has backers that include the Walton Family Foundation (a supporter of NPR) and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, who push for more union-free charter schools.
Not surprisingly, then, she says it's time for the Democratic Party to forge its own path on education. "What I see Democrats do is completely outsource any thinking around education to the teachers unions. And that's not what this moment calls for." In practice that could mean a return to something like the bipartisan education reform consensus of the Obama years, which emphasized accountability and choice.
This story has been updated to reflect the latest analysis from Ballotpedia.