There have been many theories provided to explain the loss of former democratic Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to republican Glenn Youngkin. From the economy to Trump’s presence (or lack thereof), no one who follows politics is short of an answer on the disappointing loss for democrats. One main area that was also discussed, particularly in the final weeks of the campaign was education. From McAuliffe’s statement during the debate on parents and education to Youngkin’s ad from a mother stating that her child (a then high school senior in an advancement placement English class and now GOP lawyer) had “nightmares” over reading Pulitzer Prize-winning African American author Toni Morrison’s Beloved, education became a major issue in this campaign. As disgraceful as the advertisement was, what was more disgraceful was the lack of strong democratic response not only to this campaign ad, but a weak response on the issue of the faux critical race theory (CRT) debate.
The failure of the McAuliffe campaign to address republican CRT talking points is not only a problem in Virginia. Across the country, democratic politicians either running for office or who hold office have not seriously rebuffed the phony CRT activism that has engulfed school board meetings across America and even led to a principal’s firing for implementing CRT even though he was not. There is no better example of this than PBS Washington correspondent Yamiche Alcindor asking President Joe Biden about CRT, republican lies, and this new round of the culture wars. Rather than answer the question directly, Biden pivoted to talking about his larger vision for America. It was at that point I realized that democratic politicians cannot speak about the CRT debate because, even though many of them were lawyers, they do not know what CRT actually is. Given that republicans now have raised education to a top campaign issue, it is time for democrats to craft a solid education platform. Here are three things they can do.
- Actively refute fake CRT activism and speak on critical thinking.
Every democrat needs to learn what CRT is and is not. They need to understand its history as a theory taught to law school students and not K-12 students. They need to understand that CRT is not about teaching white children to shame themselves but, if they make it to law school, their CRT class will study how America’s laws have affected this country from a racial lens and what to do about it. Armed with this knowledge, they must also call out people like propagandist Tucker Carlson, who admitted that he still does not understand what CRT is, even after a year of talking about it. When they hear CRT mentioned on the campaign trail, ask people if they know what CRT is and educate them when they cannot answer. Fight miseducation with truth and stop using right-wing talking points because when democrats use their language, republicans are winning. Instead of saying these so-called activists are against CRT, say they are against critical thinking, which is more accurate.
Democrats must also point out that phony CRT activism is failing as many parents and guardians have been encouraged to buy books that have been banned like New Kid and Class Act by award-winning author Jerry Craft. Parents, including many white parents, are organizing “Banned book yard sales” and the books are flying off the lawns. Authors of banned books are actually sending their books to these parents and creating author parent partnerships that we have not witnessed since the critical thinking protests started. Parents are reading these books with their children and realizing that they have been lied to and they are upset, as evidenced by students, parents, and teachers in the York Pennsylvania school district who fought successfully to have banned books (that many of those doing the banning have not read) restored. The takeaway democrats need to highlight is that parents of all backgrounds want their children exposed to more diversity, not less. Democrats should sing this from the mountaintops.
- Address post-COVID parental concerns.
I watched a group of white suburban mothers on CNN who spoke about how their children have fallen behind after a year or more of learning from home. They felt that Youngkin spoke more to their concerns with his actions like sending his wife to meet with parents about their concerns. I am not sure if McAuliffe and his team engaged in actions like this, but what I do know is that there was not a groundswell of vocal and active parents who were supportive of McAuliffe’s education platform. Add to that his comments about parents not needing to be involved in their children’s curriculum and an environment was created where many parents felt there was an elitist and paternalistic approach towards their education concerns. Every public, private, and charter school I work in today has some issue related to parents feeling behind on education. Those concerns cannot be ignored.
Democrats need to hold townhalls and other forms of meetings where they can actively hear and address parental concerns around education. Commit to doing more listening than talking. The only thing that was more frustrating than Youngkin’s advertisement attacking Beloved was that there was not an equal or even more vocal response from parents in Virginia. Of course many were outraged, but Youngkin supporters were more outraged and vocal. Democrats cannot actively engage parents, however, if they do not understand issues facing parents in schools in a post at-home learning world like re-socialization, depression, transportation, and more. Democrats in several campaigns were too caught up responding to republicans and tying candidates to Trump that they didn’t respond strongly enough to parents.
- Boldly embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools.
It is sad to say, but even while I have seen republican candidates accept endorsements from former President Donald Trump as well as white supremacists, many republican candidates have been surprisingly successful at using language that embraces diversity, even if their actions speak to the contrary. They do this in part by embracing the words of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Time and again, I have heard from candidates and their propagandist outlets how we need to bring back the words of Dr. King and focus on the content of one’s character and not the color of their skin. These candidates utter these words while not condemning confederate flag bearing racists who attend their rallies. They use Dr. King when it is convenient with no legislative accomplishments centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion to back up their claims.
Democrats need to boldly assert that they are the party that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion and they must show it. Democrats should speak to the need for access to schools and resources for students with physical challenges. They need to speak to the importance of having a diverse curriculum where all cultures and histories are celebrated and not tolerated. They need to speak to the importance of ensuring that schools receive the same amount of funding regardless of their zip code. They need to promote the need for skilled, culturally competent teachers. They need to speak to how they will work with schools to end the preschool to prison pipeline. They need to also support educators and parents being attacked at school board meetings.
Moving forward with new demographics
Politicians, as well as the media are crafty when it comes to messaging and codewords. We know that when the term “urban” is used, it is primarily to refer to black and brown inner city communities. When they speak about “suburban moms” they are speaking about white mothers, as demonstrated in the video by CNN. I often find myself asking why nonwhite suburban mothers (and fathers and guardians for that matter) are missing from the picture. I hear a collective sigh every time I see this group being ignored in pursuit of the white suburban female vote. The fact of the matter is that the majority of white voters have not voted for the democrats since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Democrats who have won nationally like former President Obama and democrats who have won at the state and local levels in recent years have realized that a broad coalition is needed including white suburban moms who want the same things for their children as nonwhite suburban moms and parents in urban areas as well—a quality education and access to opportunities to help their children build a better future.
At the end of the day, democrats have a stronger (not perfect) record in the last forty years of creating more programs that help people of all backgrounds and circumstances get access to services but in too many instances they have been very poor with messaging. The Education Secretary (his name is Miguel Cardona by the way) needs to be as commonly known to America as Pete Buttigieg, the Transportation Secretary. They cannot let republicans steal the narrative on the importance of a well-rounded education grounded in critical thinking and an appreciation for diversity. In the same way President Biden and democrats are travelling the country selling the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill, they need to highlight their education plan by showing what they have been about, not caving to republican and right-wing extremist talking points. And they must do more to appeal to a larger demographic of voters than the traditional white suburban mother, particularly as more states like Texas are becoming browner. This can indeed help democrats avoid more election disappointments from an educational standpoint.