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Matthew Continetti / October 16, 2021

The Politics of Parental Revolt

And the need for a conservative education agenda.

A single exchange may decide the Virginia governor’s race. At one point during a September 28 debate, Republican Glenn Youngkin slammed his opponent, former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, for vetoing a 2017 bill that would have allowed parents to remove their children from courses studying sexually explicit material. McAuliffe shrugged off the criticism. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he said.

If you live in Virginia, as I do, then you have heard McAuliffe saying those words approximately a gazillion times on television, where they are replayed ad nauseam in one of Youngkin’s most effective attack ads. The former Carlyle Group executive and political newcomer clearly believes that grassroots outrage at the educational system will provide him the winning margin in what is now a tossup election. On the banner of Youngkin’s website is a tab that reads “Parents Matter.” Among the items in his “day one game plan” is a promise to ban instruction in “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). “This is no longer a campaign,” Youngkin recently told a crowd in Winchester, Va., according to the New York Times. “This is a movement. It’s a movement led by parents.”

It sure is. The question is where the movement is going. So far, the revolt over politically correct and anti-American curricula has produced more heat than light. Loudoun County, Va., the epicenter of this latest populist rebellion, has become a stand-in for national polarization and tribalism, as the left-leaning school board engages in bitter fights with well-organized parents. Several states already have banned CRT, including materials based on the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” a factitious revision of U.S. history whose absurd premise is that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s politicized Justice Department has promised to investigate threats against school boards and educators. No one seems able to agree on what, exactly, CRT is, but that doesn’t really matter for either side. What matters is the fight.

If it propels Youngkin to Richmond, then, the debate over education may end up looking like a wasted opportunity, a moment for serious thought and policy creativity that was frittered away in exercises of mutual fear, loathing, and contempt. For example: Even if we can agree on a definition of CRT that doesn’t inadvertently include fair-minded social studies in slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, expunging this balkanizing and corrosive ideology from schools is just a first step. There is more to be done.

Yet the rest of Youngkin’s education platform is vague. It includes keeping schools open, “Restoring High Expectations & Getting Every Student College or Career Ready,” “Rebuilding Crumbling Schools, Raising Teacher Pay, & Investing in Special Education Programs,” and “Creating at least 20 New Innovation Charter Schools across the K-12 Spectrum to Provide Choice.” In a July speech, Youngkin pledged to retain advanced math courses and reimpose pre-McAuliffe standards.

This smallball is not new. Of the four character-shaping institutions of family, faith, neighborhood, and school, conservatives have had the least to say about education. They lament its sorry state. They say it is not a federal responsibility even though the Department of Education remains standing after both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich vowed to eliminate it, and no one calls for the repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. They rightfully and productively expand homeschooling and school choice, without paying close enough attention to the 90 percent of students who attend some 100,000 K-12 public schools across the country. They somewhat reluctantly went along with George W. Bush’s efforts to impose school standards in the 2000s but did not know where to turn after the collapse of the test-based accountability model of education reform.

Former secretary of education William J. Bennett often speaks of the “three Cs”: choice, content, and character. The Youngkin plan gestures toward choice, issues vague calls for less politicized, more rigorous content, and overlooks character entirely. This final omission is a shame because, in its malign and counterproductive way, CRT or “antiracist” curriculum is itself a form of character education.

Progressives have long treated the public school as the place where children receive the knowledge, traits, and habits necessary for life in a modern democracy. Today, in the worldview of the education establishment — what Bennett calls “the Blob” — that means teaching to the lowest common denominator and avoiding or downplaying assessments under which some students fall short. It means inducing feelings, depending on the student, of shame or self-esteem. It means reducing individuals to physical characteristics, fostering the idea that these characteristics determine most if not all life outcomes, and dividing the world between oppressor and oppressed. Is it any wonder that the institutions premised on such ideas tend to mold individuals with guilt-ridden, suspicious, agonistic, fragile characters who can’t read or write or perform basic math?

Ambitious conservatives have to think bigger. Try improving teacher quality through licensing reform. Charter schools can be excellent, but what about incentivizing learning pods and investing heavily in Career and Technical Education? Last year, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Frederick M. Hess sketched out a fulsome education agenda in the pages of National Affairs. The ideas are there. Someone needs to pick them up.

And soon. In the absence of leadership that provides alternatives to liberal programs, conservatives assume a negative attitude and defensive crouch on issue after issue. Education is no exception. Progressive outrages spawn populist backlashes that may block the most egregious initiatives and embarrass their most radical proponents, but in the end not much changes. Why? Because conservatives are unable to agree on specific and lasting measures to reshape the institutional structure in ways that improve social conditions and restore civil peace. This isn’t conjecture. This is the failure to repeal Obamacare in 2017.

“A populist upsurge always points to very real problems that ought to be on our political agenda,” wrote Irving Kristol in 1972. “But populism itself usually misperceives these problems, and the solutions it proposes are, more often than not, illusory.” It would be a partial and ultimately unsatisfactory outcome if the parental revolt over the high-handedness and lunatic wokism of the educational system exhausts itself, like the Tea Party movement of the 2010s, in a combination of electoral victory and policy defeat. Time for Glenn Youngkin to hit the books.

Matthew Continetti is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon. For more from the Free Beacon, sign up free of charge for the Morning Beacon email.

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