Education takes center stage in elections
School board campaigns and education issues have become politically hot topics
Virginia captured headlines last week when a Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, defeated Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a race for the governor’s seat—an election upset in a state President Joe Biden won easily in 2020.
Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group that works to elect conservative candidates, spent months on the ground in Virginia campaigning for Youngkin. Staffers and volunteers knocked on roughly 100,000 doors promoting Youngkin’s platform and listening to voter concerns. Jacob Fish, AFP’s deputy state director for the Virginia chapter, named one of the most commonly cited “pocketbook and dinner table issues”—that is, topics that voters feel affect them personally.
That big issue? Education.
After more than a year of virtual learning, American parents have gotten a firsthand look at public schooling, and many are demanding changes, concerned about everything from mask mandates to critical race theory to transgenderism policies. Once relatively low-profile races for school board seats have turned increasingly contentious, and parents in Virginia and elsewhere have elevated education as a key policy plank for their vote—a dynamic both local and statewide candidates should be aware of going into 2022.
Parental demands for school reforms have been so passionate, they’ve in some cases turned threatening. In Loudoun County, Va., several school board members have resigned or are considering leaving their positions, and a school security team has asked local police to patrol board members’ homes after irate parent groups shouted obscenities and death threats. (In Pennsylvania, one candidate for a county office told a rally he would take a “strong group of 20 men” to a school board meeting to replace board members and remove mask mandates.)
In September, McAuliffe lost the support of many voters when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Michael Monrroy Mejia, director of coalitions for the Libre Initiative, says that misstep caused public education to skyrocket as a major issue in local elections, boosting Youngkin’s position. “Education for the first time became one of the leading issues during this most recent campaign,” said Monrroy. “And now, Virginia is in a position to pass some positive educational reforms.”
Virginia’s election highlighted the collision of education and racial tensions. According to an AP VoteCast exit survey, a majority of voters in Loudoun County said racism is a serious problem in society, but they disagreed on how to address it. Party lines were clearly visible in the election results: Seventy-eight percent of Youngkin supporters said schools focus too much on racism while 55 percent of McAuliffe voters said schools aren’t doing enough.
Despite these concerns, McAuliffe focused his campaign on defeating the shadow of former President Donald Trump. University of Virginia adjunct professor Mary Kate Cary wrote for The Conversation that candidates should learn from his mistake: “Many voters wanted to hear both candidates’ views on ‘kitchen table’ issues—such as expanding job opportunities, ensuring public safety, and reforming education—in the closing weeks before the election. Instead, they were often presented not with the issues, but with heavyweight political endorsements.”
Voters want to know candidates are listening to them, and that desire transcends party politics, according to Gene Walker, who just won a school board director position in a Pittsburgh, Pa., district. The Democratic candidate juggled a day job and campaigning this year and unseated the incumbent Republican director with 67 percent of the vote. Walker said parents in his mostly black district are more concerned with funding and access to programs than with critical race theory. He spoke with one woman who had turned away from the Democratic Party. Sitting in her living room, he listened to her concerns with the local public school system. After about 15 minutes, she said she would consider voting for him, simply because he listened.
Monrroy noted a similar dynamic among Hispanic voters he canvassed in Virginia. One Hispanic father in Manassas, Va., said he normally voted Democrat, but McAuliffe’s dismissive attitude toward parental involvement had pushed him toward Youngkin instead. Fifty-five percent of Latino survey respondents in AP’s VoteCast polling supported Youngkin.
Based on this election cycle, Monrroy said the Latino vote can no longer be considered automatic for Democrats and might be up for grabs in 2022: “The Latino community is not monolithic. It’s something that many campaigns will have to take note of moving forward.”
Looking ahead to the 2022 elections, Monrroy said both political parties need to reevaluate their campaigns, listen to voters, and pay attention to education issues.
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