A little election reax.
In other words, if Democrats stop listening to the activist class* for a moment and instead just think about the mainstream position on this issue, which happily is not at odds with talking honestly about race and racism in this country, they can neutralize this issue. If they throw their lot in with an increasingly imperious and unaccountable public school establishment that’s a problem.
If an alien landed here they'd look at a Republican Party just 10 months removed from its President sanctioning the sacking of the United States Capitol and unable to come to terms with such an appalling transgression and think, 'OK, there is no way that party is going to do well.' But that alien has also never met the Democrats. "Spaceman, hold my beer."
Couple of takes I'd suggest:
“Republicans only won because of racism.” Yes, it’s impossible to imagine voters rejecting the party of Andrew Cuomo and Kyrsten Sinema and Gavin Newsome for any reason other than racism, agreed. So what? Who do you think is going to come and correct that injustice for you? The only opinion that matters is that of the voters, and they think your whining about unfairness makes you look weak.
As it turns out, voters in places like Virginia didn't like Trump, but they also didn't like getting jerked around by school officials for months and months over the pandemic. And only one of those was on the ballot Tuesday.
Elsewhere from Seattle to Arizona to Buffalo to Minneapolis to New York City voters made clear that despite all the acrimony and partisanship, they're kind of pragmatic. Democrats, despite electing a basically consensus-driven pragmatic centrist President of the United States a year ago have managed to make their brand pretty toxic.
In a place like Virginia this is a particularly acute problem when education is a big issue and on top of a lot of parental frustration you've got a prominent local school board covering up a rape (this after a lot of other issues over the past year), divisive debates about admissions to coveted magnet schools, the bottom absolutely falling out of test scores in Virginia and state and district officials dodging accountability on that, state officials teasing the idea that limiting access to advanced classes is how you achieve equity, and other stunts seemingly calculated to piss off parents. I suspect the Loudoun postmortems will be particularly brutal now that people are paying attention.
And of course the ever evolving definitional debate about teaching CRT. Weirdly, I think both sides know CRT is not literally taught in schools in Virginia on a regular basis. And both sides know that CRT-derived concepts sometimes are. Entire school systems assigning Kendi and DiAngelo for staff PD and then saying 'we're not doing CRT' is transparently nonsense. Dems were never going to get the racists, by having no touch they managed to alienate a broader swath of parents.*
Voters don't parse the issues like wonks or policy pros. Instead, they get a frame on a candidate, a gut sense, and they form an impression. Through a host of issues, the Dems created an impression of indifference to parents. Bringing in - as a closing argument - Randi Weingarten, the AFT President who while wildly popular elite political circles is reviled by many parents as a symbol of what went wrong in 2020 and 2021 with school reopening, was the cherry on top of an educationally tone deaf sundae.
Democrats had no basic theory of the education case other than lashing themselves the very objects of parental frustration.
All that, however, is exactly why I would not over read it. There are some contingencies in the Virginia race. Around the country the school board elections look like more of a mixed bag. It wasn't a clean sweeping out of incumbents or anything like that over CRT, masks, vax policy, or anything else.
This also does not look like the Republican uber education campaign analysts (including me pre-2016) have warned about where the Republicans shed their baggage and link choice and opportunity and drive a wedge through the Democratic coalition. Instead, it was a close election, reversion to the mean, independents swung, and education fit into an effective narrative of change for the Republicans more than it set up a narrative.
I'd likewise be cautious over-reading the swing from Biden to Youngkin in Virginia. Trump was a candidate ill-suited to Virginia in a few ways, not the least a heavy military and government presence leading to voters who prioritize competence and respect. Trump, as you may have seen, is not often associated with those things. In fact, Youngkin notably outran Trump in parts of the state. The 2017 to 2021 results are a better benchmark.
The economy was still a big, if not the big issue (better voter data will be available soon and we'll revisit exits and all that then). That's getting overshadowed by the education stuff because a school fight is more interesting to journos than the umpteenth election where voters say they care most about the economy and jobs. And credit where it's due. Glenn Youngkin ran an effective and disciplined campaign. Voters wanted change and McAulliffe was the default incumbent in an open seat race. And the current Democratic President is politically underwater. Tough environment.
Still, do Dems need a better message? Of course. A Democratic political pro friend asked on election night, "In two sentences or less, what's the McAullife message on the economy or jobs?" It's a good question.
Chalking it all up to racism as we're already hearing won't do. Around the country diverse candidates prevailed in different contexts. The country is becoming more inclusive even as everyone yells at each other on Twitter. Danica Roem was reelected a third time in Virginia, wasn't even really news because she's good at her job. And in Virginia the Republicans elected a Latino man and a Black woman to the other two statewide offices on the ballot this cycle. That's an example of the message problem. Your message has to be something the average person doesn't hear and think to themselves, "wait, that makes no sense." And if you're explaining to them, "no, no, see you don't understand, they're "white adjacent" then, well, real life is not a critical theory seminar at Smith.
And that's what got Democrats in trouble on schools. Their ed message fundamentally made no sense to parents exhausted from the pandemic.
This, from Sarah Isgur, is a well put look an education aspect of the race that goes beyond recycled talking points,
There’s no question that a lot of parents would tell you they are concerned about CRT being taught in schools. But this is a little like the “defund the police” slogan. They don’t literally mean that their second graders are being taught “to view race and white supremacy as an intersectional social construct.” They mean that their kids are being taught things about race, racism, and it’s role in American history that they don’t like. I heard one parent, for example, say that they feared their child was being taught that equality of outcome was more important than equality of opportunity. You can agree or disagree as to whether that is good or bad or right or wrong as a normative matter, but as a descriptive matter, it is what some voters meant when they said education as an important issue to them.
So here we are. If the Democrats can't figure out how to parse out genuinely racist voters - the 'we make slavery sound worse than it really was' crowd from the 'I don't want my kid being told that intersectionality or "whiteness" is the only proper way to understand the world" crowd then they will lose more close elections where education is an issue and things will get more toxic.
In our sector, there is plenty of arguing in education but no real argument. This despite pre-pandemic equity problems and a host of new pandemic driven issues. The Democrats need to come up with some arguments that are more convincing than what they tried in Virginia.
There is a pro-kid, pro-reform, pro-equity, agenda out there that is neither inherently D or R waiting for politicians with the courage to grab it. For instance, empowering parents with educational choice, improving post-secondary transitions, expanding access to early education opportunities, unbundled and responsive and accountable public systems with better assessments, and a focus on teaching kids math early so we're not arguing about exam schools when they're already in 8th-grade. All those things matter to a more equitable school system than the one we have today.
The only box Democrats are in is one they choose. Given the state of the Republican party, however, a lot is riding on how they choose.