Virginia GOP seizes on education as governor's race nears finish line

Virginia GOP seizes on education as governor's race nears finish line
© Greg Nash

Virginia Republicans led by gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin are zeroing in on education and parents’ rights issues ahead of the commonwealth’s November elections, giving a glimpse into how the strategy could play ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

The latest push from Youngkin and his Republican allies follows comments from Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe at last week’s gubernatorial debate, in which he said that he did not believe parents should tell schools what to teach students.

Youngkin’s team seized on the soundbite, releasing an ad less than 24 hours after McAuliffe made the comments. The campaign also launched a family-led mobilization effort dubbed “Parents Matter.” A Youngkin spokesperson said to expect more events and rallies focused around the effort.

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Down-ballot Republicans have gotten in on the action too, with the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC releasing an ad on Thursday tying Democratic House of Delegates candidates to McAuliffe.

Meanwhile, outside conservative groups are spending money on McAuliffe’s comments as well. On Wednesday, the American Principles Project PAC launched a new ad campaign targeting McAuliffe.

The latest push from Republicans illustrates how education has become a critical issue for the party in the state, while McAuliffe and his Democratic allies focus on the issues of vaccine mandates, abortion and tying Youngkin to Trump.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project PAC. “You couldn’t write a script better to motivate nontraditional Republican voters, swing voters and independents to vote Republican.”

Experts say the issue could stick for Youngkin and his GOP allies, who have been forced to respond to an onslaught of attacks from Democrats on coronavirus vaccine mandates and ties to former President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE.

“It connects Youngkin to a mostly local issue that affects people in their daily lives,” said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Youngkin rolled out his campaign’s education plan in July, highlighting the need to restore academic excellence in Virginia schools and demanding school accountability.

But Virginia Republicans increasingly turned their attention to education-related issues during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Conservative activists say the school lockdowns gave parents a closer look at students’ curriculum.

Conservatives have sounded off in particular on critical race theory and transgender rights at schools. Over the summer, the Washington, D.C., exurb of Loudoun County became the epicenter of the nationwide debate on the two issues.

Critical race theory was developed in the 1970s and 1980s by various American legal scholars who argued racism is rooted in the nation’s founding and that systemic racism continues to have a negative impact on the opportunities and treatment of people of color at all levels of society today.

“What you’ve seen is that conservatives have really listened to what’s going on and they’ve really tapped into it,” said Ian Prior, the executive director of Fight For Schools, the conservative group that is leading the effort to recall school board members in Loudoun County.

The county’s school board meetings soon made national headlines after some grew heated. Two people were arrested at a June meeting when a discussion over critical race theory and transgender rights in schools got out of hand.

Similar scenes have played out across the country on the same issues, as well as the debates over mask mandates in schools.

Republicans and conservatives in the state also point to the effect lockdowns, which they tie to Democratic leadership in Virginia, had on the state’s students. Data released from the Virginia Department of Education found that test scores dropped significantly during the pandemic.

“So the GOP argument is that if Democrats let kids back in school immediately, we wouldn’t have had those test scores,” said one Republican operative.

National Republicans say the issue has the ability to transcend party lines in Virginia and could help bolster the party come 2022.

“We’ve been seeing it since the beginning of the Biden administration that teachers unions and the leadership of teachers unions are really influencing their policies,” said a Republican National Committee spokesperson. “I think folks across the country are very alarmed in rightfully so.”

But recent polling in Virginia paints a different picture, putting education as third on voters’ priorities list.

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A Washington Post-Schar School survey released last month prior to the gubernatorial debate found that 14 percent of registered voters labeled education as their most important issue. Another 25 percent of voters said the same about the economy, while 17 percent pointed to the coronavirus pandemic.

The same survey found that 45 percent of voters said they trusted McAuliffe to do a better job of handling education, while 37 percent said the same about Youngkin.

Youngkin’s campaign noted that McAuliffe’s comments after the debate, which took place after the poll, would have “serious ramifications.”

“It spans beyond Republicans,” the spokesperson said. “It’s folks that care about education.”

McAuliffe’s backers are brushing off the attacks from the other side of the aisle, pointing to what they say is his more substantive education plan. The Democratic candidate’s first policy rollout of the 2021 campaign was on education, vowing to invest an extra $2 million a year into education to raise teachers’ salaries, close racial achievement gaps and expand broadband and preschool availability.

Additionally, McAuliffe’s allies hit Youngkin’s education plan, pointing to a study conducted by the Virginia Education Association, a labor union, that found that Youngkin’s economic plan would lead to $54 billion in lost aid to public schools.

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“I’m not quite sure the point that Glenn’s trying to make,” McAuliffe said during a press call earlier this week. “We have school boards and the state board of education that makes these important decisions and of course parents are involved and electing members to the school board. That’s how it works here in Virginia.”

McAuliffe took a more forceful tone in a CNN interview aired on Wednesday, in which he labeled the attack from Youngkin “a dog whistle.”

“Why are we doing this to our students? All we want to do is give them a quality education,” McAuliffe told the network. “They’re desperate. This all goes back to critical race theory, which is not taught here in Virginia.”

“I’m sick of it,” he added.

Others suggest there was more nuance to McAuliffe’s original comments that kicked off the latest Virginia GOP offensive.

“I think what he meant was that it is not the role of the parents to get into the classroom and micromanage what teachers do. Respect the autonomy and expertise of teachers to do their jobs,” Rozell said. “That is a completely defensible decision.”