There’s been lots of jabber lately about what the upset win by Glenn Youngkin in the recent Virginia gubernatorial race means for education policy. Due to his deft campaign strategy and ability to leverage education as a mobilizing issue in the closing days of the campaign, particularly in highlighting the fracas over critical race theory, many GOP candidates and their consultants are now licking their chops to replicate this playbook in 2022 races.
Some interpret the Virginia results to mean that education has finally returned as a top-tier political issue. Some have said that what happened in the Old Dominion had less to do with transformation on the right, and more to do with a dramatic left turn by progressive elites. Still others think it marks a dramatic shotgun start of “education culture wars” as the key to electoral success for Republicans.
Such punditry is all well and good, and some may even be accurate. But it also misses a larger point—resulting in a potentially massive opportunity that conservatives are at risk of missing.
It is true that liberals and progressives have long owned the education issue, a fact that is hugely frustrating to us conservatives. We often find ourselves fighting the noble fight for the well-being of students and parents, while losing to the progressive machine that works mainly to protect the interests of the adults in the education systems, often at the expense of kids. So I surely understand the excitement when education shows potential to be a winning political issue on the right.
Yet despite having fought this battle most of my career, I don’t want education to be a winning issue if it’s not about, well, education. I don’t want to go in the side door. I want to have the knock-down-drag-out fight about how we make sure that all kids have access to the high-quality education that every one of them deserves. An education that prepares them well for the world we will send them out into with skills that will help them not just be successful, but crush it—and lead our country into its next phase of greatness. Our current K–12 system is failing badly at this fundamental expectation. The overwhelming majority of its students today cannot read or do math at grade level, and that includes all students, regardless of race. We are not preparing or supporting teachers to meet this challenge, and Covid-19 has just intensified the system failures.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we shrink from or abdicate the fundamental values we conservatives know to be the proper foundation of American education. There’s plenty of rotten and morally corrupt stuff going on out there, and conservatives are right to push back on it fiercely, particularly when we can show that the education establishment and its progressive overseers are at best complicit or at worst instigating it, as Rick Hess and his colleagues at AEI have thoroughly documented. But events happening in places like Loudoun County, Virginia, are outliers in a system that is educating 55 million kids. If conservatives put all our energy into weaponizing those examples for political gain, then all we do is make it harder for the many, many schools across America that are struggling just to get a majority of kids to read and do math at grade level. We’re using all the platforms at our disposal to wind parents up to march on schools and school boards demanding to review the library inventory or lesson plan choices where there has been no evidence of malpractice. But this only serves to distract educators from the real job at hand—especially in the wake of the pandemic’s unprecedented disruption.
Instead, conservatives should seize this moment to galvanize parents around reforms that have the potential to truly revolutionize American education—more school choices for families, an insistence on reading proficiency by third grade, accountability systems that highlight successful schools that can be replicated, and higher-quality curricula, particularly in the elementary and middle grades. In high schools, well, we all need to demand a reimagining of the four years before we send students out into the world. Our high schools are completely broken, and our students are the first ones to tell us so.
The bottom line is that our education agenda as conservatives must be more than manufacturing outrage and creating the false narrative that all schools and school systems are primarily focused on pushing liberal ideology over academic outcomes. If that’s what we stand for, we are missing an enormous opportunity to deploy our actual political power to change the trajectory of an entire generation and the country that it will inherit.