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Parents are the new political tribe Mobilised and angry, they will decide the future of America

Parents are the foot-soldiers. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)


January 18, 2022   5 mins

Shortly after Glenn Youngkin was sworn in as governor of Virginia on Saturday, he issued a flurry of day-one executive orders. With those initial actions, the first Republican to win statewide in the Commonwealth since 2009 was true to the issues that delivered him victory.

The first two orders were aimed at the classroom. One promised “to ensure excellence” in schools by taking steps to “end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, and to raise academic standards”. The other affirmed that whether or not a child should wear a mask to school was up to parents, not schools. Youngkin knows what was clear to anyone watching the Virginia gubernatorial race: that his focus on the question of who is in control of the state’s classrooms — whether they are open or not, and what is being taught when they are — was what delivered a Republican win in a state that voted for Joe Biden by 10 percentage points just a year earlier.

While many Virginians with school-age children were angered by long-term school closures during the pandemic, the promotion of a divisive “antiracist” pedagogy and the abandonment of the meritocratic pursuit of academic excellence, Youngkin’s opponent, Terry McAuliffe, sided with the teachers’ unions. Youngkin called his campaign events “parents matter” rallies, while McAuliffe chose Randi Weingarten — the union head honcho and public enemy number one for parents of children who, in many cases, missed more than a year’s worth of in-person schooling — as a headline speaker for his election-eve rally. In one debate, he uttered a self-incriminating mantra: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” He never recovered.

Much of the debate that followed the Virginia result centered on whether it was school closures or the pedagogy for which Critical Race Theory has become a shorthand were the bigger factor. Some on the Left leapt on the fact that the anti-CRT campaigner Christopher Rufo is explicit about his intent to weaponise CRT against Democrats. An analysis of the Virginia results by Michael Hartney, a political scientist at Boston College, found that Youngkin did better in areas where school closures had been more extensive.

But this post-mortem fails to understand just how tangled the issues are. The anti-CRT backlash was a product of remote learning: parents saw what their children were learning and, in many cases, were not impressed. Anger at a progressive reckoning was understandably intensified by the timing: renaming schools, paying thousands of dollars for a Zoom lecture from Ibram X. Kendi and abolishing standardised testing at a time when classrooms were closed, grades were slipping and the poorest students with the least support were being hit the hardest. Taken together, these questions boil down to control: who decides what happens in America’s schools?

Needless to say, classroom issues are not limited to Virginia. And for many Republicans, Youngkin struck on a winning issue ahead of the midterms later this year. Party strategists hope they can win back a cohort of college-educated suburban voters they lost during the Trump years. Some panicked Democrats also appear to realize this: since November, parts of the party have dropped their previous passivity towards the teachers’ unions. But whether or not Democrats learn the right lessons from 2021, parents of school-age children have been identified as a crucial slice of the electorate. They are worried and frustrated. And they have mobilised. They have joined campaign groups, attended school-board meetings and run for office. And they are set to decide races across America.

Writing in The Atlantic recently, one parent explained how a broader disillusion with the Democratic Party was triggered by pandemic schooling: “until recently… [I was] a loyal, Left-leaning Democrat, and I had been my entire adult life. I was the kind of partisan who registered voters before midterm elections and went to protests. I hated Donald Trump so much that I struggled to be civil to relatives on the other side of the aisle. But because of what my family has gone through during the pandemic, I can’t muster the same enthusiasm. I feel adrift from my tribe and, to a certain degree, disgusted with both parties.”

Another parent, a progressive who lives in Northern Virginia, an affluent, heavily Democratic part of the country, explained to me his disgust at the support for closures from his political allies. “I’m a Left-winger and the people who were the most pro-closure were all on the Left,” he said. “Everything they were pushing for was antithetical to liberalism. School closures were hurting the most at-risk kids: people whose parents aren’t a lawyer like me… The hypocrisy of these people was incredible. They claimed to care so much about underprivileged people and yet were ready to throw them under the bus.”

He says he knows many lifetime Democrats who voted for Youngkin because they wanted schools to return to normal for their children.

If candidates and political consultants are plotting ways to win over the parent vote, education activists hope that the pandemic will prove to be a decisive moment for American schooling. “Covid didn’t break the public school system. It was already broken,” says Corey DeAngelis, the national director of research at School Choice Now. “But, for almost two years now, it has shone a spotlight on the main problem with K-12 education across America, which is a massive, long-existing power imbalance between the public school teachers’ union monopoly and families.”

Parents are voting with their feet. Enrolment in New York City’s public school system has dropped by 5% since the start of the pandemic. Homeschooling increased by 50% in Virginia in the 2020-21 school year. Nationwide, more than half a million American children have left public education since the start of the pandemic. The school-choice movement is flourishing. Public support is at an all-time high while 18 states have expanded school-choice measures. The number of states with an education saving account programme, which DeAngelis calls the “gold standard” for school choice and which allows parents to receive public funds for education if they withdraw their children from the public system, doubled from five to ten last year.

The question is whether anger over education at the moment will trigger a long-lasting change in education politics in America, or whether business as usual returns once anger over school closures subsides. I suspect it will do the former, just as the effects of the pandemic school closures will likely do lasting damage to the mental health and educational outcomes of America’s children.

Organisations started by parents to pressure their school systems offer a counterweight to teachers’ unions now have an institutional momentum of their own. Choice-enhancing policy changes will not be repealed overnight. Parents stuck dealing with at-home learning for more than a year will not easily forget who was revealed to have a veto power over their children’s education.

Perhaps above all else, the spread of anti-racist dogma in public education — and the prioritisation of progressive genuflecting over academic excellence — will mobilise all but the most progressive of parents.

Of the many hasty symbolic changes made during the racial reckoning of 2020, the one I keep returning to is the decision by KIPP, the country’s largest network of charter schools, to retire their national slogan, which, until the summer of 2020, was “Work hard. Be nice.” It isn’t just impossibly inoffensive, but it strikes me as a pretty good motto: who wouldn’t want their kids to live by those words? But according to KIPP, the four-word mantra needed to go because it “supports the illusion of meritocracy”  and because “working hard and being nice is not going to dismantle systemic racism”.

After the pandemic passes, that toxic ideology will remain. It seems so anathema to human nature that a counter-revolution feels inevitable. In fact — as Virginia is demonstrating — it is already underway. And it is parents who are its foot-soldiers.


Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

ollywiseman

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Scott S
Scott S
2 years ago

I’m utterly amazed at left wing parties such as the Democrats and Labour submerging themselves in CRT. They were originally formed to unite the working classes, not divide them, or at least Labour were. I think it also speaks volumes about the lack of working class people actually involved with these organisations at this moment in time. Way too many middle class progressives and not enough workers. Regarding Youngkin, he got his campaign spot on, Trumpian policies without the awful Trump rhetoric. If the Republicans can get behind a candidate like Youngkin, they will sweep to victory in 2024, if Trump runs again, it will be another close call.

Last edited 2 years ago by Scott S
Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott S

Exactly. If the Republicans can see off Trump and select someone like De Santis, they will obliterate the Democrats.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I don’t realy know much about De Santis (I shall look him up), but “seeing off Trump” would be the best thing that the Republicans could do – for themselves and for the USA.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Trump had a role of door kicker, he is a blunt instrument. He my play an important role concentrating the lying media on himself, deflecting from DeSantis. But if is planning to be a presidential candidate then he is obviously as stupid as Democrats want him to be.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott S

In Britain, The Labour Party was founded by practical working class Christians such as Keir Hardie who considered ” Self Help ” by Samuel Smiles as manual for socialism. Smiles ” Lives of the Engineers ” was seen as guide by many early socialists. Many Engineers such as Brindley came from poor backgrounds. Brindley who once walked 25 miles to inspect a mill which was not working properly in order to solve the problems.
Since the Webbs, (middle class socialists who lived on on inherited money) joined the Labour Party there has been a masive decline in measures which would improve the quality of lives of the poor and working class. Providing the quality of vocational and trade training as as provided in Switzerland in the USA and UK, would have enabled both countries to move all their low and medium value manufacturing, into advanced high value, such as in Germany and Switzerland. However, the teaching unions in the USA and UK lack the ability to provide the technical training of the vocational/trade schools of Switzerland. Switzerland, a country of 8.5m, supports ETH Zurich which is up with Imperial and MIT. For the USA to support similar numbers of advanced technical institutes per head of population it would need over 35. The language of the universe is mathematics which combined with craftsmanship produces engineering.
In Sumer, bridge builders were forced to have their families live under them for a money to test their worthyness. If the bridge collapsed, the family was killed. In engineering, mistakes can kill and the laws of the universe are not influenced by CRT.

H D
H D
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott S

The Republicans must figure out how to avoid a Trump nomination without nominating a RINO. The Democrats must figure out how to dump Biden without nominating Harris. Short of a convenient death, it’s Trump v. Biden, redux. I pass.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  H D

What is surprising is that the Republican Party appears to have nobody other than Trump who has constructed anything or any practical experience. They have no more practical experience than the Democrats.

James Stangl
James Stangl
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

That’s true for the vast majority of US politicians.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

And lets not forget US Attorney General Garland saying he had the FBI investigating parents as Domestic Terrorists for resisting masks, CRT, and School closures.

That was the high point of Lefty Madness, and one any thinking person cannot ever get over. (and the pictures of the bloodied father, wrestled to the floor by cops for protesting a boy in a dress, in the girls bathroom, attacking his daughter.)

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Dustshoe Richinrut
DR
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, perhaps in the German press this action by the AG was reported as a fight back against a resurgence of the infamous Badder-MeinMann und BadderMeinFrau factions of American domestic terrorism.

Jem Barnett
Jem Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, and I was unaware until this week that the entire parents-as-terrorists thing was in fact a set up?!
Leaked emails show that the Biden admin’s Education Sec. actually ASKED the teaching union to write the letter, then used the letter as a pretext for using anti-terrorism tools against parents. That is totally outrageous corruption. There’s a short video showing the emails and explaining it here, I was very shocked by this, and especially that it hasn’t got more coverage:

https://youtu.be/gJwcROALRw8?t=752
Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jem Barnett

This has been out for about 2 months, you need to widen where you get your news.
But it was obvious from the start. These kinds of things don’t “just happen.” The reports of specific collusion only confirmed the obvious.

Jem Barnett
Jem Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Ha, well thank you Martin. I sense you may have been patronising me there, but honestly I don’t even have the energy to be offended by that. 🙂
I read pretty widely, but as a UK citizen with a full time job (in this totally insane, upside down, clown world) I do indeed find it difficult to keep up with all the insanity unfolding around the world!
It’s like drinking from a firehose of b*llshit, 24/7. Particularly the fact that I’m now spending hours (!!) each day after work having to sift through studies and other document references to just understand what the heck is true around Covid and the vaccines/treatments etc, as I have consequential decisions to make based on what is true/not. It’s actually becoming exhausting just trying to live as a diligent and interested person in this chaotic environment of all-out propaganda wars; there are almost no reliable sources left that aren’t lazy, corrupted or partisan.
I hate this current iteration of our world, it sucks.

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Jem Barnett

Superb disposal of an attempt to patronise you.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Yes. That was uncalled for.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Jem Barnett

As a US citizen I don’t expect citizens of other countries to know as much as I do if mine. If I had responded to you about this I would have tried to provide links. I have been patronized on British websites because my history of GB is a little weak. I do know about the same stamp act and government officials being appointed by London.

L Walker
LW
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

To be fair, the MSM hid this as much as possible. I knew about it because I subscribe to conservative web sites.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I really want to believe the author’s argument but I’m still not quite sure. So many left-leaning parents have been comfortable, apparently for years, with a progressive agenda in their schools. Admittedly, CRT seems to have reached fever pitch recently, but I wonder how far these parents are truly willing to back away from progressivism.
It’s the school closures, and, as the author notes, the veto power of the teachers’ unions over when schools close and open, that really alienated parents since the pandemic begun. If the teachers unions make some strategic concessions in that area the burgeoning parents movement might run out of steam.
So many of us have been so easily led and cowed over the past couple of years. I guess I’m now struggling to believe people are willing to stand up and be counted.

Martin Bollis
MB
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There isn’t the same emphasis on ideology over here but certainly my children were just desperate to get the grand children back to school because trying to simultaneously run a job, home and school is a nightmare.

I think you’re right. Once kids are back in school the real angst behind this will fizzle out.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I hope you’re wrong.

aaron david
AD
aaron david
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

There is a scale, from the farthest right to the farthest left, and it looks like a bell curve. The fat middle, both left and right, is pretty centrist and contains most people. What falls under the rubric of CRT is something that appeals to the far-far left. And when you take away what a school is actually supposed to do, educate people, those not completely under the sway of that ideology are taken aback.
Here in the state, much is being made of this, and there is starting to be quite a bit of pushback, starting in the more red areas of the country, but even in ultra-liberal San Fransisco people are starting to challenge this.
And it isn’t always because these people are suddenly against liberalism, it is because they have a belief in what education is. They always wrung their hands at how crappy a lot of it was, saying teaching was a hard job while still supporting public schools, but when they see a lot of it comes from just how poorly the teachers acted and how awfully they treated their own kids, the dam started to break.

L Walker
LW
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  aaron david

The unions are the problem, imo. I have a couple of union members in my family and they are insufferable.

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  L Walker

School teacher union members, to be clear. They should be illegal, since they are government employees.

Mary Bruels
MB
Mary Bruels
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I just don’t see the teachers unions conceding anything to the parents. Once they have power, they never want to give it up. Look at what’s happening in Chicago where the union is defying the school board and refusing to return to the class room.

H D
H D
2 years ago
Reply to  Mary Bruels

You are right about Chicago, where I live. Parents who can afford it will go private. Parents who can’t will leave the city, if they can. My son reports several liberal friends leaving the sinking ship that is the Chicago public school system. The teachers union won’t care because they are, in effect, an affiliate of the Democratic Party, existing for the purpose of rent seeking on behalf of teachers and the Union administration, and funding Democrats.

Last edited 2 years ago by H D
L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  H D

Yes, rent seekers, that’s exactly what they are.

Bashar Mardini
BM
Bashar Mardini
2 years ago

I consider myself now a single issue individual

My priority in life right now is to save my kids childhoods. If that means we have to move, then so be it. It is the most important thing I can do

I want to see every politician, advisor, “public health expert”, and academic who took part in any way with school closures, and masking of kids (up to college age) to be thrown out on their asses, and held accountable for their role in this crime against humanity

Once a political figure weaponizes this sentiment correctly, watch out.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  Bashar Mardini

It will take a politician to breath life into these issues. In the US it will happen – in most other places it won’t. A lot of people criticize the US political system – but I think their ‘take no prisoners’ approach to everything means that there is a lot more discussion of issues than in other countries.

Last edited 2 years ago by Gunner Myrtle
James Stangl
James Stangl
2 years ago
Reply to  Bashar Mardini

Amen. I think that the school closures/CRT issue has served to unmask (pardon the pun) the excesses of the Left for a lot of middle-of-road folks in the States. I’ve watched my wife, who’s worked with special-needs kids in and out of the schools, go from a centrist to completely red-pilled. And there are a LOT of moms just like her in the States.

I hope that this issue also opens the conversation about the tremendous collateral damage that lockdowns and vaccine fetishism have wrought.

Harry Child
Harry Child
2 years ago

Last year Unherd posted the following brilliant comment ‘Often a Conservative is just a liberal mugged by reality’

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

… needed to go because it “supports the illusion of meritocracy” …

According to the KIPP site, meritocracy is seen as problematic as whiteness. It suggests that both meritocracy and whiteness are only normal as long as the “work hard, be nice” slogan is allowed to continue to be THE slogan. Ergo, meritocracy and whiteness are seen as not normal.

So much beating about the bush! Are the progressives against meritocracy in society or against the illusion of a meritocratic system? So much beating about the bush while schools are closed. Moreover! Is being white okay or not okay? That is what has surely annoyed parents. It’s most unlike America, as they would see it.

H D
HD
H D
2 years ago

I’m a deep conservative, but I don’t see the function of the school system as supporting meritocracy. Particularly when narrowly defined as academic success. And I speak as a national merit scholar with a professional degree. I expect the schools to teach people to read, write, do math, and have some basic knowledge about the world. In Chicago, where I live, they can’t even produce a mediocracy.

Last edited 2 years ago by H D
James Stangl
James Stangl
2 years ago

I like to ask liberal-progressives in the States, “So who would YOU want to do your brain surgery or open heart procedure, regardless of race…the BEST surgeon, or the one who got through regardless of merit?”

Andrzej Wasniewski
AW
Andrzej Wasniewski
2 years ago

I have no idea how much time the people who started their journey on the left defending dissidents, individual rights, freedom of speech need to understand that the TwitterSS, and the woke mobs in the academia did not have to be lectured by Charles Schwab about the reset. They immediately saw COVID as the opportunity of their lives to unite with oppressive state, its security apparatus, and corporations to create a totalitarian society they always dreamed off.
Seriously, how much more time you need? Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Jimmy Dore figured it out pretty quickly.
By the way the fusion of oppressive state, its security apparatus, and corporations is exactly Mussolini’s definition of fascism. Do not tell he did know the subject.

Chris Wheatley
CW
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

So, the school choice system has taken off. More and more parents are getting paid not to send their children to school. And this means that the parents have woken up and want proper education for their children. Hm.

This idea was mooted in the UK. If I remember parents would get £6000 per year for not sending their children to school. It sounds like a Left idea to me.

yp54797wxn
yp54797wxn
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Parents already pay for schooling through their property taxes. So, parents are being given back their own money to have their children taught by someone other than a public union indoctrinator. We stopped caring what British subjects think of us long ago, my friend.