If you listen to the national news on CNN or PBS or the networks, you have been told how shocking it was that public education became a hot issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race. These newscasters, who rarely cover statewide news and were reporting on the Virginia election as a national bell weather, seemed surprised that public school policy had caught voters’ attention. In fact, public schooling is regularly an issue when candidates run for state legislatures or governor. Usually a third or more of a state’s budget pays for the public schools, and most public education policy is made by state legislators and administered by governors according to the principles defined in the 50 state constitutions.
But what was unusual in Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia is that it was not really about the state’s public schools, despite that there was some discussion in both his and Terry McAuliffe’s campaigns about the funding of the state’s schools.
As more and more commentators are taking the trouble to explain, Youngkin’s campaign was instead a tissue of dog whistle appeals to racism, the culmination of a months’ long strategy by policy think tanks to redefine an arcane academic term, “Critical Race Theory” for the purpose of provoking fear among white, Republican parents.
The truth is that far-right groups are inflaming parents with an artificially constructed argument that public school teachers and curriculum directors are trying to make white children anxious or guilty or ashamed. In June, The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identified Christopher Rufo as a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight.”
More recently the National Education Policy Center documented that Rufo is, in fact, a well-paid fellow of the Manhattan Institute: “The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-Critical Race Theory narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.’”
The National Education Policy Center traces the work aimed at inspiring this year’s controversy about Critical Race Theory to particular think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute. Well funded groups working to galvanize parents include Parents Defending Education, Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, FreedomWorks, and Parents’ Rights in Education.
In a column in yesterday’s NY Times, political strategists Tory Gavito and Adam Jentleson analyze what happened Tuesday in Virginia’s election for governor: “The Virginia election results should shock Democrats into confronting the powerful role that racially coded attacks play in American politics. No candidate would think of entering an election without a winning message on the economy or health care. Yet by failing to counter his opponent’s racial dog whistles, Terry McAuliffe did the equivalent, finding himself defenseless against a strategy Republicans have used to win elections for decades. Crucially, the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, was able to use racially coded attacks to motivate sky-high white turnout… (T)he past half-century of American political history shows that racially coded attacks are how Republicans have been winning elections… from Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign to Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queens’ and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad. Many of these campaigns were masterminded by the strategist Lee Atwater, who in 1981 offered a blunt explanation: Being overtly racist backfires, he noted, ‘so you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.’ C.R.T. (Critical Race Theory) is straight out of the Atwater playbook.”
It is rare for me to agree wholeheartedly with Frederick Hess, a neoliberal corporate school reformer who supported No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, who bought into Race to the Top, and who supports the expansion of charter schools. But today, Hess’s analysis of Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race is persuasive. Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson describes Hess’s concerns:
“Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks one of McAuliffe’s fatal blunders was to avoid forthrightly addressing the issue of critical race theory and anti-racism initiatives including teacher-bias trainings. McAuliffe should have told parents that he wants to ensure every kid feels valued and learns the country’s true history, Hess said — but McAuliffe should have made clear that does not mean letting interest groups or ideologues shape public school curriculums. ‘That would have lanced the boil in a very powerful way, and they could have reset the conversation…. If Democrats start making those decisions and articulating those arguments, I think this could all turn out to be a post-Trump fever and it breaks…. But if Democrats can’t bring themselves to do that… I think this could very well build to a head of steam in 2024.”