Parents are schooling Democrats
The following was originally published by the Washington Examiner. It can be found here.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” should go down in history as one of the biggest campaign blunders of all time. When former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said the quiet part out loud during the final gubernatorial debate last year, his opponent capitalized on the tone-deaf statement and made parental rights in education a centerpiece of his campaign.
Instead of walking back his statements, McAuliffe decided to quadruple down on his anti-parent rhetoric in several major interviews and even had Randi Weingarten, arguably the most disliked teachers union leader in 2021, stump for him the night before the election. That move also backfired, badly. In fact, a Virginia mother told CNN that this appearance was the “nail in the coffin” moment for her.
Now, Glenn Youngkin is the Republican governor of Virginia , a state that went by 10 points to President Joe Biden in November 2020. Youngkin can thank supporters of educational freedom for that victory. Washington Post exit polling indicated that education was the second most important issue in the election, and Youngkin beat McAuliffe by 6 points with education voters.
The good news for parents is that politicians are already learning something from the Virginia story.
Take North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, for example. Just two weeks after the Virginia election, Cooper, the newly elected leader of the Democratic Governors Association and longtime adversary of school choice, signed his first state budget after a history of vetoes. This budget notably included an expansion of the state’s private school choice program. The move was substantial : It increased the program’s budget appropriation by 50%, raised the amount of money that could follow each child, and expanded income-based eligibility. Although Cooper pointed out things he didn’t like about the latest budget, he didn’t mention school choice in his opposition, even though he singled out North Carolina’s private school voucher program as a primary reason for vetoing the previous budget in 2019 .
Now, Cooper has taken it a step further and recognized “North Carolina School Choice Week.” Such proclamations occur across the country during National School Choice Week, which takes place during the last week of January, but this is the first time the Democrat Cooper has ever made one. This is a remarkable reversal. As noted by Terry Stoops, the education director at the North Carolina-based John Locke Foundation, “Gov. Cooper has been one of North Carolina’s most outspoken opponents of private school scholarships for low-income children.”
This is a smart political shift for Cooper. The latest polling conducted by Morning Consult shows that 70% to 80% of North Carolina school parents now support private school choice initiatives. Another recent RealClearOpinion poll found that nationwide support for school choice jumped 11 points among Democrats between April 2020 and June 2021. This move could also help Cooper avoid any future accusations of hypocrisy , since he sent one of his children to private school.
In Nebraska, Justin Wayne, a Democratic state senator, recently made headlines for calling out his colleagues for opposing school choice for low-income families while sending their own children to private schools. During his Jan. 11 floor speech, Wayne also mentioned the logical inconsistency of opposing vouchers for K-12 education while supporting them for healthcare and housing.
Other politicians are also seeing the light. In defiance of the teachers union, New York City’s new Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, has vowed to keep schools open for in-person learning. Mayor Adams also signaled support for charter schools in 2021. In Chicago, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot put her foot down on the issue of reopening schools earlier this year. Amid a battle with the teachers union, Lightfoot stated during a press conference: “Enough is enough. We are standing firm. And we are going to fight to get our kids back in in-person learning. Period. Full stop.”
The Biden administration has also changed its tune on school closures. In a Jan. 4 briefing, Biden said , “We know that our kids can be safe when in school, by the way. That’s why I believe schools should remain open.” He continued by pointing out that schools “have what they need” and that the federal government “provided the states with $130 billion” to keep schools open.
Siding with parents on keeping schools open is a smart political move. A poll released on Jan. 10 by USA Today and Suffolk University found that 66% of registered voters oppose “a shift to remote learning,” with majority opposition among Republicans, Democrats, and independents.
The effect of such staunch sentiment from parents and voters is being seen across the country. The Michigan Democratic Party backpedaled after severe public backlash to its now-deleted Jan. 15 Facebook post criticizing parental rights in education. The party attempted to clean up its mess two days later by posting a quasi-apology and stating that “parents need to have a say in their children’s education, end of story.” In North Carolina, the Wake County Democratic Party posted a Jan. 15 tweet depicting parents at school board meetings as conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, and Jan. 6 protesters. In the face of public criticism, these Democrats, too, eventually deleted their anti-parent tweets and walked back the underlying sentiment in a public response.
Instead of taking Terry McAuliffe’s approach of appeasing the teachers unions with anti-parent rhetoric, politicians are starting to learn that it could be political suicide to oppose parental rights in education. Politicians are probably taking more of a pro-parent approach for different reasons. Maybe their deeply held beliefs changed. Maybe their internal polling numbers told them to respect parents if they don’t want to lose on Election Day. Whatever the reason, it’s ultimately good news for students and families.
Parents are the new special interest group in town, and they aren’t going away any time soon. Many parents felt powerless when it came to their children’s education in 2020, and they’re going to fight to make sure they never feel powerless ever again. Politicians from all parties would be wise to listen to them going forward.
Corey DeAngelis is the national director of research at the American Federation for Children, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation.