By Donald Bryson
The John Locke Foundation
America has reached its school choice moment. The decades-long fight to create and expand school choice programs accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic and finally played out politically as the eyes of the nation watched the gubernatorial race in Virginia on Nov. 2.
The idea that parents are once again allowed to have agency in their child’s education is the centerpiece of the concept of school choice. That idea has come to the forefront of American politics. Strangely, the political left and public education pressure groups have been too slow to react, and they are likely to face severe political consequences in the foreseeable future.
With the 2020 school shutdowns, due to the onset of COVID-19, American families were unceremoniously thrust into a precarious situation of economic uncertainty and the sudden facilitators of their children’s education. However, for the first time in a long time, parents suddenly had agency in the public education system. It is not an overstatement to say that homeschooling saved American public education in 2020.
Virginia and North Carolina schools spent most of the 2020-21 school year in virtual classes after finishing the previous year virtually due to the coronavirus. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) did not announce a school reopening plan until February 5, and Gov. Roy Cooper (D) did not sign The Reopen Our Schools Act of 2021 until March 11.
Yet, even in the spring and summer, education was not a driving factor in the Virginia race. An August poll from Roanoke College found that only 7% of Virginia likely voters viewed education as the most important issue in the election.
Then on Sept. 28, in a debate with Republican (and now winner) Glenn Youngkin, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe said, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision.” McAuliffe also said, “…I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
And just like that, the nature and tone of the campaign changed. McAuliffe signaled that parents would have diminished power and rights in their children’s education in that debate. And after nearly a year of facilitating their children’s education, that was a slap in the face to parents who were increasingly concerned with the quality of education and learning loss.
Indeed, another Roanoke College poll from October 30 found that the number of Virginia voters who ranked education as the election’s most important issue had tripled from 7% in August to 22% in October. And between those two polls, McAuliffe’s lead shrunk from eight points over Youngkin to just one. Glenn Youngkin won the election by 2.2%.
Since Nov. 2, the Left has argued that the election was about a resurgence of Donald Trump and “white ignorance” about critical race theory. In reality, elections are decided on various issues, but this one swung on the idea that parents have rights in education.
CNN’s Pamela Brown interviewed some White suburban moms from Virginia about what made them vote for a Republican this time around. As one mom said of McAuliffe’s campaign, “They weren’t looking at the concerns on the ground. The concerns on the ground were we were really concerned about our kids education, and the Democrats were not listening to that.”
The lesson here is that championing parental rights in education – a la school choice – is a political winner. Not just in Virginia, but everywhere and especially in North Carolina.
A January 2021 Civitas poll, commissioned by the John Locke Foundation, found that 82% of North Carolina voters agree that parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school. And skepticism of classroom instruction is on the rise, with an October Civitas poll finding that 75% of North Carolina likely voters believe that education in the classroom has become more political in the past five years.
Parents are having their moment in the politics of education, and history is on the side of school choice.
Over the past decade, North Carolina lawmakers have gradually introduced more educational options through the number of charter schools, Opportunity Scholarships, and education savings accounts. If anything, Virginia’s election should show us these programs are political winners by recognizing parents as the true guardians of children.
This article first appeared in the December / January print edition of Carolina Journal.