November 3, 2021
By Matt Beienburg

The media may be too willfully blind to see it, but Tuesday’s shock election results in Virginia have sent a message to lawmakers around the country: stand with parents on educational freedom and curriculum accountability, or get ready for retirement.  

Just hours after the almost 15-point implosion of former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign, MSNBC’s headline analysis blamed the outcome on a “contingent of angry, willfully ignorant white people.” Perhaps less inflammatory, but even more revealing, this same analysis concluded that the contest’s victor, Glenn Youngkin, had “led a largely ill-defined campaign…focused on hot-button social topics—like outrage over school curricula—rather than substantive policy discussions.”

Let that sink in: While dumping $190 billion (roughly $4,000 per kid)of new federal funding into K-12 education in the last 18 months apparently qualifies as legitimate public policy, weighing in on the appropriate instructional use of all the hundreds of billions of education dollars spent in the U.S. apparently does not.

But while the defeated gubernatorial candidate himself had similarly declared, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” it is clear that Virginia voters—in particular parents—are not about to simply abandon their kids to the whims and assurances of ideological activists who seek to dominate K-12 education.

Instead, like one more domino in a string of local and statewide victories by parent-centric campaigns, the results of Virginia’s electoral contests point heavily toward a future of parental empowerment in education—and the elections that help shape it.

That future includes among its pillars state policies establishing education savings accounts and academic transparency in K-12—two policies pioneered by the Goldwater Institute that are taking off across the nation. Especially in the wake of extreme school lockdown protocols over three consecutive school years—and the resulting disruptions to students’ academic learning—education savings accounts (ESAs) have exploded in popularity, doubling from 5 to 10 state programs in the past year alone.

Teachers unions have successfully blocked many of these programs in years past—such as in West Virginia in 2019, where union-led strikes derailed an effort to give parents access to charter schools and ESAs (while also increasing public school teacher pay) in that state. But as representatives of the Mountain State showed earlier this year when passing the nation’s first universal ESA program, it is now parents who are being put in the driver’s seat.

Moreover, at the same time parents are standing up to demand options for their children, so too are they flexing their muscle when it comes to the quality and appropriateness of school curricula. While pundits even now continue to falsely deny that toxic ideologies like Critical Race Theory are being promoted in public schools, for example, parents are increasingly seeing through these efforts to racialize nearly every aspect of their children’s K-12 education, and unsurprisingly, they’re less than enthused. To that end, the Goldwater Institute’s academic transparency proposal—which would require schools to disclose to parents the specific learning materials and activities being used at their nearby public school—would empower families to identify and avoid those pushing an activist agenda. 

The proposal—which has already been adapted into legislation passed by the full Wisconsin state legislature and backed by state education leaders around the country—offers parents and policymakers a tool to combat the rising tide of politics in the classroom in a way that allows parents to actively compare curriculum at nearby schools and steer clear of ideological indoctrination.

MSNBC may have chosen to scoff at and malign parents as a bunch of ignorant racists. The Hill may have chosen to run an op-ed titled “’Parents’ Rights’ is Code for White Race Politics,” and the Washington Post may have featured the column, “Parents Claim They Have the Right to Shape their Kids’ School Curriculum. They Don’t.” But as evident from the results in Virginia and the groundswell of parental engagement across the country, such condescension is likely only to solidify the resolve and dedication of parents now standing up for their kids. Those who demand educational freedom and real curriculum accountability—via transparency—appear to just be getting started. Lawmakers around the country would do well to take note.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.

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