Editorial: Can ‘Parents Matter’ actually improve K-12 education? Of course not

There’s no denying the political gold that was and is “Parents Matter.”

The campaign slogan that propelled Glenn Youngkin to the Executive Mansion in 2021 crystallized the frustrations of suburban voters during an unprecedented public health crisis. Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were struggling to return to in-person learning amid political angst over face masks and science, and there was growing backlash among conservatives over accommodations for transgender students and the alleged teaching of “critical race theory” post-George Floyd.

Black Lives Matter begot Blue Lives Matter and, yes, Parents Matter. If one is offended by the mere mention of systemic racism, or the reality that Black Americans are disproportionately targeted, arrested, incarcerated and even murdered by the U.S. criminal justice system, perhaps you wouldn’t want your children learning about such things in school. So Youngkin shifted focus to the “real” victims: cops just trying to do their jobs, and parents who simply want their kids back in schools, mask-free, with teachers who aren’t preaching Marxism and grooming kindergartners for sex trafficking.

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks with attendees after a “Parents Matter” town hall meeting held at Crestview Elementary School in Henrico County on Aug. 8.

The beauty of “Parents Matter,” however, is in its umbrella-like utility. Not buying that “divisive concepts,” such as critical race theory, which isn’t actually taught in public schools, should be pulled from make-believe curricula? Or that transgender students are lurking in bathrooms ready to pounce on your unsuspecting, gender-conforming child? Perhaps you don’t see how wearing a face mask silences free speech and conveys membership in a socialist cabal?

No matter. Try it on sexually explicit books, or those teaching children the horrors of inclusion and unfiltered American history, or gender-switching athletes stealing lacrosse scholarships from pigtailed, cisgender girls. It works on social media, the bane of our existence: Youngkin’s recent series of “Parents Matter” town halls focused on bills to restrict access to social media sites such as TikTok and Snapchat (never mind the irony of anti-nanny-state parents arguing for nanny-state solutions).

Sloganeering works, particularly when you’re behind in the polls, and especially when your opponent gift wraps and hands it to you in a bluish state that just went to Joe Biden by 10 percentage points. This is what happened in September 2021, when former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Youngkin’s Democratic challenger, responded to a debate question about what should be taught in schools: “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. … I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

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With a month to go in the campaign, the focus on education had begun to peter out. McAuliffe’s gaffe helped Youngkin, who had locked up the MAGA base and social conservatives, energize his suburban appeal. The baby-faced political newcomer would go on to a meager 2-point victory over McAuliffe, but in “Parents Matter,” Youngkin found his identity. The fleece-vested, prep-school basketball standout-turned-private equity millionaire who founded his own church scored as the rich-dad-who-knows-best, becoming a rising star in the national GOP.

Singular campaign slogans, however, rarely translate to good public policy. Just ask former Gov. Jim Gilmore, whose “no car tax” campaign nearly bankrupted the state, or George Allen’s “no parole,” which led to a wave of prison construction and law-and-order Republican politics in the 1990s that still reverberates. Last year, after Youngkin replaced all of his predecessor’s appointments on the Virginia Parole Board, the state granted just 3% of parole applications; Texas, no slouch in the law-and-order department, grants 30%.

Allowing a small subset of parents to dictate what is or isn’t taught in classrooms, or what books are allowed in school libraries, is a great way to start a political firestorm, but it leads to inherently bad public policy. K-12 education cannot reasonably exist as a constitutional right by handing over decision-making to a vocal minority.

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For good reason, public education is not a capitalist enterprise. Subjecting the vital role of public schools to the whims of market forces — be it private schoolers or pitchforked parents demanding fealty to the Bible — diminishes access for those families without resources or political clout. Charter or lab schools are great for some, but will academically challenged students from the poorest districts be able to get in? Want to use “education savings accounts” to send your children to a higher-performing private school? That’s fine if your family has the resources, or transportation, to get them there. But it’s not a solution that will help those who need it the most. School choice only works if you have the ability to choose.

Attempting to ascribe specific intent, or motivation, to Youngkin’s one-size-fits-all political proverb is too easily deflected, and misses the point. Wherever one falls on the spectrum — white Christian nationalist, tea partier, liberal progressive or AOC Marxist — almost no one is arguing that our schools, still reeling from learning loss, post-pandemic stress and underfunding, should remain hitched to the status quo.

It’s just difficult, if not impossible, to see how altering history standards, removing sexually explicit books and focusing on who gets to use what bathrooms are going to help any student or school improve academically. If you feel empowered thanks to a sudden rush of “parental rights,” good for you. But don’t think for a second that “Parents Matter” will lead to sound public policy or improved K-12 schools. It hasn’t. And it won’t.

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