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Q&A: Education Commentator Andrew Rotherham on the Virginia Governor’s Race and the K-12 Peril Facing Democrats

By Kevin Mahnken | November 3, 2021

Andrew Rotherham (Bellwether Education Partners)

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Over the last 20 years, Virginia has transformed from a conservative stronghold into a reliably blue state. It’s a metamorphosis that has in some ways typified the Democratic Party’s strategy nationally: win over highly educated voters in urban and suburban areas through progressive appeals on issues like health care, jobs, and K-12 schools.

So how was it that popular former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, widely seen as the Democrats’ strongest contender when he won the party’s gubernatorial nomination in June, lost his bid for reelection on Tuesday night? And how did his opponent, Republican businessman and political neophyte Glenn Youngkin, harness a wave of public outrage about education issues to become the state’s next leader?

It’s a question that holds national implications for U.S. politics next year. In 2022, 36 governorships and thousands of state legislative seats will be up for grabs in the midterm elections, to say nothing of the countless school board races that will also be contested. If the GOP can replicate Youngkin’s pitch to parents infuriated over the pandemic’s disruptions to student learning — and the perceived incursions of progressive orthodoxy on race, gender, and sexuality — Tuesday’s results may only be a taste of what’s to come.

For insight into the election and its consequences, we spoke with education commentator Andrew Rotherham, a former member of the Virginia state board of education and co-founder of the consultancy Bellwether Partners. 

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​​The 74: How much do you think the Virginia election result had to do with education versus what we could broadly call “fundamentals”: the Delta surge, Biden’s sinking approval, voters ready for a change after picking Democrats all these years? 

Andrew Rotherham: It is a tough environment for Democrats in general, and to some extent this was an election about the fundamentals reasserting themselves with Trump not on the ballot — the return of college-educated men to Republicans in Virginia, for instance. The role that education seems to have played is reinforcing those atmospherics and that frame, that the Democrats are an out-of-touch party of elites that is not responsive to the concerns of parents. 

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Granting that K-12 controversies drove this result to some extent, there’s some controversy over whether COVID mitigation or concerns about “critical race theory” was more to blame. Your thoughts?

It’s still early, but looking around the country at CRT vs. masks, all of it didn’t seem to break cleanly one way in school board races. So that gives credence to the idea it was a bundle of things and generalized frustration more than any particular issue. That said, Democrats did not do a good job staking out a clear position. It’s not that hard for a candidate to tell parents, “We’re going to teach an unsparing history curriculum here in this state that is honest about race and racism, but we’re also not going to tell your kindergartener they are complicit in white supremacy or have your second grader doing a privilege walk.” Instead, Democrats set themselves up to own any ridiculous thing that happened in a school anywhere. 

The suggestion you make seems to dovetail with what you recommended in a recent blog post: “Either Biden or Secretary of Education Cardona are well situated to give a speech or two seizing the 70 percent position in this ‘debate.'” But there’s a complication there: Federal and state officials just don’t have much real power in terms of dictating what happens in classrooms, and there’s now a cottage industry devoted to “exposing” teachers and administrators for political bias. I’m not sure how statewide candidates get around that problem, and it seems like the only solution is for education to become less salient as a campaign issue.

Teachers need three things here. First is a better background in history and contentious issues themselves (as you may have heard, we don’t do a fantastic job of teacher preparation now). Second: high-quality curriculum around these issues. And third: good and sustained professional development. Right now there is enormous demand but little quality control in the DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] industry, and teachers are freelancing. That’s a bad mix. This is complicated, and you don’t want teachers using whatever they found on Pintrest last night or just learned at a one-hour workshop. 

It’s interesting that these videos of teachers doing dumb things richocet around social media — you know, the mock slave auction or the teacher who dresses up and dances around her classroom in an inappropriate way. But then, no one stops to think that maybe telling that exact same teaching force to just do whatever they want on complicated questions around race and class might lead to some problems of different kinds. Secretary Cardona said we should trust teachers. That’s the wrong frame. It’s not about trust; like everything else in education, it’s about training and support. Even just using the bully pulpit to call for those things — and acknowleding that not every critic wants schools to stop teaching about slavery — would do a lot of good.

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How much contingency was there in this race? Do you see McAuliffe’s debate remark about parents not telling schools what to teach as a turning point here? It kind of seems like that was the point when a lot of controversial issues around schools — closures, masking, competitive admissions, Loudoun’s equity push over the last few years — seemed to merge into one central argument over what kind of input parents could have. 

He shouldn’t have said it because it’s an easy point to take out of context. But he’s not wrong, you can’t run schools or classrooms as direct democracies where everyone gets a veto. If you really want to control every little thing that happens educationally for your child, you have to make other arrangements, and we should preserve freedom for people to do things like homeschool. 

But the remark added to this frame that Democrats are the party of unaccountable systems, and as we’ve seen a lot the last few years, people don’t like systems they feel are distant from them. You also had proposals to limit advanced course-taking in math in the name of “equity” and change admissions to competitive magnet schools around Virginia. And I suspect that a bigger contingency adding to that frame may have been what looks like a prominent local school board covering up a rape that happened on one of its campuses. And then, of course, frustration with school reopening. There was a lot going on this year and last, so this was building. 

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COVID’s not exactly going to disappear as an issue, and there are limits to the political lessons Democrats can take going forward about their strategies there. But it seems like the center-left’s discourse on race, particularly with respect to K-12, may now be seen as a political liability. How true do you think that is, and can you see it being addressed between now and the midterms?

A year in politics is an eternity. But if you look around the country, voters clearly don’t want “woke” or “successor ideology” politics. You saw that in election after election last night in all kinds of circumstances. Americans are pragmatic. Just ask Eric Adams, or voters in Tucson who approved a minimum wage increase last night. Democrats would do well to heed that lesson and respond to that pragmatism. If I were a Democrat running for office, I wouldn’t talk about what’s wrong with America without also talking about what’s right with America — and we should talk honestly about both. But people want good schools, safe neighborhoods, and an opportunity for a better life for themselves and those they care about most. Real life is not Twitter or MSNBC. Democrats seem to be forgetting that.

Whether or not it assuages parents’ concerns about indoctrination in schools, is there something that would-be governors of either party — there are 36 seats up for grabs next year — can do to impact how teachers approach “divisive subjects” going forward? The laws passed this year in several states regulating classroom speech are certainly one approach.

We should unflinchingly call out political leaders who shy from teaching an honest view of American history that includes both this country’s signal achievements as well as it’s darker history and ongoing problems. At a time when our very social and political cohesion is under enormous pressure, we simply cannot shy from both dimensions of that, and schools are a venue where the action is going to be. 

In my view, these laws are not helpful. At best, they lead to stupid confusion like we recently saw in Texas about the Holocaust; at worst, they make it even harder for teachers to teach. But you don’t wake up in the morning knowing how to effectively teach about contentious contemporary issues. Again, that takes training and support. There are no shortcuts here, and attempts to find one, whether through these laws or poor-quality trainings, are making the problem worse. 

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One interesting facet to the nationwide education debate is that, by and large, the explosion in recall attempts against school board members hasn’t succeeded in ousting many — including two more efforts that failed last night. Recall is obviously a mechanism with huge difficulties baked in, but I’m wondering what you make of the fact that Glenn Youngkin can win a blue state in part due to outrage about school governance even as activists in Idaho Falls can’t get rid of a few board members.

This is an important point. It doesn’t seem like there was a unidirectional wave around the country where it all went one way in board races. Parents are frustrated, people disagree, but in general, people don’t gamble with their schools. There is a real chance the Republicans will misread this and overreach. 

Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors.

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