AMAC Exclusive – By Eleanor Vaughn
3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon is a busy time for most parents, especially at the end of August. But in an Arlington, Virginia public park, behind the baseball diamond and across the parking lot from the soccer field, a crowd of parents—along with grandparents, civic-minded young adults, and a few kids still in their school uniforms—gathered at that time last week to hear what Governor Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Republicans had to say about education, in what was billed as a “Back to School Rally.” Though perhaps not the most conventional political rally, the event was (in this local’s opinion) an example of how Youngkin has harnessed concerns over education and parents’ rights to rise from a political unknown to become the popular Governor of Virginia and a rising star within the GOP – a model that other Republicans may be wise to follow.
Youngkin was joined at the event by the Republican nominees for three Congressional districts—the Virginia 8th, 10th, and 11th—who spoke first. Karina Lipsman, running in the 8th District to unseat Democrat Don Beyer, and Hung Cao, running in the 10th District against incumbent Democrat Jennifer Wexton, described how education had changed their lives after fleeing communism (in Ukraine and Vietnam, respectively). Jim Myles, the 11th District Republican nominee to take on Democrat Gerry Connolly, highlighted the concerns of parents who wanted to leave the public school system but were unable to afford tuition at private schools, emphasizing the need for more school choice.
The Congressional candidates were joined by the entire Republican ticket from last year’s statewide election: Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears, Attorney General Jason Miyares, and Youngkin. All three detailed their accomplishments from the past seven months, but none seemed willing to rest on their laurels. Sears said school choice was the “new Brown v. Board,”and a crucial part of correcting the unacceptably high failure rates of reading achievement tests—over 80% among black students in the fourth grade. Miyares described legal victories on masking and the fights to come on implementing new laws about school resource officers. Youngkin emphasized the importance of transparency from schools, and the necessity of keeping parents involved in the most important parts of their children’s lives. The Virginia Governor has made headlines over the past several weeks for criticizing policies at some Virginia school districts that allow schools to “socially transition” children (refer to them by their chosen pronouns and provide “gender affirming” therapy) without informing parents.
The rally and Youngkin’s renewed emphasis on education as the school year kicks off follows a year of progress for his administration on the issue. Youngkin’s “Day One” executive orders included banning divisive frameworks like Critical Race Theory from classrooms and repealing school mask mandates. He also authorized an investigation into the mishandling of sexual assault cases in Loudon County Public Schools, where school officials seemed more focused on preventing scandal and silencing parents than protecting students. Additionally, Youngkin has signed into law bipartisan legislation promoting literacy and giving parents greater oversight of what type of materials their children are exposed to in school.
Youngkin’s reforms couldn’t come a moment too soon. The Virginia Department of Education recently released a 33-page report detailing the status of Virginia’s educational system, which Youngkin called “disturbing.” The report highlighted clear achievement gaps for students, particularly following school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Youngkin slammed prior Democrat administrations for the shortfall, saying that the report “details how state policy choices and priorities over the last decade have resulted in lower student achievement in reading and mathematics, wider achievement gaps, reduced transparency, and eroding parent confidence in the Commonwealth’s public schools.”
Specifically, the report points to lowered standards in Virginia under Democratic Governors Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe. As student scores sagged, the Northam and McAuliffe education departments simply lowered the requirements for being deemed “proficient” or “advanced,” creating the illusion of progress when really students were accomplishing less.
Youngkin’s focus on education as a top priority is clearly resonating with the commonwealth’s voters. According to a recent poll from Roanoke College, Youngkin’s approval rating currently sits at 55%, up from 53% in May. Notably, while only 25% of respondents in the Roanoke poll said that they felt the country was going in the right direction, 51% said the same of Virginia.
What works in Virginia can work elsewhere. The strategy isn’t complex: look for the issues that can get people excited at 3:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, and deliver on them. Republicans appear to have found one of those issues in education and parents’ rights.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.