After Virginia, GOP looks to continue push in education

Then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin addresses supporters at a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va., on Nov. 1, 2021. Republicans plan to forcefully oppose race and diversity curricula in public schools as a core piece of their strategy in the 2022 midterm elections. The party is supercharging a message that helped catapult Republican Glenn Youngkin to a win in Virginia’s governor’s race. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Republicans plan to forcefully oppose race and diversity curricula — tapping into a surge of parental frustration about public schools — as a core piece of their strategy in the 2022 midterm elections, a coordinated effort to supercharge a message that mobilized right-leaning voters in Virginia this week and which Democrats dismiss as race-baiting.

Coming out of last Tuesday’s elections, in which Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s office, the GOP signaled that it saw the fight over teaching about racism as a political winner. Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, chairman of the conservative House Study Committee, issued a memo suggesting “Republicans can and must become the party of parents.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced support for a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” opposing the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

“Parents are angry at what they view as inappropriate social engineering in schools and an unresponsive bureaucracy,” said Phil Cox, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Democrats were wrestling with how to counter that message. Some dismissed it, saying it won’t have much appeal beyond the GOP’s most conservative base. Others argued the party ignores the power of cultural and racially divisive debates at its peril.

They pointed to Republicans’ use of the “defund the police” slogan to hammer Democrats and try to alarm white, suburban voters after the demonstrations against law enforcement that began in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd. Some Democrats blame the phrase for contributing to losses in House races last year.

If the party can’t find an effective response, it could lose its narrow majorities in both congressional chambers next November.

The debate comes as the so-called “racial justice” movement that surged in 2020 was reckoning with losses — a defeated ballot question on remaking policing in Minneapolis, and a series of local elections where voters turned away from candidates who were most vocal in support of the issue.

“This happened because of a backlash against what happened last year,” said Bernice King, the daughter of the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who runs Atlanta’s King Center.

King warned attempts to roll back social justice advances are “not something that we should sleep on.”

“We have to be constantly vigilant, constantly aware,” she said, “and collectively apply the necessary pressure where it needs to be applied to ensure that this nation continues to progress.”

Banks’ memo included a series of recommendations on how Republicans aim to mobilize parents next year, and many touch openly on race. He proposed banning federal funding supporting Critical Race Theory and emphasizing legislation ensuring schools are spending money on gifted and talented and advanced placement programs “instead of exploding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion administrators.”

The coming fight in Congress over the issue was previewed last month, when Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared before two committees to defend a Justice Department directive aimed at protecting school officials who allegedly faced threats amid the heated debate over teaching about race. Republicans accused Garland of targeting parents.

Democrats plan to combat such efforts by saying many top Republicans’ underlying goal is removing government funding from public schools and giving it to private and religious alternatives.

“I think Republicans can, will continue to try to divide us and don’t have an answer for real questions about education,” said Marshall Cohen, the Democratic Governors Association’s political director. “Like their plan to cut public school funding and give it to private schools.”

White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre accused Republicans of “cynically trying to use our kids as a political football.”

The issue had weight in Virginia.

A majority of voters there — 7 in 10 — said racism is a serious problem in U.S. society, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of Tuesday’s electorate. But 44% of voters said public schools focus “too much” on racism in the U.S., while 30% said they focus on racism “too little.”

The divide along party lines was stark: 78% of Youngkin voters considered the focus on racism in schools to be too much, while 55% of voters for his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, said it was too little.

Youngkin strategist Jeff Roe described the campaign’s message on education as a broad, umbrella issue that allowed the candidate to speak to different groups of voters — some worried about Critical Race Theory, others about eliminating accelerated math classes, school safety and school choice.

“It was about parental knowledge,” he said.

McAuliffe went on the attack last week, portraying Republicans as wanting to ban books. He accused Youngkin of trying to “silence” black authors during a flareup over whether the themes in Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel “Beloved” were too explicit. McAuliffe still lost a governor’s race in a state President Joe Biden carried easily just last year.

Republican Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer bristled at equating a movement to defend school “parental rights” and race.

“The way this was handled in Virginia was frankly about parents, mothers and fathers, saying we want a say in our child’s education,” said Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.