The fight over critical race theory in the classroom crept into Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where the candidates are banking on education issues to give them the edge in a tight contest.
GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, 54, is putting his focus on the culture wars raging over the race-focused instruction that has spread through K-12 schools in Virginia and across the country.
He chose to roll out his education agenda in Loudon County, where parents are battling the school board over critical race theory in the curriculum.
Mr. Youngkin vowed one of his first official acts as governor would be to sign an executive order banning the teachings in Virginia public schools.
Critical race theory, an academic thesis born in the 1970s that grew into an educational trend, teaches that U.S. laws and institutions are inherently racist and cause White people to continue to oppress Black people.
“Critical race theory is not an academic curriculum,” Mr. Youngkin said recently on Fox News. “It is not about telling the truth. It is not about teaching fact-based history. It is, in fact, an entire attempt to divide our kids, and I will not allow it in Virginia.”
Terry McAuliffe, 64, the Democratic nominee, is campaigning on a promise to make an “unprecedented investment” in Virginia schools with a $2 billion boost per year to the education budget.
Mr. McAuliffe prefers not to talk about critical race theory, which garners some support on the left but draws strong opposition from conservatives.
When pressed on the issue, Mr. McAuliffe dismissed critical race theory as a “right-wing conspiracy” made up by his opponent and former President Donald Trump.
“It’s a conspiracy theory,” Mr. McAuliffe recently told a reporter. “You know what people want to know about? Why are we not paying our teachers? Why are we down to a thousand teachers today? Why? And why are 50% of our schools 50 years old? This is what people want to know about.”
Mr. McAuliffe, who served as the state’s governor from 2014 to 2018, has pledged to “build a strong post-COVID economy” by increasing teacher salaries, expanding broadband, and pre-school access, as well as addressing racial inequities in schools in an extensive plan to modernize Virginia schools.
Richard Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, said Mr. Youngkin’s success rate on talking points related to critical race theory will help inform how Republicans campaign in next year’s midterm elections.
“The Republican Party is kind of using the governor’s race as well as some other issues across the country to try to test the market and use this idea of critical race theory,” Mr. Meagher said in an interview. “So, I do think that the Youngkin campaign wants to kind of put front and center education issues, and particularly the role of race in education.”
A June poll by Morning Consult found that Republican voters generally held negative views of critical race theory.
The poll found that 30% of GOP voters had seen, read or heard of critical race theory compared to 21% of Democrats. Among the group, 48% of Republicans said they viewed the idea negatively, and 42% said they did so strongly.
The polls surveyed roughly 2,000 registered voters from June 18-20, with margins of error of plus or minus 3 to 4 percentage points.
In Loudoun County, despite emerging as a national hotbed of parental activism against critical race theory, school officials insist the theory isn’t part of the curricula.
School officials dismissed claims to the contrary as “social media rumors.”
However, Mr. Meagher said that playing up the fear of a creeping agenda may give Mr. Youngkin an advantage if he can invoke enough emotion from voters.
“If you get enough people upset, you can win elections,” Mr. Meagher said.
“The question is, how many people can you get upset in a blue state like Virginia, which has just really become solidly blue demographically voter-wise? Can you rile up enough of these kinds of suburban voters to win back the suburbs? That’s the question for the Republicans, and Loudoun is a good sort of signpost for them.”
J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said he thinks it’s strategically wise for Mr. McAuliffe not to speak out too much on Mr. Youngkin’s invocation of critical race theory and other cultural issues.
“I think that if you acknowledge it and try to kind of level with his critics on it, I don’t think a lot of his Democratic base voters would really like that,” Mr. Coleman said in an interview. “If I were him, I would just sidestep that issue and keep talking, OK well, here’s what I want to do for the rural areas or to help broadband. I think the best strategy is just to kind of deal with his own plan.”
Mr. Youngkin’s campaign disputed that their candidate has focused solely on combating critical race theory in his education plan, adding other elements he’s advocating for such as raising academic standards, narrowing the literacy gap, and offering more advanced course options.
A Youngkin campaign official told The Washington Times that critical race theory is a portion of the Youngkin education plan but not the whole thing.
“We’re seeking to achieve the best curriculum without a political agenda involved in it,” the official said.
Alleigh Marre, president of the newly formed Free to Learn Coalition, a nonpartisan organization working to remove political agendas in schools, said the coronavirus pandemic heightened the interest Virginia parents have had in education.
In addition to what’s being taught in schools, Ms. Marre said closing the academic gap remains critical to the future of the state’s education, which she sees as a priority for both Republicans and Democrats.
“We certainly plan to continue to raise awareness about public education in the state of Virginia as a whole, and where we see there are needs that are unmet,” Ms. Marre said in an interview. “And so I would certainly hope that it is, and maintains a priority status for both candidates.”
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