Can we please stipulate that there is no idea quite so absurd as parents dictating the curriculum of public schools?
Sure, parents can — and should — participate in the process. They can organize. They can advocate for change. They can get themselves elected to the school board.
But when you consider all the whackos out there raising whacko children, the social contract surely demands that we leave public education in the hands of professional educators.
This obvious idea — fundamental to an education system that was once the envy of the world — is currently under assault from the right. And it took a direct hit last week in Virginia.
Republicans, as usual, invented a cause they could flog — “parental rights” — which they used as a dog whistle for the advancement of science denial and white supremacy. They managed to get a lot of voters riled up, first about vaccine mandates, then about the teaching of critical race theory. And they convinced too many gullible parents that they could change what their kids are taught, just by yelling about it. Flimsy as it all was, it was evidently enough to get out the vote.
Which is more than we can say for Democrats, 800,000 of whom didn’t bother to vote, and shame on them. Was it too much trouble to mail in a freaking ballot? This turnout problem — the so-called “enthusiasm gap” — has always been damaging, but at this point it’s become life-threatening. How do we get people to wake up and smell the danger?
The mainstream media is useless. They still have an unhealthy attachment to the old “Democrats in disarray” narrative, which was going full throttle before, during, and after the Virginia election. Especially troubling is the Washington Post’s role in pushing this narrative, given that they are, in effect, the local newspaper for much of Virginia.
The stories were, and still are, invariably about how Democrats never picked up on all those angry moms, and how they ceded that ground to those savvy Republicans. Some of that may have been true, but there were many other stories they could have told us as well, and to withhold them was dishonest to the point of complicity.
They could have told us how close the race actually was (they marveled at the narrow race in New Jersey, yet Virginia’s was even narrower). They could have mentioned the massive numbers of Democrats who didn’t show. And they could have been more forthcoming about how this supposedly “grassroots” uprising of mothers at school board meetings was just another Republican-designed “AstroTurf” campaign — an insidious, bought-and-paid-for parody of a real grassroots movement.
Remember the Tea Party? The Virginia campaign was from the same template — populism from the top down. Billionaires put up the money, right-wing media pumps out the messaging, party operatives run with it, and fools believe it.
In this case, small teams show up at school board meetings. They pretend they’re parents in the district. They get mothers worked up about race and vaccines. And they look the other way when school board members — dedicated volunteers working for the community — get threatened, vandalized, or trashed on social media.
In late September, I wrote about the Heritage Foundation — “The Engine Room of Right-Wing Propaganda” — whose fingerprints are all over this “movement.” I mentioned then that Heritage had latched onto critical race theory (CRT) — which at the time seemed an odd choice of axes to grind. CRT is, after all, an obscure academic pursuit that is taught exactly nowhere in the public school system.
It’s clear now that they thought it had a nice ring to it. “Race” was right in the middle of the phrase, flanked by “critical” and “theory,” both of which sound like the condescension of smartass college kids. When asked what CRT actually is, their voters have no clue — they just know it sounds like someone looking down on them.
Of course, Heritage has been targeting school boards for decades, grooming locals to serve on them in small cities and towns all over the country. These locals get indoctrinated in right-wing dogma through Heritage-sponsored programs.
When they can, they take over school budgets, spending too much on sports programs and too little on science, civics, and teacher pay. And when the school system starves for lack of funding, they can always blame those Democrats and their permissive socialist curriculum.
In Virginia, I’m sure the party hacks found no shortage of pet school boards to draw from, each board well stocked with ideologues eager to wax indignant about their childrens’ right to catch Covid while learning a vanilla version of American history.
So Heritage and its allies had their hook — parental rights — and they knew how to play it. They cranked out the racist tropes on their media machines. They got every talking head from Tucker Carlson on down to amplify the “threat” to our children. And they worked their infinitely malleable voters into a frenzy over a curriculum that doesn’t actually exist.
As to what the party will do with this cynical victory, that’s no mystery. They’ll bait and switch, as always.
The only promises they actually made in this campaign were to end CRT in classrooms — which will be easy because it never began — and to ban vaccine mandates. In other words, they made one irrelevant promise and one deadly one. That’s the bait.
The switch will be to their urgent need to subvert elections, and to push a copy-and-paste version of the Texas abortion law. All the Trumpiest big lies will take root in at least one house of the legislature. And as long as they’ve got mom’s attention, we can expect them to come after sex education, contraception, anything by Toni Morrison, and evolution.
To say that very few people voted for any of this — and that many who did vote for it stand to be hurt by it — means less than nothing to the GOP. But this is what happens when Democrats don’t show up.
Can Republicans do all these things? Maybe, maybe not. But every time they get one of these victories, they chip away at the democratic underpinnings of our society.
They play a long game, and they’ve been patiently undermining and remaking our education system for decades. They need the schools to produce the gullible voters of the future, and to train them to not pay attention.
So if we take nothing else from the Virginia election, let’s agree to remember this core truth about the Republican party, the Heritage Foundation, their billionaire donors, and their entire lavishly-endowed right-wing media empire:
They all have a vested interest in keeping their electorates angry and stupid. And they’re damn good at it.