In the early hours of Nov. 3, Republican Glenn Youngkin, now the governor-elect of the commonwealth of Virginia, took to the stage at his campaign election night watch party to promise a conservative renewal in governance in a state that had moved to the left in recent years.
Youngkin’s victory over former governor and Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe was an unexpected upset and amounted to a political earthquake in a state that had voted for President Joe Biden by a double-digit margin the year prior, and it took place in Washington, D.C.’s backyard.
Youngkin’s victory, on a platform featuring a vow to empower parents in public education, proved to be the culminating achievement of a parental rights movement that was visible in Virginia but also swept across the nation to Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, and everywhere in between.
From the refusal of numerous schools to reopen following the pandemic closures, the inclusion of critical race theory and gender ideology in school curricula, the fight over mask mandates, and the Loudoun County public school rape case, a wide breadth of issues pertaining to education motivated a new kind of voter, turning the Virginia race into an unexpected referendum on public education.
In addition to Youngkin’s Virginia victory, conservative and Republican-backed candidates ousted incumbents in school board elections all over the nation, ushering in a new wave of candidates whose vows to keep schools open with no mask mandates and to ban critical race theory proved to be a winning message.
But the most visible aspect of the parental activist movement, and a defining image of local politics in 2021, was the use of public comment periods at school board meetings.
In rural, suburban, and urban localities, parents signed up in droves to address their school boards about the long list of grievances.
“In 2021, parents have been on the front lines battling to protect the future of America,” Laura Zorc, executive director of the parent activist organization Building Education for Students Together, told the Washington Examiner. Her organization trains and organizes parents to run in school board elections.
“Parents across America need to be acknowledged for stepping up and filling in the gaps created by teachers union politics to ensure that their children are prepared for a successful life beyond graduation,” Zorc said, adding that parents “should be the 2021 ‘Person of the Year.’”
In an October interview, Ian Prior, the executive director of the political action committee Fight for Schools, traced the rise of parent activism to the failure of schools to reopen for in-person instruction.
Zorc echoed those comments, saying, “If it were not for the parents who showed up in force to school board meetings to hold the members accountable, school doors would still be closed in districts most beholden to teachers unions.”
But the advent of virtual learning also provided parents with a window into the classroom, he said, and as the fight over reopening schools dissipated, the pushback moved to curricula.
The main subject of parental ire was critical race theory, which says that American institutions and culture are systemically racist and oppressive to racial minorities. The theory’s presence in public schools is often denied by liberal activists and Democratic politicians, who say it is only taught in graduate schools, despite significant evidence to the contrary.