Terry McAuliffe, the once and (possibly) future governor of Virginia, said something during a campaign debate last week that surprised many of us who thought we couldn’t be surprised anymore by American politics: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Now, in America, States and specific locales run schools. The Constitution gives the Federal government no authority over education (despite Jimmy Carter’s creation of a Department of Education, which spends almost a quarter trillion dollars annually).
You could argue that parents and other voters in a given jurisdiction have already expressed their preferences by selecting mayors, school boards, etc. But as in any democratic context, that doesn’t mean those authorities then exist in a realm beyond criticism – or even removal – if parents who are voters and taxpayers are outraged by their performance.
Catholic Social Teaching also maintains that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 2223) McAuliffe graduated from Bishop Ludden High School in Syracuse N.Y., the Catholic University of America, and the Georgetown Law Center. But, it appears, he remains untouched by that principle.
He wasn’t really speaking of American practice or Catholic principle in the recent debate. He was trying to signal to several progressive constituencies that he’s with them. The politics of the schools in Virginia have become so toxic lately that explosions were inevitable. And he’s made clear which side he’s on.
Two issues in particular have given rise to heated – almost insurrectionary – Virginia school board meetings in recent months. First, an entirely Democrat board in Fairfax Virginia (where this column is being written) has been vigorously promoting Critical Race Theory (CRT). Not exploring, not debating, promoting.
It went so far as to pay $20,000 to Ibram X. Kendi, one of CRT’s architects, for a mere 45-minute Zoom lecture followed by 15 minutes of questions. Over $300 a minute as critics pointed out – while schools constantly plead poverty. Kendi is famous for arguing that past discrimination against blacks can only be remedied by present discrimination against whites, a stance he and others call “anti-racism.”
No surprise, then, that parents, including some black parents, were furious about this reverse racism masquerading as justice, and schools teaching children that they are “racist” merely because they are white.
More recently, controversy broke out over two books – Lawn Boy and Gender Queer – that portray sexually explicit “homoerotic” acts, one showing a boy about to fellate an older man. The Fairfax board temporarily removed the books from school libraries and appointed a committee to study whether the material is “pornographic.” The politics may force the committee to do the right thing, but today’s librarians are not the bluenoses of yesteryear. The American Library Association “honored” both books as having “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” (Is 12 “young adult” now for sexual purposes?)
Democratic politics is a process by which we debate how to order our lives together. As such, it demands a commitment to certain basic principles, not least that we respect the opinions of others even as we try to live with one another. And that means often not pushing conflicts into public spaces, where live-and-let-live then becomes impossible.
For all the talk these days of “diversity,” the term does not really mean tolerating the widest possible range of people. It more typically means privileging favored liberal groups – gays, trans, “people of color” – even if impartiality has to be discarded to do so. The most radical division, of course, is between the roughly half the nation that still follows Christian precepts and the half who see those precepts, in varying ways, as biased and even as hate speech.
Still, any sane person can see that racism – including reverse racism – and homoerotic pornography – like heterosexual pornography – are outside of true civic dialogue, however politically correct they may be in how they present themselves. It’s best to keep them out of the state’s hands – just as we don’t want the nightmare of the state teaching religion.
McAuliffe was appealing to those constituencies who want the current emphasis on CRT and LGBTQ interests to prevail in schools. Parents who oppose this imposition are not trying to tell schools “what they should teach.” That’s a red herring. Parents know quite well – it’s why they send their children to government schools – that teachers there know better than they do themselves how to teach students at various grade levels about mathematics, science, geography, reading and writing, and many other subjects. That’s their prerogative.
The protest stems from their teaching a reverse racism instead of the older American ideal of equality before the law. And, at an even more fundamental level, it arises from not just a discussion of current sexual mores, but a deliberate challenge to religious traditions.
I don’t know if the recent parents’ rebellion will succeed. Terry McAuliffe is clearly betting that it won’t. He signaled the other day to progressive school boards, teachers, diversity consultants, and media that he’s their guy, not his opponent, Glenn Youngkin.
If he prevails, it will be the parents’ fault. Over two decades ago, my own two oldest children were in a Fairfax high school. The county began a sex-ed program that was objectionable – but parents could opt out. We did. But in an area of the country with a highly educated and politically engaged population, and many conservatives as well as liberals, only two students opted out: my daughter and the son of one of Chuck Colson’s vice presidents at Prison Fellowship. Most parents, I’m afraid, just want their kids to fit in.
The stakes are even higher now and parents are motivated in several states. But the rebellion will have to become orders of magnitude larger to succeed. If you’re still sending your kids to state-run schools, for whatever reason, either get them out or get involved. If you don’t, you can’t complain that the sexual revolutionaries, anti-racist consultants, and other radicals are ruining our children and our lives.
*Image: In the USSR There Are Many New Schools, In the USA Schools Are Getting Closed All the Time, c. 1950-59 [Soviet propaganda poster. Obviously.]
David G. Bonagura Jr.’s Catholic Schools and the Woke Revolution 
Kristina Johannes’ School Choice as Socal Justice