Oversimplification of Virginia election results could hinder student learning

Written by Derek Monson

November 10, 2021

The reaction to Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election is an example of the tendency among political parties, activists and the media to oversimplify the interpretation of an election into a basic political narrative. Recognizing this and seeing the contrast with the more nuanced political reality has important implications for public policies such as curriculum transparency in public schools.

That a political party, advocacy organization or news organization would oversimplify the interpretation of election results to spin a narrative should come as no surprise. It is exactly what they are incentivized to do.

Partisans’ and activists’ incentive for oversimplification of an electoral narrative lies in the fact that telling a simple narrative in email campaigns and donor pitches allows them to continue raising money –

whether they are on the winning or the losing side – and builds momentum for their agenda. News media’s incentive for an oversimplified electoral narrative lies in the lure of writing eye-grabbing headlines and news articles that sell clicks and subscriptions. Whatever your role in our political system, it is easier to raise money and get attention when you have a simple narrative to tell, even if the reality is more complex.

The interpretation of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s election in Virginia has revolved around a narrative that his success was about channeling parents’ anger around public education. One mainstream news source, for instance, framed Youngkin’s success like this:

[Youngkin] drew raucous crowds in the closing stages of the race by channeling conservative outrage over public education. Many supporters said they were enthusiastic about his defense of parents who are concerned about the way race is taught in school, as well as new protections for transgender students passed by the Virginia legislature.

Youngkin drew large crowds across Virginia who cheered loudest for his calls to ban “critical race theory” while he evoked a dire picture of classrooms where students are classified by race, seeming to reference equity programs launched by some school districts to address long-standing systemic racism in education.

In this interpretation of Virginia’s election, Youngkin’s victory was solely about voicing parental anger about various controversial issues in public schools – a clear victory for the political right and the political right only. This has the side effect of focusing on the most sensational elements of Youngkin’s campaign and platform, which feeds right into the kind of narrative-spinning that raises money for parties and activists on all sides and generates clicks on articles about the campaign.

But the reality is more nuanced and complex. Youngkin’s “day one game plan” – posted on his campaign website and capturing the breadth of what he campaigned on – includes a section titled “Restore Excellence in Education.” The bullet points for his education platform include:

  • Keeping Schools Open Safely Five Days a Week
  • Restoring High Expectations & Getting Every Student College or Career Ready
  • Ridding Political Agendas from the Classroom by Banning Critical Race Theory
  • Rebuilding Crumbling Schools, Raising Teacher Pay, & Investing in Special Education Programs
  • Creating at least 20 New Innovation Charter Schools across the K-12 Spectrum to Provide Choice

Clearly there are various policy points in Youngkin’s platform geared around the present concerns of parents. However, those elements are mixed with other points geared toward the interests and needs of teachers – raising teacher pay and investing in special education, for example.

In other words, the political reality is that Youngkin’s victory was based on an education platform that mixed parents’ concerns with teachers’ interests. In a Virginia election where the margin of victory was roughly 60,000 votes out of more than 3 million cast, there isn’t a strong case for the oversimplified narrative that only one side of that policy platform was the reason Youngkin won. In fact, the strongest interpretation of Youngkin’s victory is that he won because he built a platform that combined addressing parents’ concerns and supporting teachers.

The relevance of this oversimplification of the Virginia election for policies like curriculum transparency has already begun to pop up. One supporter of curriculum transparency recently wrote: “Tuesday’s shock election results in Virginia have sent a message to lawmakers around the country: stand with parents on educational freedom and curriculum accountability, or get ready for retirement.”

On the one hand, this transparency advocate has an important point. Parents right now are desiring more transparency and influence over their child’s taxpayer-funded education. Policymakers who flat-out oppose that, as Youngkin’s opponent did, are likely to face electoral consequences.

However, parents are only one side of an effective curriculum transparency policy. A partnership between a parent and a teacher is what leads to successful education for a student, and curriculum transparency done right builds the parent-teacher partnership.

Curriculum transparency policies are not a battle of extremes – supporting the interests of parents at the expense of teachers or supporting teachers over parents. Curriculum transparency is a tool for a parent (or other adult mentor) to engage in a child’s education as well as an opportunity for a teacher to be relieved of administrative burdens and gain feedback about how best to teach their students.

Both are essential for successful student learning. Putting either parents or teachers in a position of secondary importance – as the oversimplification of the Virginia gubernatorial election encourages – lessens student learning. If we recognize the more complex realities, Utah can do curriculum transparency right and build the parent-teacher partnership.

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