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Commentary By Nora Kenney, Michael Hartney

Virginia Showed That Parents Won’t Put Up with Being Ignored by School Boards

Education Pre K-12

School boards nationwide work hard to thwart the wishes of the parents they serve.

Loose lips sink ships, and the moment that sunk Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign in the state of Virginia will probaby haunt him for years to come. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe explained during a debate one fateful September evening. And even though “everyone clapped,” apparently, in response to the comment, the damage was done. McAuliffe had just handed his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, what political reporter Emily Brooks called “a campaign ad on a silver platter.”

In response to viral incidents and flashpoint sound bites such as this one, it’s prudent to step back and evaluate whether the firestorm actually fits the crime. Often it doesn’t, but the reality is that, in this situation, far from being a simple slip of the tongue, McAuliffe’s statement understates an administrative attitude that too often drives the thinking of local elected officials and education bureaucrats.

Just how common is it for school-board officials to flout the concerns of the parents and communities they’re elected to represent? Whether the issue pertains to polarizing curricula or public-health interventions for COVID-19 (such as mask-wearing and vaccination mandates), the tensions of the last few months suggest a depressing answer: common. But experimental research from one of us (Michael Hartney) offers empirical evidence that a lack of responsiveness to parent concerns is a longstanding issue in American education.

In a forthcoming book, Hartney builds on previous findings demonstrating that when school-board members were informed that parents strongly supported making teachers’ value-added test-score data public, board members did not change their views to align with their parent constituents. Instead, when board members were presented with survey data showing that school employees opposed this form of transparency, board members fell in line with the position of their district’s employees. These patterns were even more pronounced in districts where teachers’ unions were highly active in board politics.

The fact that board members are often unresponsive to the preferences of the parents whom they represent raises fundamental questions about the health of democracy in education today. In fact, surveys of school-board members typically reveal that elected board members regard teachers’ unions as the most active and influential group in district politics. It’s little wonder that there’s often a breakdown in democratic responsiveness and accountability to other constituency groups — such as parents — who are not as well funded or organized.

In light of these realities, McAuliffe’s comment about denying parents the ability to intervene in what their children learn is salt in a longstanding wound — or at least that’s how voters in Virginia last week seemed to feel. In an exit poll, more than half of Virginia voters answered “a lot” when asked how much say parents should have in what their children’s schools taught. Such results speak volumes.

For now, the ability of parents in Old Dominion to have a say on educational decisions about their children’s schools may be shifting: In a historic flip of the state’s gubernatorial office from blue to red, Virginia voters see in governor-elect Youngkin a figure who capitalized on recent school-board controversies and turned support for parental voices into a signature issue. But what of the finding that school boards care little for what parents actually have to say? Don’t they suggest that Youngkin’s win is only a temporary, regional fix to a broader, systemic problem?

There are many mechanisms by which state and local officials can shore up democratic processes and amplify parental voices in education. One worthy (and underappreciated) idea is to move school-board elections “on-cycle,” so that they concur with regular state and federal elections, instead of taking place in the political off-season, as we saw this week. A recent issue brief that one of us authored for the Manhattan Institute demonstrates that moving school-board elections “on-cycle” is the single most effective way to improve voter turnout — more so even than all the provisions in HR1 combined. At the same time, it’s an idea that promotes localism and enjoys across-the-board bipartisan support.

Although it is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the extent to which education issues drove Virginia voters to the Republican camp on Tuesday, one interesting pattern from across the commonwealth stands out. The timing of school-board elections in Virginia appears to have correlated with voting patterns in the gubernatorial race. Specifically, Youngkin over-performed (relative to Trump) in counties and cities where school-board elections were not on the ballot this past Tuesday. One counterintuitive explanation for this pattern is that voters may have indirectly channeled their attitudes about education issues into the gubernatorial contest when they had no direct or tangible way to send a signal to their local school officials at the ballot box.

While much number crunching remains to be done to tease out all the details concerning what went wrong for McAuliffe on Tuesday, one lesson looms large. As former Obama aide Stephanie Cutter noted on a post-mortem election segment on MSNBC on Wednesday, “the one thing that [Democrats] need to make sure of is that Republicans in 2022 don’t become the party of parents.”


Michael Hartney is an assistant professor at Boston College and the author of the recent issue brief “Revitalizing Local Democracy: The Case for On-Cycle Local Elections.” Nora Kenney is the deputy director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.

This piece originally appeared in National Review Online