Parents Push Back for Their Children: Education Issue Key to Youngkin’s Victory in Virginia

Parental movement has spread throughout the country, as parents awaken to their rights and responsibilities for the education of their children.

Patti Hidalgo Menders addresses members of the Loudoun County Public Schools board Oct. 12 in Ashburn, Virginia. Concerned parents clashed with board members over critical race theory and gender ideology being included in their children’s school curriculum, as well as COVID-19 mandates. Underdog Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin tapped into that frustration to defeat Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Election Day, Nov. 2.
Patti Hidalgo Menders addresses members of the Loudoun County Public Schools board Oct. 12 in Ashburn, Virginia. Concerned parents clashed with board members over critical race theory and gender ideology being included in their children’s school curriculum, as well as COVID-19 mandates. Underdog Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin tapped into that frustration to defeat Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Election Day, Nov. 2. (photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty Images)

LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va. — Parents in Virginia weren’t thinking about starting a movement when they went to school board meetings to push for the reopening of their children’s classrooms after the COVID-19 lockdowns.

But as they lobbied for in-person learning, they learned more about what their children were being taught and started asking questions, rousing other parents to action and drawing the attention of Glenn Youngkin, a political outsider.

Youngkin, a Republican who won the governor’s race Nov. 2, let parents know that he was behind them as they challenged their local boards of education over curriculum content and the reopening of schools following the COVID lockdowns. 

After his opponent Terry McAuliffe declared in a Sept. 28 debate that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what they should teach, Youngkin said, “This ceased to be a campaign, and it started to be a movement led by parents.” 

That movement is being credited with Youngkin’s upset defeat of Democratic candidate McAuliffe, but it has spread throughout the country, as parents awaken to their rights and responsibilities for the education of their children. 

“The simple reason Youngkin won is that he reminded parents that they, not the government, are in control of their children,” pro-life advocate Abby Johnson tweeted on Nov. 3. 

Although Youngkin goes to a nondenominational Christian church with Anglican roots, his message echoes the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching that “parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2233). 

This means, as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins wrote in a post-election column, that parents are not just caretakers for the state. 

“They are the men and women entrusted by God with the nurturing — physical, mental and spiritual — of the little ones they raise,” Perkins said. That’s why public schools are designed to serve families, not the other way around.” 

McAuliffe and others like him, Perkins continued, “believe mothers and fathers — and just about everyone else — should be quiet and do what we’re told.” 

Once galvanized, however, Virginians who showed up at school board meetings across the state were anything but quiet and compliant. Among them was Brandon Michon, a father of four, who drew national attention when a video of him calling Loudoun County school board members “a bunch of cowards hiding behind our children” went viral in January. The next morning, he received a call from Youngkin thanking him for standing up for children.

Michon had moved his family to Loudoun County, considered the most affluent in the nation, from New York City, where schools had been closed because of COVID, in hopes of getting his children back in the classroom. He had thought Loudoun, where he and his wife had gone to school, was offering a hybrid model with in-person or online options, but the first option never was presented.  

Patti Hidalgo Menders, whose youngest son attends Loudoun County schools, also began going to board of education meetings to find out why in-person classes weren’t resuming. 

“We saw public schools in other states opening, private and Catholic schools opening, but we were still shut down.” 


Ideological Indoctrination

As Michon, Menders and other parents continued to press for reopening schools, they discovered more reasons for concern, chiefly that their children were being indoctrinated in race and gender ideology, often at the expense of basic instruction in math, science, English and history. 

“Parents are waking up and seeing that these are not our values,” Yael Levin said. Levin, who has two sons in Virginia’s Hanover County public schools, saw similar problems there.  “We don’t expect every teacher to cater to every parent, but there are certain things the schools are responsible for — that kids learn to read, write and so on — and they weren’t doing that.” 

Yet, when parents in Loudoun County began to complain about the politically correct education their children were receiving, Menders said she and others faced reprisals from a private Facebook group called “Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County,” which sought to expose them and suppress their efforts. Started by teachers and former teachers, the group also included six school board members who are now the focus of a recall campaign. 

Levin said teachers’ unions and consultants like to talk about the “achievement gap,” which they blame on racism, but she believes that if they were interested in closing that gap, they would be using one-on-one or small-group instruction to help kids who are falling behind catch up. “Instead of that,” she said, “they’re using diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which have nothing to do with math, reading and science. … They’re more focused on social justice than actual instruction. There’s no real desire to close the achievement gap. If there was, it would have been done already.”

Youngkin addressed this during his campaign, Levin said, as did Winsome Sears, who became the state’s first female and Black lieutenant governor, and Jason Miyares, who was elected Virginia’s first Latino attorney general. “They did a great job of making sure parents know they matter without giving the impression that they can dictate every aspect of public education.” 


‘It’s About Our Kids’

Levin said, regardless of the election outcome, she would have continued to be involved in public-education policy, but she thinks the Virginia results gave a boost to other parents who are fighting for their children, showing them that their voices are being heard. 

“I think it’s going to encourage people to get more and more involved. It’s not just Virginia, though the state is a bellwether for the entire country.” Indeed, during an Oct. 29 campaign appearance for McAuliffe, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “What happens in Virginia will in large part determine what happens in 2022, 2024 and on.”

Like Levin, Michon said that, had the election turned out differently, it would not have affected his determination to show up at school board meetings. 

“I’m a parent today and tomorrow, regardless of who’s elected,” he said. “It has zero to do with a Republican or Democrat in office. It has to do with me caring.” COVID, Michon continued, awakened parents to what has been going on in their schools and to their responsibility to see that their children’s best interests are being served. “It is not the government’s job to tell us this is the only way,” he told the Register. “Families do and should have a say in the education of their children.”

What happened in her state, Levin said, united parents across political, racial and religious lines. 

“That has been the most positive and amazing part of it,” she said. “I’m Jewish, and I’ve found that it doesn’t matter what religion you are. We have Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu parents. Everyone wants to make sure their kids are getting what they need and not being indoctrinated. We have people from all political parties — a lot of conservatives, Democrats and liberals. It’s a uniting topic because everyone wants the best for their children. 

“The key takeaway from this election is that it’s not about race, religion or politics. It’s about our kids, and kids are an extension of what the future of the country is going to look like.”  


Black Father’s Perspective

Paul Lott concurred. The founder and president of the National Society for the Advancement of Black Americans and a father of 10 whose younger children attend Loudoun County schools, Lott said the issue of parental rights was key in the election and that Youngkin, by listening to people, tapped into a movement started by parents. 

He said, “His election is just a reflection of an organic movement that is sweeping the country, and it’s going to continue.” 

Sanford Horn, a writer and educator who has run for public office in Virginia, said he believes the issues of education that arose in the state’s gubernatorial campaign will carry into the 2022 midterm elections. 

“I think Glenn Youngkin’s campaign and the success of that campaign will be a blueprint for the future because the failed campaign of the Democrats has been the same old, same old,” he said.

Meg Kilgannon, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council who was working on education issues well before the current movement erupted, said she fully expects parents to stay mobilized after the Nov. 2 election. “I think part of that is going to be over COVID and mask and vaccine mandates. It’s going to keep people very upset, and rightly so.” 

But she said politicians who have focused their education policy on school choice are going to have to go beyond that and recognize it is not the only solution to the problems and challenges in public schools. 

“We need to roll up our sleeves and examine what exactly is being taught and why,” said Kilgannon. “How much content is overly sexualized, overly political, and why aren’t children doing well on assessments? Why are children graduating from high school who can’t read? These are basic questions, and they demand answers.” 


Remaining Engaged

Mary Rice Hasson, a Virginia resident and the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said although the Nov. 2 election was an indication parents had had enough with progressive policies, she questions whether it will change what is already in place in many schools. 

It is good, she said, that Youngkin cares deeply about parental rights and schools being focused on education, not ideology. 

“But as soon as you start to undo or turn around bad policies that already are in place, you’re going to generate significant backlash,” Hasson said. “People need to be clear-eyed about the fact that, to ensure long-lasting change, it is going to take a whole lot more than showing up at school board meetings.”  

For example, she said, although Youngkin has pledged to remove critical race theory from schools, much of what undergirds it, as is the case with gender ideology, doesn’t necessarily show up under that label, but finds its way into classrooms through teacher training, the professional development industry and schools of education. 

Hasson said, “You can have teachers of goodwill who are marinating in this stuff in professional education. … The issue is a lot more complicated than saying, ‘You can’t teach that.’ It’s like locking the door, but there are cracks in the foundation. Ideology seeps in and poisons the air.”

Still, Hasson said, the impact of Youngkin’s election is significant, and the other silver lining is that parents have awakened and reclaimed responsibility for their children’s education. She said she hopes this will spawn a strengthening of the parents’ rights movement so that parents will take back the authority they have over all aspects of their children’s lives, not just education.

“This is not just about what they’re learning in school,” she said. “It’s about your kid’s life, social media, who your pediatrician is, what your child’s peer circle is like. Parents need to get back in the game here. I think parents have realized nobody loves their child like they do, and they are best suited to judge the kind of information and formation their kids need.”

“For too long, parents have assumed everything was fine,” Hasson added. “… We need to be confident that we know what’s best for our kids and have the courage to act accordingly.”