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Terry McAuliffe Understands Our Schools

We handed education and child-rearing over to the state a while ago. Terry McAuliffe was just the latest to endorse it out loud.

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Thus spake Terry McAuliffe, Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, in a moment of rare political candor during Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate. The former governor and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman went on to clarify that he’s “not going to let parents come into schools, and actually take books out, and make their own decision,” because that would just be too much for the man to whom Bill Kristol is the “leading conservative in America.”

Of course, the usual round of conservative Twitter types and websites issued their takedowns of the comment, and of course McAuliffe didn’t change course, but the whole hubbub was one of those atypical moments when politics actually gets close to the heart of a major question, and it merits consideration. Why does it really matter that parents have a say in their child’s education, beyond mere prevention of indoctrination by way of critical race theory? Why was this one line so striking?

An honest glance at recent history suggests what McAuliffe is promoting is not avant garde at all, if still inherently radical. Parents have been handing over the reins—excuse me, the whips—for their children’s education and even upbringing for decades, since the creation of the Department of Education told them in a soft, bureaucratic whisper, “We’ll take it from here.” While nannies and tutors are hardly modern, the total subject matter and orientation of a child’s rearing and reading has never been so divorced from the parents and never so willing to flaunt its stateside adultery as in the 21st century. Conservatives were just shocked because McAuliffe actually said it out loud.

We saw a flashpoint in the fight against Common Core curriculum, and again with critical race theory, as parents fought and discovered in desperation how little control they still held over their child’s education. But after each battle, the majority of parents exhaled and went back to work, assuming these big-name issues were lone wolves rather than Trojan horses. Parents have let their children slouch toward an arrangement in which they receive more from the public school system than from themselves—from lunchtime meals, transportation to and from school, and extended childcare before and after hours, to the very structure of the system which can take children from the home at the age of two. They’re never too young to start.

Parents really aren’t involved much at all. Sure, they attend the school functions (though in Fairfax County, Virginia, unvaccinated parents cannot). They certainly send plenty of emails to their child’s teachers, as my friends and family members working in the public school system attest, but these often focus on means, not ends—whether a certain grade was appropriate, if the student should be considered for special education allowances, or making sure the requirements of an assignment are clear. Concerns about pedagogy and purpose are few and far between. But this late in the game, even the parents who want to be involved are barred entry, as Terry says they should be.

The political question is important, because the answer is the difference between a populace that believes in family and one that does not. But that’s just the “who”; the “what” which it determines is whether the children will learn of things like beauty and heroism, or if they will be taught to read all history in terms of personal persecutions and sexuality.

So yes, the assertion that parents should be excommunicated from the schoolroom was outrageous—but it has been flaunting itself under every spreading tree for a while now. What’s really outrageous is that it took Terry McAuliffe to alert us, when it may now be too late.

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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