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Earlier this month, Democrats lost unified control of Virginia state government to Glenn Youngkin, a mild-mannered, sweater vest-wearing Republican who loves to talk about schools. Leading up to the election, education was consistently ranked as one of the most important issues to Virginia voters. The Youngkin campaign addressed education by constantly denouncing critical race theory, which some, including Terry McAuliffe, called a “racist dog whistle.” Critical race theory, though, is not being taught in Virginia. Or in any other public school. And in other policy areas related to education and children, McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats have specific plans and superior records. 

Take a look at Glenn Youngkin’s education platform. Prior to his victory, his campaign website offered a page titled “Restore Excellence in Education” — it has since been removed. The section had seven sentences. One of them reiterated Youngkin’s desire to ban critical race theory, which — again — is not being taught in Virginia schools. The others included keeping schools open five days a week as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, getting students ready for college, expanding charter schools and increasing funding for special education and teachers. Virginia schools are legally obligated to offer in-person education, per a law passed by the Democratic state government last summer. Preparing students for college is an admittedly noble goal (if vague), and it is facilitated by the easy access to community college provided by the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” program passed by the Democratic-controlled state government last year. This program makes community college free for middle-income students looking to work jobs in high demand. And, of course, there is increasing school funding, something McAuliffe also supports and actually did when he was governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018. Youngkin’s education plans, when not devoid of detail, address issues McAuliffe and Virginia Democrats have been working on for years.

Youngkin’s more expansive plan, found in a press release that has since been removed from his website, was slightly less vague. It included another bullet point about critical race theory, along with more vague goals, like “equip our students to be the top-performing students in the country.” Notably, neither his press release nor his campaign website say how he intends to accomplish any of these goals. Youngkin’s most specific points pertain to school accreditation standards, something McAuliffe adjusted as governor to deemphasize standardized testing. McAuliffe’s actions were bipartisan and stemmed from opposition to high-stakes standardized testing by teacher and parent groups. Youngkin’s plan also includes a promise to “ensure schools are never again closed unnecessarily for extended periods of time,” likely a reference to school closures last year, which were necessary to combat COVID-19. Beyond once again offering vague goals, Youngkin’s full education platform solely focuses on critiquing McAuliffe and incumbent Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s records, even when their records consist of bipartisan action or life-saving pandemic responses.  

McAuliffe’s education platform, found in a six-page document linked to his campaign website, emphasizes not only his past work on education and issues in need of a solution, but actual solutions. McAuliffe planned to address teacher shortages, something plaguing Ann Arbor as well as Virginia, by raising teacher salaries above the national average. He planned to include 3-year-olds in Virginia’s subsidized pre-K program. He planned to expand existing workforce training programs to allow Virginia students to immediately enter the workforce upon graduating high school. In addressing race, McAuliffe argued in favor not of teaching critical race theory, but of better integrating schools and addressing gaps in funding correlated with majority-minority schools. McAuliffe identifies real problems and proposes reasonable ways to address them.

Crucially, McAuliffe is not unique in his support for effective education plans. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a $17.1 billion education budget plan last summer. It contained provisions to close funding gaps between Michigan schools, along with an expansion of state preschool programs. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $123.9 billion education package, looking to increase school presence in communities and bolster special education programs, along with expanding access to preschool. Democrats are not simply campaigning on education policies, they are actively passing legislation to strengthen schools.  

Democrats’ education efforts don’t stop at the state level. The Build Back Better bill being negotiated among Congressional Democrats funds universal pre-K, something McAuliffe, Whitmer and Newsom included in their proposals. The infrastructure bill passed earlier this month invests millions in increasing access to the internet, something crucial to education even with in-person classes and which less affluent communities often lack. The American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year invested billions directly into local school districts. Again, it is Democrats taking steps to give schools the resources they need. Moreso, if children are the topic of conversation, issues beyond education are relevant. The Build Back Better agenda heavily invests in fighting climate change, looks to directly reduce child poverty through the expanded Child Tax Credit and plans to increase access to quality child care. 

Notably, the term “critical race theory” appears in just one of these policy proposals: Glenn Youngkin’s. The critical race theory argument at the center of not just the Virginia election but the national discourse on education is an effective distraction from substantive Democratic proposals. For Republicans, that distraction is a necessary political tactic because it’s Democrats that have the record, the vision and the desire to fight for schools, not them. Youngkin’s plans, when not centered on critical race theory, set poorly defined goals or address problems that Democrats have already remedied or have put in place policies to remedy in the future. Democrats at the federal and state level have and want to continue to take concrete action to increase the quality of education. The issue of voters not recognizing Democratic efforts in education is a messaging error, rooted in unclear campaign strategies and policy advocacy. However, Democrats can improve on by campaigning on simple, popular ideas, like universal pre-K. With critical race theory likely to remain a prominent issue entering the 2022 midterm elections, it is crucial to highlight all areas of an issue as important as education, particularly when the right answers to many of them are dominated by liberal policy. 

Quin Zapoli is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at