November 23, 2021

Student Voice…And Good News On Pensions? More…

Coming attractions: I’m hosting a Twitter discussion for the WISE Education Summit next Tuesday morning. Twitter may not be a real place, pace Dave Chappelle, but I’ll be there.

How are kids doing anyway? Well, ask them.

On academics, though, they may not be doing so well. This new analysis of learning loss is sobering. It didn’t get a lot of attention in the after action discussion about the Virginia election but student test scores went off a cliff in Virginia. Parents were concerned. But that concern was largely minimized. The election didn’t turn on that, of course, but it was probably part of the background noise.

And here’s some student voice on high school sports with some interesting findings. That’s via the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. Our frame on sports is very much about playing sports rather than sports as something you do. Europeans will ask, “what sport do you do?”It’s more than semantics, something you play versus do signals a different relationship with being active and moving doesn’t it?

Parkland was preventable. Multiple, preventable, failures in the schools and more generally.

Could some teacher pensions find themselves in a liquidity crunch? But wait, good news! Teachers don’t seem that concerned about any of this. If you missed it or are concerned, we ranked teacher retirement plans earlier in the fall. There is some good news in the rankings.

Forever Young.

November 19, 2021

November 18, 2021

Is It Too Late On Recovery Dollars? Plus,Times Tanks Loudoun, Ed Finance, And Assessment Access…

States and school districts don’t do a great job communicating about, or even being transparent about, student assessments. A cynic might say that’s by design. Recovering psychometrician and Bellwether analyst Michelle Croft on the parent side of that.

In last week’s fish porn post, I was remiss in not pointing out that if things like Alaska make you smile, then you might like Filson. I’ve had a relationship with them for some time, the gear is great and the clothes durable and functional. Some products available via Amazon for faster shipping.

One line of thought is that education reformers are not very good at doing politics. Probably something to that. But a slightly different line of thought that doesn’t get as much airtime might be that reformers are not good at sustaining politics. And the latter is a different skill set. There have been some wins. Then, advocates move on, funders change or “refresh” strategy or decide “mission accomplished,” the media loses interest. Meanwhile, opponents of reform are still there – and still funded. Denver has some of these elements and Parker Baxter and Alan Gottlieb take a look at the trajectory through the last election. 

In his Times op-ed chiding the Biden Administration on inflation, Steven Rattner concludes,

The White House needs to inject some real fiscal discipline into its thinking. Given the importance of Mr. Biden’s spending initiatives, the right move would be to add significant revenue sources. Yes, that means tax increases. We can’t get back money badly spent. But we can build this economic plan back better.

In the case of education is “we can’t get back money badly spent” absolutely true? There is a lot of pandemic relief money still unspent in the pipeline. Remember, about $200 billion went to schools since March 2020, much of it on the assumption that like the last downturn budgets would crater. In fact, states mostly weathered the pandemic OK fiscally. You can’t get this money back per se, but through collective action, incentives, state leadership, and other steps  there is an opportunity to use it more constructively than essentially leaving it on a stump under cover of night, which is how the spending bills were largely constructed. In other words, the badly part is not yet fait accompli.

On finance, here’s Bellwether’s Alex Spurrier writing for AASA:

Here’s BW’s Bonnie O’Keefe talking with TN’s Erika Berry about finance and the recent Bellwether Splitting The Bill analysis.

If you want more Alex here he is in today’s CT Post on the inequity of school boundaries.

New York Times dives into Loudoun County, but not the deep end. A lot of it is blow by blow on stuff that’s already public record, but it reads like a narrative confirming or prophylactic effort by local folks and one that won’t age well on a few dimensions. A few things I was surprised it did not get into more.

First, there is a history of racism in Loudoun County schools, and not only a 1950s kind of recent history, the district was not out of line to apologize for that. There is also plenty of data around this. The Times had a few anecdotes and seems to assume racism is self-evident to everyone, always, but there is a lot more there to paint a picture that makes some of what the district is trying to do, however illiberal, clumsy, etc…more understandable.

Second, if you’re going to use former school board member Beth Barts as a source, you’ve also got to look at things like the secret Facebook group targeting dissenting parents, threats of doxing, and issues like that. There was a lot going on around LCPS… And not a few Loudoun parents were like, “I’m not on board with the anti-“CRT” stuff but what I also don’t like is any kind of targeting of dissent and the anti-anti-CRT stuff is bad news, too.” Barts resigned in the face of both public and formal scrutiny.

Third, the school district administration did apologize for mishandling the sexual assault issue – and the same student is accused of re-offending at their new school a few months later. None of that context was shared with readers and that’s all public record and readers might view that episode differently with more context. This article has the most charitable gloss you can put on that whole situation via some omission.

Also, are we really debating now whether it’s the “Norman Conquest” or the “Norman invasion?”

In other Loudoun news, the district settled a lawsuit with a teacher who was punished for speaking against the county’s proposed policy on transgender students. Not surprisingly, the teacher won. A second suit, about whether teachers have to follow the policy is ongoing and has larger implications.

Is the choice really time off for teachers or student learning? Seems like we can accomplish both? I am all for more schedule flexibility for teachers, but what school districts are doing now with short notice shut downs and random mental health days is just further antagonizing parents. Which, given the mood, is remarkably ill-considered.

“Parents are frustrated because of our lousy virtual option and the slow return to live instruction.”

“Oh I have an idea, random unpredictable days off…”


November 12, 2021

Friday Fish Porn. Or, If You Prefer, Pics!

We need to talk about Friday Fish Porn.

“No thanks,” you say.

Well, hang on. As emails have become more of a popular way to get the blog and content blockers more of an issue, the few emails I used to get like this have become more common,

“Just a note that educators prefer not to get emails with the word “porn” in the subject. Can you please rename?”


“My school email filters out emails with “porn” in the subject.”


“I can’t get an email with “porn” in the subject in my school email”

In general, if someone sends a picture with kids, it’s a Friday Fish Pic. I’m into basic social decorum. If it’s an adult it’s Friday Fish Porn, we’re all adults and I assume most people are fine with it the same way we’re into cabin porn, bike porn, food porn, or whatever else. It’s, you know, not literal porn though that’s fine, too, if it’s your thing but you’re on the wrong site.*

Sometimes someone sends me one with a kid and specifically says they want it under “fish porn” and I’ll oblige that, too. I’m also customer service oriented and long time readers dig fish porn, there is a certain odd cachet to it. And it takes a lot of different fish to make an interesting aquarium, so to speak. To each their own.

Anyway, if you’ve wondered about how the fish sausage gets made, now you know.

But, going forward, the email version will always be Friday Fish Pics to avoid the filter problem and respond to that issue and the complaints/concerned/sometimes funny notes I get about it. And, seriously, apologies to anyone for whom this has been more than an inconvenience. I will talk to HR and take the blame if it helps.

Here, on the blog, we’ll do Friday Fish Porn or Pics as appropriate. So the change is newsletter only. And I’ll of course forget at some point and mix it up so please be gentle. But that’s the change going forward. What’s not changing is all the great pics. Because fishing is really ****ing fun (see, I’m trainable and am trying to oblige the content blockers) and we all spend too much time indoors disconnected from nature.

Now for today’s great fish pics: Dana Chambers is a project director for WestEd. The Chambers family fishes – and please note the smiles. You really cannot go wrong taking a kid fishing. Depending on where you are on the East Coast those are Rockfish or Striped Bass. Or Stripahs. We’ve had some other stripers through and of course this classic stripah. They are a hoot to catch, fantastic on the plate, and a great conservation story. More striper pics soon, fall is a great time to target them.

In this archive you will find hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. It’s a balm for our bombastic times. Send me yours!

*The number of search queries for “Alaska porn” that lead here because the words “Alaska” and “porn” will often appear in a fish porn post together is really something. Apparently that is a thing.

November 11, 2021

Why Is NAEP Flat Or Falling? With Denise Forte

NAEP scores were not good! We heard from Morgan Polikoff, Marguerite Roza, and Sandy Kress with thoughts on why. Today Denise Forte, CEO of the Education Trust weighs in:

NAEP Is Telling Us Again That It’s Past Time to Close Long-Standing Resource Gaps By Denise Forte

Those who study educational disparities know that money matters in education. And it’s not just about how much money is allocated, it’s about resource equity, that is, how effectively state and district leaders spend their funds and whether funds are distributed equitably.

From this perspective, the story behind this year’s lackluster NAEP results began nearly a decade ago. The eighthgraders whose test results were captured by NAEP’s long-term assessment were born right before the Great Recession. They started kindergarten around 2012-13 as federal relief dollars for schools dried up, impacting the very factors that are essential to ensuring a high-quality learning experience.

Consider that state preschool program access and quality declined as a result of the economic downturn and have yet to return to pre-recession trends. Also, between 2008 and 2012, the K-12 public education system lost nearly 300,000 jobs, the largest reduction in our nation’s history. Of the jobs lost, more than 120,000 belonged to elementary and secondary teachers with layoffs disproportionately affecting schools serving students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

Even when district leaders were able to reinstate classes and programs that were reduced or eliminated during the recession, there were teacher shortages, especially in math, science, and special education. It has taken years to begin rebuilding the teacher workforce. Yet, the nation still has fewer public school teachers today than it did in 2008 and remains a long way from developing a racially and culturally diverse workforce that reflects the diversity of the student population.

It’s also important to remember that while the Great Recession ushered in significant funding disparities, it only made worse those that have been in place for decades. Across the U.S., school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or Native students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color. And while courts have declared state funding formulas unlawful for shortchanging school districts serving large percentages of students from low-income backgrounds, this unfair practice continues in far too many places today.

In all, the latest NAEP results show the need for education leaders and advocates to come together to mobilize the right combination of resources to unlock high-quality learning experiences for every student. This means tackling persistent inequities in access to high-quality early childhood education, strong and diverse educators, advanced coursework, positive school climates and cultures, school funding and other essential supports provided inside and outside the classroom.

There’s no overstating the devastating impact of the pandemic on the students and families who have been systemically underserved, but there is an opportunity here. The Biden administration and Congress have stepped up and invested an unprecedented sum — a total of $190 billion to support the needs of K-12 students as part of pandemic relief.

But again, it’s not just the amount of money that matters in education, but how well state and district leaders spend funds and if those funds are distributed equitably. This federal investment is a tremendous opportunity to address the unfinished learning that students have experienced due to the pandemic, to invest in evidenced-based and effective policies and practices to support the social-emotional and academic well-being of students who are systemically underserved, and to finally close long-standing resource gaps.

While the NAEP results are sobering, we, at The Education Trust, know that progress is possible when leaders prioritize the needs of students from underserved communities. And these latest scores show advocates and policymakers alike where to make necessary investments to do just that.

November 10, 2021

What Drove Education Voters In Virginia? Plus Goldstein Goes Wild, Texeria, Jacobin, Hess, More…

This Michael Goldstein essay on evidence and education is excellent. Recommend. Also, what teachers are saying about teacher pay.

Here’s a reasonable take on the CRT in schools debate:

To be sure, voices on the political right, including Youngkin, must do better when it comes to specifying what they oppose. They, and we, would be better off if they explained that they oppose philosophies influenced by critical race theory, rather than claiming C.R.T. itself is being taught. Bills intended to ban the teaching of C.R.T.-lite shouldn’t be worded as if the intent was to ban the teaching of anything about race at all. And if that’s what any of these bills do mean, they should spell it out in clear language in order to expose that intent to debate — one within which I would be vociferously opposed, I should note. The horror of slavery, the hypocrisy of Jim Crow, the terror of lynching, the devastating loss of life and property in Tulsa and in other massacres — no student should get through, roughly, middle school ignorant of these things, and anyone who thinks that is “politics” needs to join the rest of us in the 21st century.

But the insistence that parents opposed to what is being called critical race theory are rising against a mere fantasy and simply enjoying a coded way of fostering denial about race is facile. It is an attempt to wrest a woke object lesson from the nuanced realities of life as it is actually lived, in which the notion of a white backlash against racial progress may appeal as narrative, or as analysis of an electoral upset, but rarely tracks with on-the-ground reality.

And here’s Ruy Teixeira on the election and “CRT” and the election in general. Rick Hess on the generally pretty lousy coverage of the “CRT” debate. I’m not sure how much of this was willful or just a mixture of what Teixeira calls the “Fox News fallacy” and just general lack of awareness/understanding. It’s not surprising that when some pretty obscure postmodern theories burst into the public awareness there will be confusion and they won’t emerge intact.

I did a podcast with Susan Pendergrass of Show Me to talk about a variety of things including school choice and the Virginia election.

Speaking of the election, it’s an understatement to say a few things the education sector doesn’t do well are ecological fallacies (what’s true of individuals/specific populations is not true of groups and vice versa), multiple things being true at once, and separating small factions from large sentiment while also appreciating how much small factions can drive things in politics.

That’s clear with this Axios poll about schools everyone keeps citing to show that education somehow didn’t matter much in the VA election.

The actual data tells a more complicated story. 

As we’ve discussed here, for instance before the election, right after the election, and this  74 interview, as well as this podcast, the idea that the election was all about education is overblown. The novelty of education being a top-tier issue made it more interesting than the economy and Covid also being top tier issues. When better voter data is available (in other words be skeptical of exit polls right now)  we’ll have a better sense of what happened in VA but it was probably some education, and some contingent education issues, and also  a lot of fundamentals showing up again.

And, of course, as with 2016, and 2020, 2021 in Virginia a close election gives everyone something to point to.

But a few tells – in the closing days the McAulliffe campaign focused heavily in Northern Virginia and Northern Virginia voters were more likely to say education was a big issue for them and be fired up about it. They knew they had a problem. Not surprising given the context of school reopening in the vote rich northern counties, the school board and policy drama in Fairfax and Loudoun counties as well as generalized frustration. And notably, frustration that was persisting until election day, parents in Arlington, for instance, remain exasperated with that county’s virtual options, which look like they are out of compliance with federal law on special education. In addition, the break of education voters to the Republican is not something you see all the time. The national polls don’t really reflect VA dynamics in the fall of 2021.

Anyway, short version: National voters are not Virginia voters, and multiple things can be true at once. And issues drive frames and the Dem frame on education in Virginia in 2021 was less than ideal. Sick of Virginia yet? I am and I live here.

The risk of Republicans overreaching here is real, but so is the risk of Dems wishing this all away rather than parsing what happened. But as we’ve discussed, pivoting the VA experience to the national stage is not straightforward. Finally, this Pew data on where voters are is fascinating, recommend.

And check out Jacobin’s data as, too:

 In reality, most voters hold a host of seemingly conflicting views simulta- neously —liberal on some issues, conservative on others —and the salience of any given issue varies widely. For instance, a Catholic voter could fall on the extreme left of the spectrum on economic issues, but if opposition to abortion is their most important issue, then pro-life candidates might be the most appealing overall. In the models mentioned above, we would be forced to classify this voter as a moderate who prefers centrist or even conservative candidates —yet such a conclusion does not capture the com- plexity of their political beliefs.

November 9, 2021

Odds & Ends – Multiple Culture Wars Explained, Bellwether Is Hiring, Your Next Classroom Might Be An Office? More…

More NAEP takes are coming this week. We heard from Morgan Polikoff, Marguerite Roza, and Sandy Kress. This week Ed Trust CEO Denise Forte.

Bellwether is hiring. We’re hiring for a host of roles, join our 70 person – and growing – team. All the things you’re supposed to say are actually true – flexible work environment, fun team, great benefits, and most importantly impactful work. Senior Associate Parter and Associate Partner roles on our strategy team and Senior Associate Partner and Partner roles on our policy and evaluation team. And we’re hiring a graphic designer to work across the entire organization.

The NSBA – NAGB story is nonsense. NSBA sent an ill-considered letter to the President about school board protesters. Several of their affiliates revolted, they’ve walked it back. Around conservative media NSBA President Viola Garcia’s appointment to NAGB is being cited as evidence of some sort of political logrolling or thank you play.

Really? If that’s the “thank you” then you wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of these people. What’s second place? Being a peer reviewer? NAGB is a serious board that oversees the best barometer of education performance we have. The work they do there is deliberate and not especially exciting, though it’s quite important. The NAGB nominations process is a long one with a paper trail. It seems likely the White House talked with NSBA about the letter ahead of time, that’s par for the course on these things. Tying that to the NAGB appointment seems unlikely.

Offices to Apartments Schools. People are going back to in-person work but it seems likely the pandemic will have lingering effects on commercial office space in a  lot of cities. By next year Bellwether will be almost 30 percent larger in terms of head count than pre-pandemic, but we’re shrinking our (already largely remote pre-pandemic) office space footprint because of work preferences. One impact of this trend is a conversion of office space to apartments, which is one strategy to address the affordable housing crisis in some places. It might also be a strategy to help with the affordable/available space crunch for new schools – especially charter schools. Some charters operate effectively out of former office space now. Probably a business opportunity there.

The stakes in Loudoun. There are multiple Loudoun County storylines – that’s one reason Glenn Youngkin outperformed there in the Virginia governor’s race. But one that is increasingly confused is about the rape that happened at a high school there in May, and the student who subsequently attacked a second student at a different school.

Assume the worst for a moment – and based on public records this is *not* what happened. But assume for a moment that a transgender kid attacked another kid randomly in a bathroom. Even if that were the fact pattern, it would still be an edge case. Culture warriors would have a field day but it would be an outlier because stuff like that does not happen a lot. Safe bet you’d hear about it if it did.

Instead, the reason the case is worth watching is because the district administration and board handled it terribly. They’ve been caught dissembling about the events since more than once. The superintendent apologized once already. The full story is still not known but will probably come into focus over time with lawsuits, FOIA’s, and what looks like growing journalistic attention. Whether or not the school system’s leadership decided for PR reasons and/or political sensitivities to basically try to minimize a rape in a school is a big deal no matter what ends up being the cause. And other almost any other circumstance people who otherwise identify themselves as feminists or allies would be asking questions/raising hell given that it was handled poorly enough that the attacker allegedly attacked a second student in a second school when school started up again. It really shouldn’t matter who the kid’s father is, who broke the story, who has what politics, or any of the rest of it in terms of how unacceptable this all is.

Is CRT taught in schools? Well, it’s not formally in the curriculum for the most part, that’s the big lie on the political right. I don’t even mean it’s not in the sense that they’re not teaching Derek Bell or some other technical definitional or rhetorical dodge. A lot of what people are objecting to can best be described as derivative of or informed by CRT. The big lie on the political left is the idea that what flies under the banner now of “CRT” is just teaching about history, or American slavery, or whatever. It’s not. Do the work. And this is a pretty good look at where politics intersect with training today.* A lot of people don’t like the idea that urgency or objectivity are “white” traits. That might be why even a majority of Black parents don’t want that stuff taught even as they want better more race conscious history to be taught.

In terms of schools, though, it’s an issue and it happens more like this. You teach in a county that brings in Ibram X. Kendi for the big annual pre-service training and you’re required to read Stamped. Or a district that assigns Robin DiAngelo as a required shared read before school starts. And this is the kind of thing that is being assigned. You see Lisa Delpit’s seminal Other People’s Children used much less today (first published in the 1990s it’s a good reminder a lot of this is not new), which is a shame, and certainly not things like the Fields book or really provocative stuff like Black Rednecks and White Liberals. And as far as history you are unfortunately more likely to encounter something sloppy and reductionist than say James Anderson. And then, per the usual in education, you’re not given a lot of support or curriculum and just told that racism is systemic in your county, so do something to make sure kids learn about it. So you go on Pintrest or whatever and throw something together. Maybe it’s great. Or maybe it’s not. And then some parent is upset because you told their kid that being detail oriented is a white trait or a privilege walk left first graders confused about their classmates because it was informed by a critical theory perspective and was also sort of half-baked.

There are thousands upon thousands of classrooms in any state. Doesn’t take a lot of examples to animate social media and spin people up.

And that is how you end up with a situation, like the one in Virginia, where one side says ‘this stuff isn’t in school’ and the other side says ‘no, it absolutely is’ and they’re both right and wrong at the same time. And of course a lot of conversation about “critical race theory” is not about critical race theory.

I still suspect we’ll find that while this was a factor, the VA governor race turned on other issues more. ICYMI I did an interview with The 74 about all that last week.

Alternatively, via Antonio García Martínez:

Our political factions are even more clueless about what’s going on than average citizens. In the car of society we’re all riding in, the liberals are trying to slam the brakes, the techies are flooring the gas, the conservatives are looking for a reverse gear that doesn’t exist. The most reasonable people inside that metaphorical car might just be the techies stomping on the gas. The only way through is through, and the thought we’re going to maintain physically-defined bubbles of political and moral consensus while also migrating even more into the metaverse is a delusional  belief. We might have to start thinking about a world where politics follows the disembodied digital bubbles we construct for ourselves, rather than thinking we’re going to ‘content moderate’ the digital into conforming with the politics of physical counties and states. The latter is the brake-stomping approach of the liberals and, well, how’s that going for them?
 *It’s also a line of thought that leads to things like this around policies.

November 5, 2021

Friday Fish Porn – Wallerstein Again

It’s been a heavy week, let’s end on a light note. Good stuff coming next week including another NAEP reaction contribution.

Ben Wallerstein of Whiteboard Advisors is a regular around here. Here he is with one last month, Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. C’mon….

In this one of a kind archive you will find hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. It’s a tonic to our troubled times. Send me yours!

Posted on Nov 5, 2021 @ 1:17pm

November 4, 2021

Election Reax

A little election reax.

I did an interview with The 74, it’s a 5 questions kind of deal.

Here’s Monday’s preview post:

In other words, if Democrats stop listening to the activist class* for a moment and instead just think about the mainstream position on this issue, which happily is not at odds with talking honestly about race and racism in this country, they can neutralize this issue. If they throw their lot in with an increasingly imperious and unaccountable public school establishment that’s a problem.

If an alien landed here they’d look at a Republican Party just 10 months removed from its President sanctioning the sacking of the United States Capitol and unable to come to terms with such an appalling transgression and think, ‘OK, there is no way that party is going to do well.’ But that alien has also never met the Democrats. “Spaceman, hold my beer.”

Couple of takes I’d suggest:

Fantastic Sarah Isgur analysis in Dispatch.

Zach Carter in Atlantic.

Freddie deBoer:

“Republicans only won because of racism.” Yes, it’s impossible to imagine voters rejecting the party of Andrew Cuomo and Kyrsten Sinema and Gavin Newsome for any reason other than racism, agreed. So what? Who do you think is going to come and correct that injustice for you? The only opinion that matters is that of the voters, and they think your whining about unfairness makes you look weak.

As it turns out, voters in places like Virginia didn’t like Trump, but they also didn’t like getting jerked around by school officials for months and months over the pandemic. And only one of those was on the ballot Tuesday.

Elsewhere from Seattle to Arizona to Buffalo to Minneapolis to New York City voters made clear that despite all the acrimony and partisanship, they’re kind of pragmatic. Democrats, despite electing a basically consensus-driven pragmatic centrist President of the United States a year ago have managed to make their brand pretty toxic.

In a place like Virginia this is a particularly acute problem when education is a big issue and on top of a lot of parental frustration you’ve got a prominent local school board covering up a rape (this after a lot of other issues over the past year), divisive debates about admissions to coveted magnet schools, the bottom absolutely falling out of test scores in Virginia and state and district officials dodging accountability on that, state officials teasing the idea that limiting access to advanced classes is how you achieve equity, and other stunts seemingly calculated to piss off parents. I suspect the Loudoun postmortems will be particularly brutal now that people are paying attention.

And of course the ever evolving definitional debate about teaching CRT. Weirdly, I think both sides know CRT is not literally taught in schools in Virginia on a regular basis. And both sides know that CRT-derived concepts sometimes are. Entire school systems assigning Kendi and DiAngelo for staff PD and then saying ‘we’re not doing CRT’ is transparently nonsense. Dems were never going to get the racists, by having no touch they managed to alienate a broader swath of parents.

Voters don’t parse the issues like wonks or policy pros. Instead, they get a frame on a candidate, a gut sense, and they form an impression. Through a host of issues, the Dems created an impression of indifference to parents. Bringing in  – as a closing argument – Randi Weingarten, the AFT President who while wildly popular elite political circles is reviled by many parents as a symbol of what went wrong in 2020 and 2021 with school reopening, was the cherry on top of an educationally tone deaf sundae.

Democrats had no basic theory of the education case other than lashing themselves to the very objects of parental frustration.

All that, however, is exactly why I would not over read it. There are some contingencies in the Virginia race. Around the country the school board elections look like more of a mixed bag. It wasn’t a clean sweeping out of incumbents or anything like that over CRT, masks, vax policy, or anything else.

This also does not look like the Republican uber education campaign analysts (including me pre-2016) have warned about where the Republicans shed their baggage and link choice and opportunity and drive a wedge through the Democratic coalition. Instead, it was a close election, reversion to the mean, independents swung, and education fit into an effective narrative of change for the Republicans more than it set up a narrative.

I’d likewise be cautious over-reading the swing from Biden to Youngkin in Virginia. Trump was a candidate ill-suited to Virginia in a few ways, not the least a heavy military and government presence leading to voters who prioritize competence and respect. Trump, as you may have seen, is not often associated with those things. In fact, Youngkin notably outran Trump in parts of the state. The 2017 to 2021 results are a better benchmark.

Graphic via Washington Post, specific data here. 

The economy was still a big, if not the big issue (better voter data will be available soon and we’ll revisit exits and all that then). That’s getting overshadowed by the education stuff because a school fight is more interesting to journos than the umpteenth election where voters say they care most about the economy and jobs. And credit where it’s due. Glenn Youngkin ran an effective and disciplined campaign. Voters wanted change and McAulliffe was the default incumbent in an open seat race. And the current Democratic President is politically underwater. Tough environment. 

Still, do Dems need a better message? Of course. A Democratic political pro friend asked on election night, “In two sentences or less, what’s the McAullife message on the economy or jobs?” It’s a good question.

Chalking it all up to racism as we’re already hearing won’t do. Around the country diverse candidates prevailed in different contexts. The country is becoming more inclusive even as everyone yells at each other on Twitter. Danica Roem was reelected a third time in Virginia, wasn’t even really news because she’s good at her job. And in Virginia the Republicans elected a Latino man and a Black woman to the other two statewide offices on the ballot this cycle. That’s an example of the message problem. Your message has to be something the average person doesn’t hear and think to themselves, “wait, that makes no sense.” And if you’re explaining to them, “no, no, see you don’t understand, they’re “white adjacent” then, well, real life is not a critical theory seminar at Smith.

And that’s what got Democrats in trouble on schools. Their ed message fundamentally made no sense to parents exhausted from the pandemic.

This, from Sarah Isgur, is a well put look an education aspect of the race that goes beyond recycled talking points,

There’s no question that a lot of parents would tell you they are concerned about CRT being taught in schools. But this is a little like the “defund the police” slogan. They don’t literally mean that their second graders are being taught “to view race and white supremacy as an intersectional social construct.” They mean that their kids are being taught things about race, racism, and it’s role in American history that they don’t like. I heard one parent, for example, say that they feared their child was being taught that equality of outcome was more important than equality of opportunity. You can agree or disagree as to whether that is good or bad or right or wrong as a normative matter, but as a descriptive matter, it is what some voters meant when they said education as an important issue to them.

So here we are. If the Democrats can’t figure out how to parse out genuinely racist voters – the ‘we make slavery sound worse than it really was’ crowd from the ‘I don’t want my kid being told that intersectionality or “whiteness” is the only proper way to understand the world” crowd then they will lose more close elections where education is an issue and things will get more toxic.

In our sector, there is plenty of arguing in education but no real argument. This despite pre-pandemic equity problems and a host of new pandemic driven issues. The Democrats need to come up with some arguments that are more convincing than what they tried in Virginia.

There is a pro-kid, pro-reform, pro-equity, agenda out there that is neither inherently D or R waiting for politicians with the courage to grab it. For instance, empowering parents with educational choice, improving post-secondary transitions, expanding access to early education opportunities, unbundled and responsive and accountable public systems with better assessments, and a focus on teaching kids math early so we’re not arguing about exam schools when they’re already in 8th-grade. All those things matter to a more equitable school system than the one we have today.

The only box Democrats are in is one they choose. Given the state of the Republican party, however, a lot is riding on how they choose.