Last Wednesday morning, Christopher Rufo, the architect of the right-wing crusade against critical race theory, sent me a message asking if I wanted to talk, I suppose because I was one of the first people to write about his project back in February. He was feeling triumphant.
A year ago, few conservatives outside academia had heard of critical race theory, a graduate school approach to the study of race and power. Now it’s become a central issue in Republican politics, helping to fuel Glenn Youngkin’s victorious gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.
“I’ve unlocked a new terrain in the culture war, and demonstrated a successful strategy,” said Mr. Rufo, a documentary filmmaker-turned-conservative activist. With that done, he was getting ready for a new phase of his offensive.
“We are right now preparing a strategy of laying siege to the institutions,” he said. In practice, this means promoting the traditional Republican school choice agenda: private school vouchers, charter schools and home-schooling. “The public schools are waging war against American children and American families,” he said. Families, in turn, should have “a fundamental right to exit.”
Democrats need to take this coming onslaught seriously. The school choice movement is old — it’s often dated back to a 1955 essay by Milton Friedman. But COVID has created fertile ground for a renewed push.
As many have pointed out, the reason education was such an incendiary issue in the Virginia governor’s race likely had less to do with critical race theory than with parent fury over the drawn-out nightmare of online school. Because America’s response to COVID was so politically polarized, school shutdowns were longest in blue states, and Virginia’s was especially severe; only six states had fewer in-person days last year.
“The failure of our leadership to prioritize public education in Virginia is what’s created this firestorm,” said Christy Hudson, one of the founders of the Fairfax County Parents Association, which grew out of a pro-reopening group that formed in the summer of 2020. Critical race theory, she said, “has certainly added flames to that fire,” but “this is 19 months in the making.”
Across the country, the shutdowns have contributed to an exodus from public schools. In Fairfax County, for example, public school enrollment is down by more than 10,000 students since before the pandemic, a 5.5% decrease. Enrollment in New York City public schools declined by 4.5%, about 50,000 students. In California, public school enrollment decreased by 3%, or 160,000 students, the largest drop in 20 years. Because school budgets are partly dependent on head counts, these missing students could lead to severe cuts, making public schools even less attractive.
In an environment like this, Republican proposals to subsidize private school tuition are likely to be received gratefully by many parents. It’s a perilous situation for Democrats, the party of public schools. If they want to stanch the bleeding, they should treat the rollout of the children’s COVID vaccine as an opportunity to make public schools feel lively and joyful again.
Public schools may finally be open across the country, but in many districts, things are far from normal. In Fairfax County, an unvaccinated student identified as a “close contact” of someone who tests positive for COVID must quarantine for 14 days, no matter the results of the student’s own COVID tests; in Baltimore, it’s 10 days. At some schools, students have been forbidden to talk during lunch. At my own kids’ school, students must be masked even during outdoor recess, despite medical recommendations to the contrary.
“You have a multiracial group of parents that felt like the public school bureaucracies were putting their children through a policy regime of chaos, with COVID and shutdowns, and then pumping them full of left-wing racialist ideologies,” Mr. Rufo said.
He’s right about the first part, even if the second is a fantasy.
Now Democrats have a choice. They can repair the public schools, or watch people like Mr. Rufo destroy them.
Michelle Goldberg (Twitter: @michelleinbklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where a longer version of this piece originally appeared.