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Yes, Virginia, there is a national implication, and education equity is at its heart

Glenn Youngkin is said to have exploited anger around race and gender issues in schools to win the governor’s race. Here’s a powerful and very different education message.

Glenn Youngkin speaking during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia.
Glenn Youngkin speaking during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Republican analysts are declaring a big education win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, maintaining that a Glenn Youngkin-style message of outrage on race and gender issues in our schools can both energize the party’s base and reach suburban swing voters. Youngkin turned the bogeyman of “critical race theory” — which is not being taught in elementary and secondary schools here in Virginia or elsewhere — into a major issue.

The former private equity CEO and first-time candidate drew supporters “enthusiastic about his defense of parents who were concerned about the way race is taught in school, as well as new protections for transgender students passed by the Virginia legislature,” NPR reported.

Election experts also say the response to this message from former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe encompassed little more than generalities about “dog whistles” and former President Donald Trump and failed to energize the Democrats’ base or reach suburban swing voters.

Perhaps candidates for elected office who support race and gender education equity need to affirmatively and clearly convey to voters what that support means, and why it’s important.  This isn’t just a messaging issue, or even just an electoral issue. This is about our education system as the foundation of participatory democracy. Here’s some background about what support for race and gender education equity means.

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At the heart of education equity efforts is this: Our kids deserve supportive, inclusive educational environments where every child can thrive, and where our kids learn important life skills they need to build toward a brighter future for all of us.

So, what does that look like in classrooms?  First, it means acknowledging differences among us — by race, sex, national origin — rather than pretending differences don’t exist or sweeping them under the rug.

It means seeking to understand and value each individual for who they are, including their background and different life experiences.

It means school curricula, materials and lessons acknowledging that racism and racist actions are an uncomfortable part of our nation’s history (e.g., slavery, lynching, segregation) and an uncomfortable part of our nation’s current reality (for example, the police murder of George Floyd).

That means all of us understanding that students of color may face challenges and hurdles that their white peers do not — such as being disciplined more harshly for the same behavior, or receiving fewer opportunities for advanced coursework.

It means recognizing that all of us are hurt by racism, and that we can all play a role in working to fight it.

It also means schools doing more to emphasize the importance of values like curiosity and empathy, and offering lessons that provide “mirrors and windows” for all students to see and understand the many contributions to world history and cultures of those like themselves, and those different from themselves.

Finally, it means fighting against efforts by some to ban books in schools that are by and about people of color, immigrants or people who are LGBTQ, and fighting against efforts by some to prevent teachers from providing full and truthful information about our nation’s history and current events.

Any love based on ignorance or lies is love that can’t last. Our students can truly love America when they fully understand all of its history — the good and the bad — and they are empowered with the knowledge and critical thinking skills to join ongoing efforts to “form a more perfect union.”

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We’re not there yet, but we can get there, together.

Miriam A. Rollin is director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, convened by the National Center for Youth Law. This commentary originally appeared in The Hechinger Report.