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Education emerged as a flash point in Virginia governor's race. Here's what voters had to say about critical race theory, teachers

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  • Glenn Youngkin
    American businessman and politician
  • Terry McAuliffe
    Terry McAuliffe
    American businessman and politician

Concerns about how race is taught in schools brought out voters across Virginia on Election Day, when it emerged as a key reason some residents cast a ballot in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Youngkin, who defeated the former governor, leaned into parents' anger over education during the campaign, vowing to ban the teaching of critical race theory when he enters office. He and his supporters criticized McAuliffe for comments made during a debate on Sept. 29: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said.

Critical race theory is a legal framework that examines how systemic racism continues to permeate U.S. law and society. Virginia public schools do not teach it at K-12 levels. Nevertheless, the candidates and voters appeared focused on the issue this election.

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In their final campaign rallies, both Youngkin and McAuliffe brought up education.

“What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through a lens of race, where we divide them into buckets and one group is an oppressor and the other is a victim and we pit them against each other and we steal their dreams,” Youngkin said to a crowd of several thousand in Loudoun County on Monday.

McAuliffe on Sunday called for greater teacher diversity across the commonwealth. “We’ve got to diversify our teacher base here in Virginia,” the Democrat said at a rally in Charlottesville. He also promised to create a program to attract teachers of color, should he win the election.

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Here's what voters said Tuesday about education, critical race theory and teachers in the Virginia governor's race:

Critical race theory promise brings out voters

Youngkin's criticism over McAuliffe on how race is taught in schools appealed to Caryn Vezina, 38, who voted for Youngkin. She said she likes his education politics and wants Virginia to go in another direction. Vezina said Youngkin appeals to her experience as a mother and a preschool teacher.

“It didn’t make me happy that McAuliffe said that, you know, parents shouldn’t be involved with their children’s education,” she said.

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Youngkin's line of thinking on race in education mirrored a concern of 22-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University medical student Douglas Hogan when casting his vote.

“Specifically, not teaching critical race theory, things like that, in our schools,” Hogan said. “Teaching kids to think for themselves, not based on their race.”

Walter Foreman, 23, had a similar view.

“This election is about parents rising up and demanding what’s best for their kids,” said Foreman, who voted in Manassas and said he backed Youngkin’s plan to ban critical race theory.

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Retirees Bob and Judy Allen supported Youngkin because they want parents to be able to object to curriculum that involves critical race theory. “If my kids were to be educated right now, I wouldn’t put them in Fairfax County schools. I would probably homeschool them,” Judy Allen said.

Concerns over protecting curriculum lures other voters

McAuliffe called the battle over critical race theory a “racist dog whistle."

Retired public schoolteacher Mary Wagner switched from supporting the Republican Party to volunteering for Democrats because of education concerns.

"I taught in the public schools for 39 years, and education is extremely important to me," said Wagner. "If anybody is a good governor for this state for education, it would be Terry McAuliffe."

Independent voter Charles Mayfield, 42, said he was swayed by McAuliffe’s promise to support teachers. “I want someone committed to teachers, he has promised to do that, Youngkin hasn’t,” he said.

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Lawyer Shana Gertner, 42, also cast her vote for McAuliffe. She said she cares about access to education and wants to keep the state blue. “My child is in private school, but I do care about public school and I do feel as though a lot of parents don’t really grasp the issues,” Gertner said.

But Sheryl Nelson, 58, who says she's an independent, voted for McAuliffe because she wants to watch out for all students.

“I am raising a child who is on the autism spectrum,” said Nelson. “I just feel like a lot of marginalized people in this country have not been treated fairly, and I want to make sure that our elected officials hear the voices of people who are more moderate.”

Patti Wright, a retired schoolteacher, said she hoped people would “vote respectfully.”

“I think if teachers were to be fully respected — as politicians all say they should be — then they are in charge of children’s health and well-being and curriculum,” said Wright, 69, of Richmond. “I am a little worried about that with this election.”

For Whitney Tidwell, 33, of Richmond, the election gave her an opportunity for a different kind of education: to teach her young son about the electoral process.

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“We’ve been talking about voting and choosing who represents our community, the values, so to show him that process and to talk to him about how we vote for people that we want to represent our community,” said Tidwell.

Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie, USA TODAY. Contributing: Hannah Schoenbaum, Catherine Buchaniec, Ariel Gans, Julia Shapero, Courtney Degen, Zoya Mirza, Katherine Huggins, Annie Klingenberg, and Allison Novelo, Medill News Service.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voters said education, critical race theory were key in Virginia race

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