These promises seem to have worked. A recent focus group conducted by a Democratic polling firm showed that education was the top issue cited by Joe Biden supporters who had voted or considered voting for Mr. Youngkin. Participants referred to an array of complaints about education, including a sense that the focus on race and social justice in Virginia’s schools had gone too far, eclipsing core academic subjects. Similar charges echoed through the San Francisco school board election last month as Asian American voters, furious over changes to the admissions process at a highly selective high school, galvanized a movement to oust three school board members.
How can Democrats claw out of this bind? In the near term, they can remind voters that Republican efforts to limit what kids are taught in school will hurt students, no matter their background. The College Board’s Advanced Placement program, for example, recently warned that it will remove the AP designation from courses when required topics are banned. Whatever the limitations of the AP program, students from all class backgrounds still use it to earn college credit and demonstrate engagement in rigorous coursework. Democrats could also take a page from Mr. Youngkin’s playbook and pledge, as he did, to invest more “than has ever been invested in education,” an issue that resonates across party lines.
But if Democrats want to stop bleeding working-class votes, they need to begin telling a different story about education and what schools can and can’t do. For a generation, Democrats have framed a college degree as the main path to economic mobility, a foolproof way to expand the middle class. But now kids regularly emerge from college burdened with crushing student debt and struggling to find stable jobs. To these graduates and to their parents it is painfully obvious that degrees do not necessarily guarantee success. A generation ago, Mr. Clinton may have been able to make a convincing case that education could solve all people’s problems, but today Democrats risk irrelevance — or worse — by sticking with that tired mantra.
So, yes, strong schools are essential for the health and well-being of young people: Schools are where they gain confidence in themselves and build relationships with adults and with one another, where they learn about the world and begin to imagine life beyond their neighborhoods. But schools can’t level a playing field marred by racial inequality and increasingly sharp class distinctions; to pretend otherwise is both bad policy and bad politics. Moreover, the idea that schools alone can foster equal opportunity is a dangerous form of magical thinking that not only justifies existing inequality but also exacerbates our political differences by pitting the winners in our economy against the losers.
Democrats can reclaim education as a winning issue. They might even be able to carve out some badly needed common ground, bridging the gap between those who have college degrees and those who don’t by telling a more compelling story about why we have public education in this country. But that story must go beyond the scramble for social mobility if the party is to win back some of the working people it has lost over the past few decades.
Schools may not be able to solve inequality. But they can give young people a common set of social and civic values, as well as the kind of education that is valuable in its own right and not merely as a means to an end. We don’t fund education with our tax dollars to wash our hands of whatever we might owe to the next generation. Instead, we do it to strengthen our communities — by preparing students for the wide range of roles they will inevitably play as equal members of a democratic society.