Before Terry McAuliffe became the Democrat whose repeat gubernatorial ambitions were thwarted by angry parents, he was the savvy pol who successfully lured Amazon to Virginia.
Four years ago, McAuliffe was en route to southwest Virginia in a state helicopter when he heard about Amazon’s HQ 2 competition—the search by the corporate behemoth for a second headquarters outside of Seattle. The contest would come to be derided as at best a sham, at worst a bait and switch, but for McAuliffe it represented an opportunity to cement his legacy. “We’ve got to win this!” McAuliffe recalled in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Literally, it would finish what we started in diversifying and building a new economy.”
While other states shoveled taxpayer cash and gimmicky incentives in an effort to lure Amazon, Virginia promised something more meaningful to the company: its schools. At the center of Virginia’s sales pitch was a pledge to invest more than $1 billion into tech education, beginning in kindergarten, through high school and into college. Come to northern Virginia, beckoned McAuliffe and his economic development team, and a K-12 tech talent pipeline awaits. “In Virginia, we put corporate partners first,” wrote McAuliffe in a letter to Amazon.
Amazon bit, of course, selecting Crystal City, Va., as the site of its second headquarters. Virginia was the big winner, but McAuliffe was too. He’d taken office in 2013 with a pledge to make the state “the best place to do business,” and followed a blueprint, furnished by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, to get there. Realigning Virginia’s public schools to better fit the needs of employers—or in Chamber speak, “strengthen[ing] the linkages between the classroom and the workplace at all levels”—was central to realizing his goal.
Tellingly, the Amazon prize, described as the single biggest economic deal in Virginia’s history, was a nonissue during the Youngkin/McAuliffe contest. Youngkin supports the deal, and, more significantly, he embraces the vision of schools as workforce development that is at its heart. At a time when Republicans rail against “woke capital” and routinely single out Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for condemnation, the fact that Virginia is essentially retooling its schools to train an army of future Bezos employees should have launched a flood of irate campaign ads. None came.
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As a Times-Dispatch reporter noted, Youngkin and McAuliffe were virtually indistinguishable on the goal of tethering education ever more tightly to the needs of Virginia’s industries. In an election in which education was a central and divisive issue, the candidates were in lockstep on the belief that the function of schools is to train Amazon workers.
I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach. That utterance by McAuliffe on the debate stage arguably cost him the election. Youngkin seized on the statement, reminding voters again and again that McAuliffe thought “bureaucrats”—an interchangeable assortment of school administrators, union leaders, and state officials—knew better than parents. In the days after the debate, McAuliffe was asked again and again if he’d really meant what he said. In the exchanges, he seems impatient, even irritated by the question. And why wouldn’t he be? Of course parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach, McAuliffe was probably thinking. That’s the role of the business community.
In “Blueprint Virginia,” the ambitious vision for the state’s economy laid out by the Chamber of Commerce in 2013, then updated in 2017, the education sections make no mention of parents. Families play a minor role, mere inputs in an elaborate policy framework—a kind of cradle-to-job system aimed at ensuring that Virginia’s workforce is “strong and capable,” so that its businesses can grow, thrive, and prosper. The mystery of who gets to call the shots when it comes to what schools teach is neatly cleared up here, too. “Meaningful collaboration with the business community must include involvement in curriculum development.”
Parent activist Sara Ward has become something of a crusader in recent years against what she sees as excessive corporate influence in Virginia’s public schools, and the largely unquestioned assumption that schools should prepare students not just for “high-demand” careers but even to work for specific employers. That view, says Ward, was embraced by both McAuliffe and Youngkin.
“You never heard either of the candidates talk about education as being about anything other than workforce development,” says Ward, who lives in Midlothian, a western suburb of Richmond. “There was no difference in the campaigns that I could see.”
In 2019, Ward came across a Chamber of Commerce plan to overhaul several high schools in her county as career academies through a partnership with Ford Automotive’s Next Generation Learning initiative. Despite her deep involvement in the local schools, Ward had never heard of the ambitious effort to transform Chesterfield County’s schools into economic engines. “A PR firm had already been engaged to sell the programming to parents. It was quite a surprise, because the parents didn’t know,” says Ward.
Conventional wisdom has it that Youngkin triumphed over McAuliffe because he successfully used education as a wedge issue. But when he wasn’t pledging to ban “critical race theory” from Virginia’s schools on his first day as governor, or claiming that allies of George Soros had inserted “operatives” onto local school boards, Youngkin was reminding voters that on education, there wasn’t that much distance between him and McAuliffe. As a national teachers union pointed out after the election, Youngkin spent nearly $3 million on ads that promised to increase teacher pay and pass the largest education budget in history.
Just as McAuliffe’s own investments in the Carlyle Group, the private equity company that Youngkin helmed, undercut his attacks on his opponent’s big-money ties, the overlap between their respective visions made it hard for McAuliffe to paint Youngkin as anti–public education. Wedged in, McAuliffe had nowhere to go except for back onto the very culture-war terrain that Youngkin had so skillfully mined.
In a post-election autopsy, a former McAuliffe pollster made the case that Democrats need to do a better job of articulating the “why” of public education—the importance of an institution that serves the public good by bringing young people together around a common set of values. But McAuliffe’s own example demonstrates just how impossible this shift may be. As conservative commentators gleefully pointed out, he sent all five of his kids to elite private schools. And, steeped in the vernacular of neoliberalism, with its business bromides about the value of education —“College, Knowledge and Jobs,” “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back”—McAuliffe lacked even the vocabulary to talk about why public education matters.
“The whole point of public education is that it’s the foundation of a democratic society,” says Sara Ward. “But that’s something that’s been completely lost with all of the focus on workforce development.”
When McAuliffe ran for governor in 2013, the political arm of the Chamber of Commerce representing the northern part of the state, the aptly named NOVABizPAC, backed the Democrat over his GOP challenger, right-wing firebrand Ken Cuccinelli. McAuliffe was their kind of guy, explained the group’s chief. His policies and priorities—especially his vow to keep Virginia a right-to-work state—neatly aligned with those of the business community. This year the group declined to back McAuliffe or Youngkin. Choosing between two such worthy candidates had proven impossible, said the group in a statement. Either would do.