CNN  — 

America’s freshest and most emotive political battle is now raging over its schools as kids and teachers get drawn into the cultural and ideological fights dominating national and local politics.

Republicans, starting with the ultra-competitive Virginia gubernatorial race, see parents’ rights, anger over Covid-19 precautions and the duel over how America’s racial history is taught as their much-needed opening to critical suburban voters.

Democrats are fighting back on public education, which has traditionally been a strong political issue for them. But they must defend their takeover of the suburbs to have any hope in next year’s midterm elections and, if it comes to it, prevent a comeback win by ex-President Donald Trump in 2024.

The issue of what America’s kids are taught exploded this week in Virginia with Democratic accusations that Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin was blowing a “racist dog whistle” after he ran a misleading ad featuring a mom’s concerns about a book her son was taught in school. The parent, it turns out, is a conservative activist and the book was Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” which depicts the horrors of slavery.

Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe laid into Youngkin with relish during an appearance alongside President Joe Biden on Tuesday in the vast Virginia suburbs, which have transformed what was formerly a reliably conservative southern state into a Democratic bastion.

“What bothers me daily is that Glenn Youngkin uses education to divide Virginia. He wants to pit parents against parents, parents against teachers. He wants to bring his personal culture wars into our classrooms,” said the former Democratic governor, who’s facing a neck-and-neck race complicated by Biden’s struggles to pass his sweeping agenda and declining approval ratings.

Education is not just a political issue. There are few areas as important and emotionally resonant to voters of all persuasions as the welfare and future of their kids. And senior Republicans believe that the pandemic – and the frustration felt by many parents over school closures for much of last year – means they can get a hearing from voters who might not always listen.

The emotional impact of schooling is evident in furious fights for and against mask wearing and mandates across the country. School board meetings have been interrupted by angry conservative parents who appear to regard themselves as the vanguards of a new political movement. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republicans are expected to challenge Attorney General Merrick Garland on a memo in which he instructed the FBI to work with local and state law enforcement to respond to harassment and threats against school board officials. Conservatives have accused him of treating parents like “domestic terrorists.” (The memo makes no reference to domestic terrorism.)

Potential Republican presidential candidates, like Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, have waded into issues like transgender kids participating in school sports and the way the history of racism is talked about in classrooms to seek credibility with pro-Trump voters. And Republicans now believe they are seeing evidence that parents of other political persuasions also feel schools are failing in the grips of political correctness.

“Our kids can’t wait,” Youngkin said at a recent rally in Burke, Virginia, after anchoring his hopes of a shock victory in a final argument centered in the culture war over education.

His controversial ad released Monday hits McAuliffe for vetoing a bill in a previous term as governor that would have forced schools to warn parents of such material – but Youngkin may have gone too far for some.

Democratic Virginia state Sen. L. Louise Lucas called Morrison a hero for African Americans – a key voting bloc in Virginia.

“Youngkin aligned himself with the people who wanted to stop the teaching of her book in our public schools. And people who want to ban books about slavery and racism,” Lucas said Tuesday, speaking on behalf of McAuliffe’s campaign.

Youngkin’s dance between Trump and moderates

Feuds over education encapsulate wider clashes – over race and the identity of America itself – that were exacerbated by the demagogic rise of Trump. They tap into a feeling often found among Republicans voters from outside liberal coastal cities that the country’s quintessential culture and history is threatened by a newly diverse population and fast-changing social mores. This brews a “take our country back” mentality that Trump constantly fuels.

The GOP has settled on a message that asks whether parents or bureaucrats and teachers, who are often seen as disproportionately liberal, should decide what is taught in schools. It begs the question of whether America’s kids should only learn subjects and ideas that sit well with their own parents’ politics and view of America’s tortured racial history. After all, education at some level, is supposed to involve learning new facts and perspectives that challenge preconceived ideas.

Republican strategists believe that the home schooling that was forced on many parents during the pandemic opened their eyes to the kinds of material their children were using to learn about race and history. They also think that the charged atmosphere around school closures, masking and potentially vaccine mandates will play to their advantage in many congressional races next year.

“I think the pandemic exposed all of this and then we saw that the teachers unions control when schools are going to be open,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee heading into the midterms. Teachers’ unions traditionally favor Democrats.

GOP leaders think their message on the issue will connect with their voters and others far beyond Virginia, possibly even spurring a surge in conservative parents running for school board seats that could boost Republicans higher up the ticket next year.

McAuliffe unintentionally amplified the GOP message in a remark in a debate last month that he says was taken out of context. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they teach,” he said.

Youngkin, who is trying to dance between Trump’s extremism and more moderate voters who helped Biden win the state by 10 points only a year ago, pounced on the comment. He has also accused the progressive movement of inserting “political operatives into our school system disguised as school boards.” And he has seized on parental anxiety over a pair of alleged sexual assaults in two Loudoun County schools earlier this year – a county where Biden beat Trump by 25 points last year.

If Youngkin can use the issue to woo some independents and profit from Democratic apathy at the polls, he could cut McAuliffe’s vote by the margins he needs to pull off a victory that would rock Biden’s White House.

So far, the focus on education seems to be helping Youngkin. A Fox News poll last week found that he had moved into a tie on the question of which candidate was most trusted to deal with the issue. In a previous survey in September, he trailed on the issue by 4 points.

Youngkin on Tuesday welcomed the idea that he could be writing a blueprint for Republican campaigns next year.

“We hear from parents who email me and text me and call me and say, ‘stand up for our kids too,’” he told reporters. “It just goes to show that Virginians have a chance to do something in Virginia that’s going to have an effect on the whole country.”

Gender battles also rock schools

But Virginia is not the only frontline in the battle over race and gender in schools.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 30 states have introduced legislation this year that would ban transgender student athletes from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity. Advocates of such bills suggest that transgender girls are not biological girls and thus have a physical advantage in women’s sports. Trans advocates, however, argue such views are based on an inaccurate view of sexuality, gender and biology, and argue that the right to participate in sports like any other kid is a basic right and vital for mental health.

As recently as Monday in Texas, Abbott signed a bill restricting the right of trans kids to play on K-12 sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The bill requires student athletes to compete on teams that align with the sex listed on their birth certificate. In June, DeSantis of Florida signed a bill that prevents transgender girls and women in public secondary school and colleges from competing on girls’ and women’s sports teams. Transgender advocates have pledged to challenge such laws in court.

Florida and Texas have also been at the forefront of efforts to ban the teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” which critics say is more about using race as a political wedge issue than an honest debate about US history. And both governors have feuded with school districts that wanted mask mandates.

CRT has become a dominant theme on conservative talk radio and TV, where it is often misrepresented. The concept has been around for decades and seeks to understand and address systemic inequality and racism in the US. But conservative critics claim CRT is a Marxist ideology and a threat to the American way of life. The extent to which CRT is used and taught is regularly blown out of all proportion – especially since it’s mostly been an academic discussion well beyond elementary school classrooms – and that’s especially true on conservative media, where it offers an electric connection direct to the Trump base.

While McAuliffe insists CRT is not part of the commonwealth’s education system, Youngkin’s pledge to ban it anyway is regularly the loudest applause line in his speeches. That helps explain why Republicans think they have a galvanizing opening into an issue that could catch fire next year in the suburbs.