Do Virginia students really need Terry McAuliffe deciding what to call the “Sea of Japan”?

Virginia’s new Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is learning that campaign promises have consequences. He’s landed the commonwealth in the middle of a longstanding dispute over the Sea of Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In the process, he helped Democrats lose the moral high ground when it comes to education.

McAuliffe, a long-time friend of the Clintons, will be a player in the 2016 presidential election if Hillary decides to run. He could help deliver purple Virginia, but first he has to overcome this self-made controversy.

Last year, McAuliffe ran for governor against Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Robert Sarvis. In order to score some votes in the all-important D.C. suburbs, he promised the growing Korean population there that he’d make sure Virginia students learned that the “Sea of Japan” is also known as the “East Sea” in South Korea. (In the Korean community, the name “Sea of Japan” is considered a holdover from Japanese occupation.) True to his word, he backed a bill to require textbooks in Virginia schools to identify it as both.

Democratic lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have introduced similar bills.

Sea of Japan/East Sea, photo credit:  Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Sea of Japan/East Sea, photo credit: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

There’s a messy history behind the name of this particular body of water. I won’t pretend to know enough to declare whether it deserves one name or the other. I’m not an expert. And neither is McAuliffe.

The International Hydrographic Organization, which has considerable say over naming bodies of water, has punted on the question until at least 2017.

Progressives criticize conservatives when they attempt to manipulate schools to ideological ends. When Republicans stack school boards, and demand that the fabricated controversies over evolution and climate change be taught, Democrats rightly call foul.

The Sea of Japan vs. East Sea tug-of-war might be an actual controversy, but not one that politicians should solve by legislatively imposing one view on students. Democrats taking sides are no better than Republicans who politicize education.

Things rarely go well when government concludes that it knows better than educators and researchers what children should learn in school. It is one thing for states to set broad expectations for students. It is something else entirely for them to allow politics to determine the minutia of textbooks. Education becomes indoctrination.

When Japan, one of Virginia’s biggest foreign trade partners, started to complain, the governor quietly tried to kill the bill. The GOP-controlled House of Delegates, still stinging from having lost every statewide race last year, would not let him off the hook. The chamber advanced the bill that had already passed the Senate.

Now McAuliffe must decide whether to deliver on his campaign promise and sign the bill, or break his promise and smooth things over with Japan. Either way, the real losers are Virginia’s students. They might have thought Democrats at least had their backs, but no longer. Pandering for votes trumps a sound education from the right and the left.

Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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