In an extremely tight gubernatorial race, Republicans are hoping that parents' anger and fear over issues that ignited the Northern Virginia school system can motivate their base.
The name said it all: "Rally to Save Our Schools."
Speaking before a crowd of hundreds in Leesburg, the seat of Loudoun County, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin laid out his vision for reshaping the commonwealth's education system, promising to establish "excellence" in Virginia schools.
"But it all starts with recognizing that our curriculum has gone haywire," he declared at the September rally. "So on day one, we are going to ban teaching critical race theory in our schools."
The applause started before he even finished his sentence.
"Day one," he repeated. "Day one."
In the razor tight race for governor in Virginia, Youngkin has seized on debates that have been roiling school board meetings and parking lot protests in Loudoun County for months. From coronavirus closures, to curriculums on equity and racism, to protections for transgender students, education issues have been weaponized in a statewide (and national) cultural war.
While Youngkin relies on the refrain "parents matter," Democrat candidate and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has been on the defensive as Election Day nears. McAuliffe has worked to paint his opponent as "Donald Trump in khakis" and a "wannabe" of the former president, but he's also been forced to respond to the education attacks. In a "Starving Schools" ad, McAuliffe's campaign decries Youngkin's education policies for gutting public school budgets.
Democrats won control over Virginia's General Assembly in 2019 for the first time in more than two decades, giving the party power over both the governorship and legislature. Long considered a purple bellwether, it seemed to signal a new, solidly blue era for Virginia. Democrats have delivered, outlawing the death penalty, fast-tracking marijuana legalization, and dramatically expanding voting rights.
But while Joe Biden won the commonwealth with a nine-point margin in 2020, narrow congressional victories and a failed attempt to flip a House seat that same year also sparked hope in many Republicans.
It now rests with Youngkin, a wealthy businessman and political novice who has sought to distance himself from Trump while simultaneously playing off the same fears that he fomented.
He's seeking to break Virginia's blue streak by tapping into voters' — and specifically parents' — visceral anger and frustrations after a tumultuous year-plus of pandemic-era learning. Republicans are hoping that energy can galvanize voters in an off-year election, and earn back electoral ground.
And thus, Loudoun County — with its diversifying and evolving public school system — became a focal point in a decisive election for Virginia.
A changing county
One of the wealthiest counties in the country, Loudoun County has transformed in recent years — both demographically and politically. While control of the county's board of supervisors has shifted between the parties for decades, Joe Biden sailed through Loudoun easily, winning 61% of the vote (a 6 percentage point increase from Hillary Clinton's lead in 2016).
Loudoun has also grown in population and diversity; once a largely rural and white enclave, it's now home to a prosperous tech corridor, a growing immigrant community, and increasing numbers of non-white residents.
Meanwhile, the county's public school system — which was one of the last in the country to desegregate — has attempted to kickstart its own cultural transformation.
In 2019, a third-party audit concluded that Loudoun County Public Schools was a "hostile learning environment" for students of color and that staff often failed to address racist incidents. Multiple students, the local NAACP, and even the commonwealth's attorney general have called for LCPS to correct systemic racial discrimination.
Earlier this year, Loudoun released a 22-page equity plan, calling for implicit bias training, enhanced protocols for handling racist behavior, and improved reporting systems for students.
This created the backdrop for one pillar of the conservative outrage that's dominating the headlines out of Virginia's election: a fear over purported "critical race theory" — a college-level discipline that Loudoun's school system has repeatedly stated is not a part of the curriculum — and other equity issues that have metastasized into culture wars far beyond what's being taught in classrooms.
In June, five parents sued the school system over the equity plan, alleging it violates students' constitutional right to free speech. Parents began showing up in crowds to normally sparsely attended school board meetings, some already outraged by LCPS' coronavirus school closures. (School reopening rallies had been taking place since the summer of 2020.)
One raucous hearing on a proposed policy to bolster protections for transgender students — a policy required by a recently passed state law — ended with an arrest, as parents condemned the alleged CRT curriculum and accused board members of teaching their children to hate themselves for the color of their skin.
Video clips of meetings went viral. Fox News, The Daily Wire, and other national conservative outlets picked up the story, framing the board's equity initiatives as products of a dangerous liberal agenda. Board member Atoosa Reaser reported receiving racist death threats.
A group of conservative parents have pursued recall elections against five school board members (including Reaser), one of whom has already stepped down.
"It was simply about trying to make a statement and make a scene, continue with the misinformation and get that public." says Todd Kaufman, the vice president of Loudoun4All, an advocacy organization formed by LCPS parents in response to the vitriol earlier this year. "It wasn't actually about education, or fixing the schools, or addressing the needs of the schools."
Most recently, the system's handling of two alleged sexual assaults in schools reignited the media frenzy and parent criticism around the system's equity initiatives. According to police, a student allegedly committed a sexual assault at one LCPS school, and assaulted another student at a different school months later. Conservative media outlets claimed the student was gender fluid — a fact that has not been confirmed by authorities, but nonetheless sparked criticism of the recently adopted policy that allows transgender students to use whatever bathroom aligns with their pronouns.
"It troubles us greatly that some in the community do use this as political purposes to divide the county just to win an election," Kaufman says. "Obviously sexual assault is a serious issue, we support safety in schools...but the incident that allegedly happened, happened prior to the policy going into effect, so blaming the policy on something like that is just for political gain."
Prominent conservative figures have only added fuel to the flames roiling LCPS in the past months. After the board implemented new rules to maintain order during public testimony (requiring a speaker to live in the county or have a child in the school system), right-wing commentator Matt Walsh announced he'd started renting a home in Loudoun to attend school board meetings (Fox reported he was paying a resident one dollar to rent a room).
Some Democratic voters in the county believe that like Walsh, the people driving the headlines are from a loud, mostly out-of-county minority, and don't represent how Loudoun voters will fall this November.
"They're renting a house here, and they're attending the school board meetings and making a ruckus," said Wendell Lockhart, a father of three and longtime Loudoun resident, as he cast his straight Democratic ticket at an early voting center in October.
Wendy Gooditis, the incumbent Democrat running to hold onto her seat in the 10th District, which represents parts of Loudoun, Clarke, and Frederick counties, is banking on it.
"There's no question, at least on all the doors that I've knocked and all the people I have met, [that] it's a minority of people who are swallowing that stuff," she tells DCist/WAMU. "It must be a very noisy minority."
But local Republicans clearly see it as an issue animating voters.
Gooditis' opponent, former Leesburg commissioner Nick Clemente, has made LCPS a focal point of his campaign, issuing multiple statements attacking her over the alleged "sexual assault coverups." (Clemente did not respond to requests for comment.)
Greg Moulthrop, a Republican challenger looking to unseat the Democratic incumbent Suhas Subramanyam for a House of Delegates seat that represents parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties, handed out fliers at an early voting location in South Riding. His top two issues listed: "school closures" and "critical race theory."
"Education's always been the number one issue that I've come across [with voters], followed by public safety and the economy," Moulthrop told DCist/WAMU. "If somebody is not doing their job or not doing their job well and you get that much outrage, it's not manufactured outrage."
Leveraging parents' fears
Schools — and parents' fears about what's going on in them — are predicted to be a litmus test for how voters will act in the 2022 congressional and 2024 presidential elections.
"They're testing certain strategies and fears," says Rasha Saad, the president of Loudoun4All, of the conservative figures or local parents spreading what she calls misinformation about the school board's intentions. "They started with getting our kids back in school last year. 'We want our kids back in school, we don't care, we want them maskless,' that's sort of what the narrative was and that was what was being used to kind of rile everybody up...Then it was anti-CRT, 'they're teaching CRT in our schools, they're teaching your kids to hate themselves or they're teaching my kids to hate me.' Then it was [the transgender protections] policy."
The second gubernatorial debate illustrated how it is playing out.
Youngkin attacked McAuliffe, who served as Virginia's governor from 2014 to 2018, for a bill he vetoed that would have allowed parents to opt of their child learning material deemed "sexually explicit." The controversy, at the time, revolved around Toni Morrison's Beloved.
McAuliffe responded to Youngkin's barb: "I'm not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions. I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
The soundbite generated dozens of headlines, and now appears in many a Youngkin ad campaign — and in the minds of some voters.
"Entirely, [parents] should have a say," Victoria Kwasiborski told DCist/WAMU. "I don't agree that we should tell the teachers what they should teach, but we should know what our students are learning."
Despite having grown children, the Arlington resident says education is one of the main reasons she's planning to vote for Youngkin. She and her husband are deciding whether to retire in the commonwealth and have watched the issues in Loudoun school play out over the past year.
"We don't want to purchase a home in a school system where...activism overrides education and civilized discourse," Kwasiborski said. "I think as a parent who has worked very hard to make sure my children have access to the most respectful, and the most open, and the best possible education, that doesn't deem them an oppressor or the oppressed, I have to vote for Youngkin."
Jim Quinn, a resident of Fairfax County, is also voting for Youngkin largely due to education issues. He said he wasn't particularly concerned about critical race theory, but is frustrated that school boards focused on equity initiatives instead of putting students back in buildings faster.
Youngkin is "handling school issues really well, which as a dad of three is what I really care about," Quinn, who voted for Biden in 2020, told DCist/WAMU. "I just cannot trust [McAuliffe] to put my kids' education and welfare ahead of whatever interest group they're going for."
It remains to be seen whether the issues that began in Loudoun County's school board meetings (and now are playing out in school boards across the U.S.) will be enough to drive a Republican takeover in either the governor's mansion or the state legislature. The latest polling shows that Youngkin and McAuliffe are deadlocked in the final days of the race, each pulling about 46% of the vote. (McAuliffe lost the slim five-point lead he held in September's polling.)
For Quinn, who says he doesn't support Youngkin so much as he has reservations about McAuliffe, didn't attend any protests or testify at a school board meeting. But he understands why so many parents did so with loaded emotions.
"I can empathize with them, because half of them, they've got some weird notion in their head, whether it's true or not. But if it's your kids and you believe that something's happening, you'll feel like...'I would rush in front of the bus to protect them,'" Quinn said. "And then figure out the facts later."
Republicans hope it's enough to motivate a win.
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This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.