Virginia Republicans have won a statewide race for the first time in 12 years. At the center of Virginia’s gubernatorial election was a raging debate about critical race theory (CRT) that saw fireworks in one of its most important counties electorally.
Republican Glenn Youngkin beat out former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the top of the ticket. Winsome Sears, running to become the first Black female lieutenant governor of Virginia, declared victory, though the Associated Press has not yet called the race. Republican Jason Miyares likewise declared victory in the race for attorney general, though the AP has also not called that race. Sears and Miyares’ Democratic opponents have not yet conceded.
Earlier this year, school board meetings in Loudoun County, Virginia, started capturing national media attention as frustrated parents demanded changes to its so-called “equity” trainings and racially charged materials.
The months leading up to Tuesday’s election saw both major candidates taking starkly different approaches to the issue. And by the end of last month, Youngkin had taken a substantial lead among voters rating education as their top issue.
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How did Virginians get here and what role did one of the nation’s wealthiest counties play in upsetting such an important race?
While CRT concerns were percolating as early as the beginning of 2020, the issue catapulted into public consciousness in March with allegations that Loudoun County Public Schools was “canceling” Dr. Seuss. Although the school district didn’t ban his books, it criticized purported “racial undertones.”
That particular issue was highlighted by Scott Mineo, a Loudoun father who started the group Parents Against Critical Theory and helped lead the charge against CRT. That same month, Fairfax mom Asra Nomani co-founded an organization that would later help expose a potential conflict of interest when the federal government started seriously weighing in on the CRT debate. Her son previously attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where she and other parents also challenged a purportedly anti-Asian admissions scheme.
Shortly after uproar over Seuss, Loudoun denied it was teaching CRT and then-acting Superintendent Scott Ziegler defended its equity programs as fostering an “inclusive environment.”
Around this time, the Virginia Department of Education (DOE) began encountering significant pushback over alleged attempts to water down educational standards. Loudoun school board member Ian Serotkin sounded the alarm on the DOE considering a plan to eliminate accelerated math courses prior to 11th grade. Also in April, teachers began getting more attention for their anti-CRT advocacy and the DOE attracted attention for another controversial effort to end advanced diplomas in the state.
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Parents like Mineo had already started fighting back and redoubled their efforts as the debate progressed. Ian Prior, a Loudoun parent and former Trump administration official, launched Fight for Schools PAC with the intent of recalling a majority of the school board. Part of the impetus was that several board members participated in an “anti-racist” Facebook group that purportedly tried to dox anti-CRT parents.
By the beginning of May, Youngkin and the other major Republican candidates had signed onto an anti-CRT pledge from 1776 Action – underscoring the political saliency of parents’ concerns. Things only escalated from there as LCPS suspended a teacher – Tanner Cross – who spoke against gender-related policies the school board was considering. That, along with a previous message from the district’s diversity advisory body, raised concerns about how left-wing influences were impacting free speech.
School Board Chair Brenda Sheridan seemed to amplify those concerns when she accused distraught parents of engaging in “dog whistle politics” in June. That month saw a particularly testy meeting in which the school board shut down public comment amid a wave of backlash to Cross’ suspension, among other things. News outlets also circulated images of a father, Scott Smith, whose daughter was allegedly raped in a Loudoun bathroom – a case that would later heavily impact the discussion surrounding education in Virginia.
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McAuliffe similarly seemed to dismiss parents’ concerns when he described the CRT backlash as a “right-wing conspiracy.” However, this seemed to contradict what McAuliffe’s own Department of Education had said. Loudoun’s officials had also acknowledged in various ways that CRT influenced their work.
For example, school board member Beth Barts said in June that “when you look at critical race theory and you understand that critical race theory examines how racism is embedded not just in laws, but in policy as well. And then you look at our equity committee, and you look at the mission of the equity committee … So, while we are not teaching critical race theory necessarily in classrooms, I will say probably that there are portions of critical race theory that we may be applying when we give the lens to look at some of our policies.”
Barts, in August, became the first school board member for whom Prior and other parents were able to issue a recall petition. Barts eventually resigned in October.
Her resignation was significant as both Loudoun and Fairfax were considered bellwethers for continual change in a historically red state. The debate became even heavier in Fairfax where a member of the Virginia PTA and Fairfax NAACP suggested that she and others should let CRT opponents die. (The speaker later apologized and claimed she was hoping particular ideas she cited would die).
The following month, McAuliffe also raised parents’ concerns when he said from a debate stage that parents shouldn’t be “telling schools what they should teach.”
But things really got heated in the final weeks of the election, after the Daily Wire reported on allegations that Smith’s daughter was assaulted. The corresponding fallout included Ziegler apologizing for failing to provide a “safe, welcoming, and affirming environment.” A subsequently released email indicated that he might have misled residents about when he knew about the assault.
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A Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) contractor was also revealed to have been co-founded by Attorney General Merrick Garland’s son-in-law. That relationship prompted even greater scrutiny of Garland as he encountered backlash for a controversial memo directing the FBI to investigate school board opposition in the form of “harassment” and “threats” by parents.
By the week of the election, Fox News has released a poll showing that Youngkin not only reversed McAuliffe’s lead but did so with a wide margin and voters ranking education high on their list of priorities.