School boards are a “battleground” in Virginia governor’s race

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

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As the race for Virginia governor tightens, the state’s school board meetings have become a political battleground, and the center of the closing argument by Republicans.

Huyen MacMichael, a mother in the Virginia exurb of Loudoun County, says the school board meetings there have grown toxic since the pandemic, with outbursts over COVID vaccine mandates, critical race theory and transgender rights —  largely fomented by Republican operatives such as Ian Prior, a former Trump administration official who is the executive director of the Fight for Schools organization.

MacMichael, a Democratic voter, says Loudoun County is now “where all the heat happens.” 

She noted one Democratic member of the board who was facing an upcoming recall campaign resigned over the weekend. Four other members are still facing recall campaigns.

“I’m really upset about how they used our school district and our community members this way, and our children — because that’s not what’s best for them. They’re pushing their politics ahead of that,” she said after an education roundtable with Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. “They’re choosing school boards as a battleground, and it’s not just happening in Loudoun.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has campaigned before on banning the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept that focuses on systemic racism when teaching U.S. history. Recently though, in his ads and on the campaign trail, he has been pushing further into this animosity over school boards in the closing weeks of a tight race

Virginia Governor Parent Activism
A family participates in a rally sponsored by Catholic Vote and Fight for Schools, in Leesburg, Va., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

Cliff Owen / AP

He frames himself as a candidate who supports “parents’ rights” and paints McAuliffe and Democrats as an obstacle standing between voters and their children’s education.

At a rally in Fauquier county, Youngkin accused McAuliffe of calling on President Biden to “send the FBI in to try and silence parents.” This prompted some attendees to yell, “We’re not domestic terrorists.”

He was referring to the Justice Department and FBI response to threats against school employees amid an uptick in violence and rise in threats directed at board members, though McAuliffe was not directly involved with the federal government’s decision.

Dave Gibbs, vice chairman of the Young Republicans Party in Fauquier county, said Youngkin’s focus on education has “poked a nerve a little more than other issues” for Republican voters.

National Republicans have already begun to emulate Youngkin’s approach on education ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ve got parents showing up all over the place because they have legitimate, real concerns. They want to have a dialogue and instead these people are trying to crush them with the strong arm of government,” National Republican Congressional Committee chair Tom Emmer told reporters in October. “They’re going to be held accountable for it in November of ’22.”

Youngkin has been promoting his recent rallies as “Parents Matter” events and has been hammering McAuliffe for saying in a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The quote came as McAuliffe was defending his veto of a bill that would let parents know about sexually explicit content in their child’s assigned readings. 

“[McAuliffe] thinks the government should stand between parents and their children,” Youngkin said at a rally in a county former President Trump won handily in 2020. “Parents around the country need us to say that ‘Yes we are standing up for our children.’ Because the same thing is happening in their school districts with their school boards and they need us to give them hope. To give them a pathway.”

McAuliffe, who launched his campaign with a pledge to invest $2 billion in education, has peppered his schedule with roundtables with parents and educators to tout his education credentials. On Friday, he appeared with first lady Jill Biden, one of the most prominent voices for education in the White House, especially since she is still teaching. McAuliffe wants to expand pre-K and broadband internet access, as well as raise teachers’ wages. 

Youngkin has pledged to expand more charter schools in Virginia, and issue an executive order to restore the commonwealth’s standards of learning “to pre-McAuliffe levels.”

McAuliffe has dubbed Youngkin’s pitch a “Donald Trump-Betsy DeVos education plan,” criticizing Youngkin’s support for using state funds to fund the expansion of charter schools, which would remove some funding from existing public schools.

He has also refuted the suggestion that critical race theory is being taught in Virginia’s schools, as Youngkin suggests, and called Republicans’ use of the issue “a racist dog whistle.”

McAuliffe’s former education secretary, Anne Holton, said Youngkin’s targeting of McAuliffe over his debate quote “is a non-issue by a Trumpist candidate who is trying to distract from what he’s going to do to undermine education.”

While both candidates said they would make sure schools won’t close down again due to the pandemic, Democrats and McAuliffe are highlighting Youngkin’s rejection of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for teachers. McAuliffe has gone a step further and said he’d require COVID-19 mandates for children, too, once they’re fully approved by federal agencies.

Warlisha Whisonant, an undecided voter at a McAuliffe event with First Lady Jill Biden, said it was “sad that COVID has become so political in terms of kids being vaccinated.”

Youngkin’s campaign has recently leaned heavily on education in an effort to appeal to Republican and independent voters in the outer suburbs and exurbs, though a CBS News poll found that other issues such as COVID-19 vaccinations and the economy remain the top issues in the race. The poll found that 55% believe mask requirements should remain in schools, and 62% that thought “Virginia’s school curriculums on race and history” is a major factor for their vote.

Jamie Hinkel, a parent of three in Fauquier county who voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, is part of a Facebook group dedicated to bringing parents out to school board meetings. After attending a nearby Youngkin rally with two other parents she met on the Facebook group, Hinkel said Youngkin’s pledge to curb COVID-19 mandates in schools is a big reason she supports him.

“The overreach and the bullying and the mandates —  it’s just got to go. And no one is doing that except for Youngkin. He’s the only one, advocating for us to have a choice,” she said.

Davima Ellis, a Democratic voter who supports McAuliffe, said she wouldn’t change anything with Virginia’s approach to COVID and education.

“Our kids went through so much within the last 18, 19 months with the pandemic. We need to get our kids back in schools, we need to get the schools funded and back on track, and I think we’re on the right track, and we don’t need any changes right now,” she said.

Sarah Ewall-Wice contributed to this report.

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