LEESBURG, Va.—Before Covid-19 forced its students into online classes, Loudoun County’s bimonthly school board meetings were often dry exercises in bureaucratic wrangling: Haggling over AP textbook availability and public construction projects. Poring over budget proposals for custodial supplies and debating about whether to renew the contract for a company supplying milk to cafeterias.
Only a handful of parents showed up on a regular basis, says Julie Garrett, a mother of two school-aged children in the school district. Some, like Garrett, one of the growing numbers of liberal parents in the wealthy Northern Virginia exurb, were committed to helping the district work to overcome its segregationist past.
But then a number of things happened: The school board flipped Democratic in 2019. The NAACP filed a complaint, alleging patterns of rampant racial discrimination against Black and Latino students in the school district, which was the last in Virginia to desegregate. A subsequent investigation by the state attorney general confirmed those allegations. So officials scrambled to address racial disparities in their schools, rolling out an ambitious equity plan.
Meanwhile, parents started cramming into the once sparsely attended gatherings. First they flooded school board meetings to protest Covid-delayed school reopenings. Then they turned their sights on “critical race theory,” raising a ruckus and thrusting Loudoun County onto the frontlines of the contentious national debate over critical race theory.
Across the country, critical race theory—a legal/academic framework Republicans have conflated to define all race and gender-based equity work in public schools—is shaping fights in a number of suburban jurisdictions. School boards in Maine and Pennsylvania faced similar conflicts. Florida’s state board of education banned the teaching of critical race theory in its public schools. The push against critical race theory is animating one of the largest nationwide school board recall efforts in history since the birth of the Tea Party last decade, according to Ballotpedia, which has been tracking them since 2006.
It’s the latest skirmish between cultural conservatives and progressives duking it out over the future of the country. But what’s happening in Virginia suggests there are hard political goals at play, too: Education, an otherwise sleepy campaign issue, has long animated Virginia politics, as the commonwealth is home to the nation’s top public-school districts. Republican operatives—some of whom are also parents—are using it as a tool to drive a wide enough wedge in vote-rich Northern counties, to push a blue-leaning state back into tossup territory.
The politics of this one school district have big implications for political control of Virginia. And Republicans hope to leverage this issue to wrest away Democrats’ control of all three branches of state government. Last week, GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin even held a campaign rally in front of the Loudoun County school board building to decry critical race theory—even as the school board repeatedly denies teaching it. (Nor is it taught in school districts around the county where conservatives are attempting to ban it.)
Yet commonwealth Democrats have largely dismissed their efforts. In an early June press gaggle, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe dismissed the conservative uproar over critical race theory as a “right-wing conspiracy.”
“I think it’s going to have potential for a significant influence on the election,” said Geary Higgins, chair of the 10th District of the Virginia Republican Committee, which includes Loudoun County. “If people continue to deny that this is happening, or try to say that teaching racism in our public schools is somehow a good thing, I don’t think Virginians are gonna vote for that.”
But Jon Tigges, a businessman and conservative activist based in Leesburg, the governing seat of Loudoun County, has his eye on a bigger prize.
“What happens in Loudoun is going to echo across the rest of the country,” Tigges said. “If we win the battle here, that’s going to echo everyplace else.”
‘That really started to get people fired up’
On the surface, Loudoun County, located less than 50 miles from the nation’s capital, looks like any suburban town, complete with strip malls and rolling hills. But with a median household income of $142,299, it tops the list of the nation’s wealthiest counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This is evidenced in part by its wineries and vineyards, making it a mainstay for its wealthier residents and a notable destination for visitors from Washington, D.C.
It was one of many Northern Virginia counties whose shift to the left in 2008 to elect Barack Obama and more sharply in 2018 to flip control of the Statehouse was seen as emblematic of Republicans’ loosening grip on the suburbs nationwide. Its changing politics owe in part to the influx of young people drawn to the region for its proximity to Washington and top-tier public schools. It’s also seen a steep uptick in racial diversity largely driven by Asian Americans, who now comprise 20 percent of its population.
Democrats organized around these shifts to secure control of Northern Virginia up and down the ticket. Loudoun County’s school board followed suit in 2019 when its membership also flipped to a majority of Democratic-aligned members. Now, conservatives are trying to take back control of the board with a recall effort to unseat six of the nine school board members, which has garnered thousands of signatures.
And at a campaign rally for Glenn Youngkin, even more attendees—some of whom were not parents of Loudoun County students—signed on.
“We’ve been able to capture some of the energy out there that’s been frustrated with the direction of the schools out here and a variety of issues,” said Ian Prior, founder of the group Fight For Schools, one of the foremost parent groups against critical race theory in Loudoun County. Prior said the group has secured more than 10,000 signatures in this effort—more than half of the 17,300 needed to bring the recall before a judge.
Yet, despite its changing demographics, Loudoun County remains in many ways a relic of Virginia’s Jim Crow past, integrating its schools more than a decade after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education. And that legacy still lingers for Loudoun County’s students of color, as spelled out in two damning reports confirming discrimination against Black and Latino students. In a 63-page November report, Democratic Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring found the school district’s “policies and practices resulted in a discriminatory impact on Black/African-American and Latinx/Hispanic students.”
Students of color, the report found, were denied access to gifted and talented programs on the basis of race at one of the county’s top application-only public schools, the Academies of Loudoun. The county’s follow-up equity assessment, conducted by a third party diversity consultant, found white students frequently used the N-word around Black students with little to no recourse while Black students were often disproportionately reprimanded for minor offenses.
“There’s systemic and there’s institutional, structural racism that is at play,” said Pastor Michelle Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP, who has been pushing both the school board and the state to do something about the racial inequities in Loudoun County.
Other parents described cultural challenges their students faced. One parent who wished to remain anonymous said that their children, who are Asian American, were called “terrorists” by their white peers.
Meanwhile, the school board hasn’t had a Black member since 1999 and only two people of color sit on the board today. All of this prompted local advocates and concerned parents to pressure the district to enact reforms as early as 2018. In September 2020, the school board put forth a comprehensive equity plan with instructions to address what it described as “issues of diversity, equity and inclusion” in the county schools. Among its recommendations: implicit bias training for teachers, an accountability system for addressing student racism and prioritizing diversity in its hiring practices. It also included a provision for more inclusive language for trans and gender nonconforming students.
Not everyone was on board.
“It feels like it all started when things started getting put in writing,” Garrett said of the conservative backlash she witnessed. “That we acknowledge that there is a problem. And we want to address it proactively. That really started to get people fired up.”
Word quickly spread about the plan, prompting conservative parents to immediately organize groups against it. Some of those parents told POLITICO they believe the county’s equity measures are part of a larger scheme to unfairly elevate the needs of gender nonconforming students and sow discord between white students and students of color.
“It’s really dumbing down our curriculum and then rewriting it in a way that is focused on inaccuracies,” said Karlee Copeland, a Loudoun County parent and treasurer of the county Republican Women’s Club, the largest of its kind in Virginia.
Loudoun County superintendent Scott Ziegler defended the equity plan, saying critical race theory is not part of the school curriculum.
“It’s not a way of administering schools,” Ziegler said. “It’s not a way of teaching students. It was never intended to be that way. But people who detract from equity work often use CRT interchangeably with equity work.”
But now, critical race theory, something that few people can clearly define, is dividing parents here. It’s pitting conservative white suburban moms against progressive white suburban moms who battle it out in dueling Facebook groups. But Copeland insists their motivations have little to do with politics.
“We’ve never talked about it in the form of, ‘How do we win our next election?’ It was, ‘These are the issues impacting our community,’” she said. “We’re conservatives—we conserve tradition. We’re not radical change agents.”
‘It’s the color of your ideology’
Still, some Republicans in the state see the issue continuing to grow in the lead-up to November. Many of the parents helming anti-critical race theory groups in the commonwealth are also conservative operatives and right-leaning policy analysts. Prior, the founder of Fight for Schools, is a former senior official in the Justice Department under Donald Trump.
And some of those leading the fight against the school board don’t have children enrolled in the schools here.
Tigges, who said he has led more than two dozen protests against Loudoun County’s Covid restrictions in the past year, has lived here for more than 30 years. But while he’s focusing his efforts these days on the school board, none of his six kids have attended county public schools. He has instead opted to home school them, citing what he describes as a lack of a “moral foundation” in the school’s curriculum.
“I’m a taxpayer. I’m a business owner. You know, so I paid for [school resources],” he said in an interview. “And the results coming out are just awful.”
On a warm evening in late June, Tigges hosted more than 100 local parents and party faithful on his property, a picturesque open-air cabin and vineyard off of a winding dirt road in the hills of Hamilton, Va. Over beer, wine, burgers and brownies, the group of mostly white attendees took turns condemning the myriad issues they saw plaguing their community. Chief among their concerns: the Loudoun County school board and school district’s perceived biases and commitment to what many described as the “indoctrination” of their students via critical race theory.
Conservative parents and sympathizers here frame the debate around critical race theory in existential terms. As they see it, phrases like “patriarchy”, “white privilege” and “social justice” all have the same negative connotation. They argue that teaching critical race theory will only further divide students, making white children feel they are inherent oppressors.
“What we’re dealing with here is a modern-day civil rights issue,” Tigges said. “But instead of the color of your skin, it’s the color of your ideology.”
Earlier that week, more than 200 people—some of those who later attended Tigges’ dinner—signed up to speak out at the school board meeting against its agenda item of inclusive language for transgender students. Parents stood on tables, yelling and booing at school board members, said Atoosa Reaser, a Loudoun County school board member who moved to adjourn the meeting early. A livestream of the meeting shows one man with his middle fingers up to the dais as others held signs, reading “We the Parents Stand Up!” in the air. Police arrived to disperse the crowd, arresting two, including Tigges.
“It’s kind of difficult to believe that they want what’s best for kids when they’re behaving that way,” Reaser said.
Since that meeting, Reaser said she has felt uneasy as the local movement against critical race theory has grown. She said she is fearful that the school board recall effort could devolve into something more dangerous. As an example, she pointed to one Facebook comment from a former school board member calling on conservative parents to “show [current school board members] what an insurrection actually is.”
“How much more room is there for escalation?,” said Reaser. “People died on January 6.”
‘Viewing everything through the lens of race’
Eight days after the raucous school board meeting, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin held a campaign rally right outside the building where it took place. The event, billed as a launch rally for Youngkin’s education plan, was the clearest picture yet of how Republicans’ co-opting critical race theory is animating Northern Virginia politics.
Democrats have repeatedly criticized Youngkin, whom a June poll from JMC Analytics shows is trailing slightly behind McAuliffe. They argue his policy plans are insubstantial and decry his campaign strategy of leaning into culture war issues that animate the base.
But animating the base works. Youngkin received the loudest applause at last week’s rally when he cited his day one priority: issuing an executive order to end the teaching of critical race theory in schools. In a press gaggle following his remarks, Youngkin pushed back on Loudoun County officials’ repeated assertions that critical race theory is not being taught in schools.
“We actually see what critical race theory is doing to the curriculum by dividing our kids and seeing and viewing everything through the lens of race,” Youngkin said. “We should absolutely just go back to our basic view that Martin Luther King taught us, which is we should judge people by the content of their character not by the color of their skin.”
Republican Party chapters have gone all in on critical race theory by making it a core campaign issue for candidates up and down the ticket. Several have shifted their campaign messaging over the last couple of weeks to condemn critical race theory, extending its message beyond Loudoun County to the rest of the vote-rich Northern Virginia region.
“The thing that’s gotten the play, obviously, is critical race theory, and then the transgender issues, but I think for our group, there’s so many different issues,” Prior said.
‘It is absolutely, utterly exhausting’
Democrats, meanwhile, are walking the line between engaging with Republican talking points and eschewing them altogether.
“[Republicans] are going to take everything that people are afraid of, throw it under ‘critical race theory’ and run with it,” said Lissa Savaglio, chair of the Loudoun County Democratic Party. “And nobody really knows what critical race theory is. So everybody’s just kind of like, ‘Oh, well, that definitely must be what’s happening.’”
Savaglio and other Loudoun County Democrats have implored party leadership in the commonwealth to help counter conservatives’ message. In a June statement, Savaglio and the county leadership team said that they warned party leadership as early as May that Republicans’ “inflammatory remarks, disinformation, and threats of violence would divide our community and lead to violence.”
“Republicans are engaged in the newest round of their ongoing culture wars aimed at stoking hatred, divisiveness, and fear to drive their voters to the polls and keep those afraid of violence from speaking out,” the statement continues.
Some parents look at the push against teaching racial and gender equity in schools as misguided at best. Some parents of color, too, feel they have had to assume a role of de-facto race explainer to their white peers.
“It’s exhausting—it is absolutely, utterly exhausting to have to educate people,” said Ramona Clifton, a Loudoun County parent. “It’s a heavy burden. And it shouldn’t be our burden as Black people in this community to keep educating the white people in this community about what it means to be Black or what racism is.”
McAuliffe, for his part, is downplaying the furor over critical race theory. His campaign maintains it is focusing instead on his policy plans for education that include increasing teacher pay and expanding broadband access—concerns his aides say voters talk about on the campaign trail far more often than critical race theory.
Thomas of the local NAACP said she feels the recent conservative push against critical race theory has distracted from the actual inequities that exist in the county.
And those leading the charge against critical race theory, she said, have goals that are political rather than educational.
“They are willing to springboard their pursuits on the backs of Black kids who have been suffering in this town for at least 80 years,” she said. “This is their pilot program.”