The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin defends transgender policies, history standards in CNN town hall

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin during a classroom visit at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va., in September. Youngkin participated in a CNN education town hall on Thursday. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
7 min

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) reinforced his stance on transgender student policies and removing “inherently divisive concepts” from the classroom, as he dodged questions about a potential 2024 presidential run during a CNN town hall this week.

Youngkin fielded questions from parents, teachers and students on topics ranging from statewide history standards and school safety to banning artificial intelligence-powered ChatGPT in the classroom at the town hall, titled “The War Over Education.” The governor, who appeared upbeat and jovial throughout, often danced around tougher questions and routinely retreated to his well-known stance of supporting parental involvement in schools for the national audience.

The town hall, hosted by CNN’s Jake Tapper, comes amid talks of a 2024 presidential run for Youngkin, who won the 2021 gubernatorial race in part because of his early embrace of parental rights and banning critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism.

Political experts said Youngkin needed a breakout moment Thursday night to better lift him into the national conversation as a 2024 primary contender. Erin Covey, analyst at the nonpartisan Inside Elections, said it remains to be seen how much of an imprint his showing had on Republican voters.

“Being on CNN in and of itself is not news,” Covey said. “It can certainly boost your profile if you have a standout moment, but it’s too early to tell whether that was the case here.”

Tapper asked the governor, who barely registers in GOP primary polls, if he was considering a presidential run. Youngkin, who is term-limited under Virginia law prohibiting governors from serving more than one consecutive term, kept the focus on his current job but didn’t explicitly rule out the possibility.

“That’s where my focus is right now,” he said. “I believe there’s an enormous amount of work yet to do in Virginia.”

At the state level, the Republican Party applauded Youngkin’s performance for showing the country why voters sent him to Richmond.

“Since day one of his administration, Governor Youngkin has worked with House Republicans to restore excellence to our education system while also empowering parents and creating new pathways to success for students,” the party wrote in a statement about the town hall.

But Democrats and some education leaders criticized the governor for his lack of straightforward answers and stock responses.

“I cannot help but give the governor a failing grade on his performance last night,” Virginia Education Association President James J. Fedderman said in a video response Friday morning. “It was clear that he has almost no idea how schools actually work or what they actually need to help students perform better.”

In an op-ed published on CNN ahead of the town hall, Youngkin touted the state’s education successes, but his first year in office also saw a number of complications, including the abrupt resignation of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow last week.

One of the key moments on Thursday evening came as Youngkin discussed the model policies he issued last fall that would require transgender students to use school facilities and programs matching the sex they were assigned at birth and make it harder for students to change their name or pronoun at school. The policies, which were initially supposed to be adopted by school divisions in October, are still under review as state Education Department officials review more than 70,000 public comments.

Niko, a 17-year-old Arlington student at the town hall, questioned Youngkin about the guidelines.

“Look at me. I am a transgender man,” he said. “Do you really think that the girls in my high school would feel comfortable sharing a restroom with me?”

Youngkin said he supported gender-neutral bathrooms to make students feel comfortable, but doubled down on his position that sports teams should only be open to athletes of the same biological sex.

“I think sports are very clear, and I don’t think it’s controversial,” Youngkin said. “I don’t think that biological boys should be playing sports with biological girls.”

Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said she was disappointed to see the governor double down on his transgender policies.

We learned that Gov. Youngkin doesn’t care if parents support their LGBTQ+ kids, because that support would most certainly be overruled by the model guidance the administration released without any input from parents or educators,” Rahaman said.

In response to a question about low teacher salaries, Youngkin emphasized his support for a total of 10 percent in pay raises over this year and next, though the increases were initially proposed by Youngkin’s predecessor, Ralph Northam (D). This year, Youngkin proposed bonuses for teachers, but the Republican House of Delegates and Democratic state Senate both voted for 2 percent pay increases instead.

When asked how to keep students safe following the January shooting at Richneck Elementary in Newport News, where a 6-year-old boy allegedly shot his teacher in the classroom, Youngkin pointed to a behavioral health problem as the root of gun violence and said that the commonwealth has some of the “toughest gun laws in the country.”

“What we continue to find is that those gun laws don’t keep us safe,” he said. “It’s the behavior of people that we need to make sure that we’re paying attention to. Parents have a responsibility to keep guns out of their young children’s hands, and they need to be held accountable for that.”

The governor suggested that more schools take steps to ban the use of ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot tool that New York City schools banned earlier this year. He said he would have signed legislation requiring the state Education Department to establish guidelines for removing books from school libraries if the bill had been successful during this year’s legislative session.

Youngkin also defended his first-day executive order that forbids teaching “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory,” which Virginia educators have said is not taught in schools. Tapper pressed Youngkin on the differences between teaching critical race theory and historical injustices, which he said involved teaching without “judgment.” During the same line of questioning, Youngkin said he was “pleased” with the state’s history standards, which have also become a point of contention in the state.

Last year, Youngkin appointees to the state Board of Education rejected an initial version of the standards that placed greater emphasis on Black and Native American lives and perspectives. Then, members of the state board voted against an alternate version of the proposed standards, with concerns about a characterization of Indigenous people as “immigrants” and omitting references to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth, a day that has come to symbolize the end of slavery in the United States.

Public hearings on a third version of the standards, which Education Department officials said includes new content to “tell a more complete story” about the past, begin next week.

“I think it’s interesting, particularly when he tries to talk about the way that schools teach about racism and our country’s history, he’s really trying to toe that line,” said Covey, of Inside Elections. “But some of the questions from the audience members really exposed how difficult it is to do both at the same time.”