The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Virginia, dial ‘C’ for ‘crisis’

Signs outside a meeting of the Loudoun County School Board on Sept. 28 in Ashburn. (Paul Schwartzman/The Washington Post)

Peter Galuszka is the author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.”

Dial “C” for “crisis.” That seems to be what many Virginia Republicans have done to fire up culture wars involving education to boost Glenn Youngkin’s election as governor earlier this month.

Suddenly, this summer and fall, news outlets, Facebook pages and blogs were filled with story after story about pornography in school libraries and opinions on why transgender boys and girls should not have certain rights, as well as why students should not be forced to wear masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Curiously, the ground zero for the battles has been Loudoun County, a quickly diversifying suburban area that has one of the nation’s richest and better-performing public school systems. In June, a board meeting turned violent, and the board has been a regular subject on conservative news outlets such as Fox News and the New York Post.

Spotsylvania County is the state’s hot spot for book bans now — though school officials recently discarded plans for a proposed ban of “explicit” books. But Virginia has achieved notoriety before. In 1966, the Hanover County School Board removed copies of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The author responded by sending the board members a derisive letter asking whether they knew how to read.

The cries now are not only for book-banning but also against masking in schools and the supposed teaching of critical race theory, an obscure-until-now graduate school concept that studies pervasive racism in society, even though it isn’t used at all in Virginia’s public primary and secondary schools.

Backing the massive push have been wealthy and influential conservative individuals and groups. They include investor Charles Koch, Amway heir Dick DeVos, the Federalist Society and a group affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, according to reports by The Post and the Daily Beast.

The critical race theory debate picked up in the waning days of the Trump administration, but it really took off in June when Youngkin, a political neophyte and former top hedge fund executive, won a ranked-choice vote to become Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee.

He seemed light on issues, but he jumped on education. The machinery already was set up. New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall wrote that, from January 2020 to February 2021, Fox News mentioned critical race theory 164 times. From this May to August, as the campaign between Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe picked up, Fox News referred to critical race theory more than 1,900 times.

“Critical race theory has as much to do with education as death panels have to do with the Affordable Care Act,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Other calls to action include ones drawn from the pages of other conservative advocacy groups.

In September, the right-leaning Independent Women’s Forum, based in Winchester, Va., placed a template letter on its website to be used by parents to send to school boards with concerns about mask mandates for students.

Carrie Lukas, the group’s president, said, “There was no huge campaign to get people to use the letter.” She added that she and many other parents became worried about what was being taught in schools. To be sure, plenty of Virginia families found last year’s emergency stay-at-home orders difficult. Some of the state’s children might have lost a year’s worth of learning.

Using templates for advocacy is a time-tested strategy of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushes state legislators to pass pro-business laws that weaken regulations and lower taxes. The council sends lobbyists templates of bills it likes so the lobbyists can flack them to lawmakers. The group, founded in 1973, has been funded by Koch and his late brother, David.

Other aspects of the anti-public-school campaign involve limiting rights for transgender students and finding and removing books from school libraries that some parents consider too violent or sexually risqué.

A favorite target is the late Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a novel about slavery that depicts matters of a sexual nature. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1988 and later was awarded a Nobel Prize.

It seems that assembling large advocacy efforts involving education and other matters will only grow. “They are very well-coordinated,” said Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, who recently published “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.” “This didn’t happen all of a sudden, and it is top-down-driven,” he said.