The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s toxic school ‘tip line’ is shrouded in secrecy

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at an event in Richmond on July 20. (Steve Helber/AP)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) took office this year with a double message for his fellow Virginians, encouraging them to “love your neighbor” while also urging them to use a new tip line to complain about “divisive” school teaching.

In fact, announced just days after his inauguration, Mr. Youngkin’s email tip line itself turned out to be divisive. He asked “folks to send us reports and observations” on objectionable material being taught at schools, adding that the state would “catalogue it all.” The “divisive” material he had in mind, as he made clear in his first executive order, dealt with race, although he defined his terms so gauzily that they could mean almost anything.

The tip line triggered criticism, anger and mockery in Virginia and beyond. The association representing all 133 of Virginia’s local school superintendents wrote to Mr. Youngkin, pointing out that the tip line “impedes positive relationships,” and pleading with him to scrap it. He refused.

He has also shrouded the tip line in secrecy, refusing to make public the volume or content of the communiques it has received or the actions the state government has taken in response. If Mr. Youngkin’s tip line has sent any message to teachers, it is: Big Brother is watching, and he won’t tell you what he’s found out.

A dozen news organizations, including The Post, filed a lawsuit in April seeking access to the tip line’s submissions. Those submissions — rendered through a public channel, at the behest of a public official, with the ostensible purpose of modifying the material taught at public schools — should be public. American Oversight, an ethics watchdog organization, and the law firm Ballard Spahr filed a second lawsuit this month. It seeks similar information, including how the Youngkin administration has responded to tip line submissions.

“What is the tip line’s true purpose and how has the administration acted on these ‘tips’?” Heather Sawyer, American Oversight’s executive director, said in a statement. “What is it about this program that they don’t want the public to see?”

Those are the right questions. In response, the Youngkin administration so far has stonewalled, with officials saying, preposterously, that tip line submissions should be regarded as the governor’s “working papers and correspondence” and therefore somehow beyond the reach of the public domain.

The tip line could intimidate teachers, sending the message that they should tread carefully, particularly on instruction involving race, or avoid such topics altogether. That was the unmistakable gist of Mr. Youngkin’s first executive order, “on ending the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” — which is not taught in the state’s public schools.

Students should learn how to be engaged, thoughtful citizens. By setting out an ambiguous taboo and inviting Virginians to report secretly on those who might run afoul of it, Mr. Youngkin has risked making it harder for teachers to promote this sort of learning. He should be required to disclose the results.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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