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Culture war on education rages in Virginia governor's race

WorldJul 22, 2021 02:47PM ET
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3/3 © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) attend a campaign event in McLean, Virginia, U.S., July 14, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo 2/3

(Changes terminology in paragraph 5)

By James Oliphant, Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax

McLEAN, Virginia (Reuters) -Suparna Dutta, an Indian immigrant, is incensed that new admissions standards aimed at boosting Black and Latino enrollment at her son's Alexandria, Virginia high school have resulted in fewer Asian Americans being admitted.

Across town, Marie Murphy, a white mother of an 8th grader, is alarmed by anti-racism discussions at her son's school, which she believes force white children to feel bad about their race.

In the upcoming election for Virginia governor in November, both women say they will vote for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, betting he will fight what they claim is a dangerous leftward drift in the state's public education system. Classroom instruction about race has emerged as a flashpoint in the contest - and a potential harbinger of what's in store for 2022 nationwide elections to decide control of Congress.

"I don't want my child to be taught that race is an issue," Murphy said.

Women are central to the Republican Party's national strategy to win in the suburbs, where it has lost considerable ground to Democrats in recent years. Gearing up for 2022, Republicans have been test-driving a variety of messages. Pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-transgender planks aren't big draws for suburban voters. Neither is Republican criticism of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines.

But public schools are a huge deal for suburban parents, many of whom moved to quality school districts to give their kids a leg up. Hoping to persuade these voters, Republicans across the country have mounted a campaign against so-called critical race theory or CRT, an academic construct that emerged in the 1970s to examine how U.S. law and institutions have perpetuated racial inequality.

Some Republican politicians and conservative groups have seized on the term to attack all manner of speech and academic policy related to race, denouncing concepts such as "social justice" and "white privilege" as a Democratic-led effort to indoctrinate children into turning against their country. One Alabama lawmaker claimed falsely that CRT called for white men to be sent to re-education camps.

In recent months, states such as Oklahoma and Texas have passed laws to restrict what can be taught in public schools about America's troubled legacy of race relations.

School districts in Virginia and elsewhere insist they are not teaching CRT. They say critics are misconstruing their efforts to teach America's history of slavery and civil rights, celebrate diversity, train teachers and promote better outcomes for students of color. Still, angry parents have packed school board meetings here and nationwide to demand that CRT be scrubbed from the curriculum.

For now, it remains unclear whether Republicans' strategy will succeed in clawing back suburban and independent voters or will simply appeal to the party's conservative base.

But in Virginia, Youngkin is betting the controversy will propel his candidacy. The former private equity executive recently announced his education plan in suburban Loudoun County, whose school system has been roiled by some of the country's most virulent anti-CRT protests. He has pledged to replace the state Board of Education and has accused Democrats of lowering the state's academic standards.

“We have to press forward with having a curriculum that teaches our children how to think, not what to think. We will not allow critical race theory in our schools," Youngkin said at a campaign event for women supporters last week in McLean, a wealthy Virginia suburb. Attendees erupted in applause.

Once a reliably Republican state, Virginia has slid firmly into the Democratic column, led by suburban voters. Democrat Joe Biden thumped incumbent Republican Donald Trump here by a 10-point margin in November.

Virginia's gubernatorial race, coming a year after the presidential election, historically has served as a barometer of the public's mood. It also provides a preview of arguments Democrats and Republicans are likely to make in next year's midterm elections.

With the U.S. economy recovering, Republican candidates may resort to fighting a culture war, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst. He said education issues could resonate with suburban and Asian voters who left the party under Trump over his flame-throwing style of politics.

"If the Democrats have an Achilles' heel, it might be that," Holsworth said.

Youngkin's Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, said Youngkin is emulating Trump with a campaign aimed at spreading disinformation and stoking grievance.

"What he's doing is dividing us," McAuliffe told Reuters.

McAuliffe has released an education plan that includes raising teacher pay and eliminating racial disparities in achievement, among other things.

Youngkin's spokesperson, Macauley Porter, said McAuliffe "mocks parents' concerns instead of offering them solutions."

McAuliffe, who held the office from 2014 to 2018 and is running for a second term, is favored by analysts to win the election. But a poll conducted by the Trafalgar Group this month gave him just a 2-point lead, suggesting a close race.

Underscoring the importance of the race to Democrats, Biden is scheduled to campaign with McAuliffe on Friday – more than three months before Election Day.


Last week, some of the women who attended Youngkin's campaign event in McLean singled out education as their most important issue.

Claudia Stine, an immigrant from El Salvador whose children attended local public schools in Fairfax County, said CRT is "dehumanizing" because she says it "defines people by their skin color and teaches kids to resent and disrespect each other for it."

While school systems across Virginia have denied criticisms that they teach CRT, state leaders have pushed to promote racial equity in public education. In February, the Democratic-led general assembly passed a law requiring "cultural competency" to be part of teacher evaluations.

Some parents approve. Theresa Kennedy, a mother of two sons in Richmond who works in finance and supports McAuliffe, believes schools should teach more about systemic racism in America.

"It's hard to see your kids wrestle with stuff, but that's also how they become full adults," Kennedy said.

The issue has spilled out of the governor's race to other contests as part of what Republican officials say is their overall strategy for the congressional midterms.

"House Democrats who embrace Critical Race Theory are doing so at their own peril and will have to answer for it in 2022," said Samantha Bullock, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the arm of the party that oversees U.S. House of Representatives races. Last week, Republican Taylor Keeney jumped into the race against Democratic U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger, who represents a Virginia district outside of Richmond, considered to be a major battleground in next year's elections.

One of Keeney's battle cries: Schools should be "for education, not indoctrination."


Some are dubious the CRT flap will help Republicans conquer the suburbs because the controversy so far has resonated mostly with the party's most fervent supporters. Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican strategist in Virginia, predicts its biggest achievement may be to fire up the base in a typically low-turnout, off-year election.

But for Virginians like Dutta, race in the classroom is the single issue now guiding their votes.

Dutta said she built a career in technology after arriving in the United States in 1993 to attend college with just a few hundred dollars in her pocket, and has largely avoided politics. That changed after her son's top-ranked school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, last year eliminated standardized admission tests and adopted a "holistic review" process that considers socioeconomic factors as well as grade point average.

The incoming class, announced in May, saw the proportion of Asian-American students drop to 54% from 73% with corresponding increases in the numbers of Black, Hispanic and white students.

Dutta argues the changes have lowered academic standards and amount to targeted discrimination against Asians. The Fairfax County school system refutes that, saying admission remains race-blind and that there has been no impact on the school's academic standing.

Dutta now chairs an education support group for Youngkin, tasked with seeking out like-minded parents. "Asians typically vote for Democrats, but it won't be that way this year," she said.

Fairfax County alone is home to more than 200,000 Asian Americans, the most of any county in Virginia. Asian Americans make up around 8% of the electorate statewide.

Nationwide, Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters supported Biden over Trump by at least a 2-to-1 margin, pre-election surveys and exit polls showed.

Christine Chen, executive director of the nonprofit Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, said studies by her organization have shown that a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative-action policies to help disadvantaged minorities.

And after a wave of anti-Asian violence over the past year, Chen said they also likely recognize the value of incorporating diverse viewpoints into education, including the Asian-American experience -- exactly the type of efforts that some Republicans have decried as CRT.

Culture war on education rages in Virginia governor's race

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