LEESBURG, Va. – Ronda Nassib found herself among fed-up parents wanting to know how she and a small band of Northern Virginia activists took on the local school board and sparked a movement that help turn Virginia from blue to red last month.
The parents trekked from suburban communities in Arizona, Texas, Florida and other parts of the country to a retreat in Washington, D.C., in part to hear Nassib and other Fight For Schools members from nearby Loudoun County, Virginia. They wanted to channel parents' outrage over critical race theory (CRT), curriculum and COVID mandates into political action, the way it had propelled Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin into the Virginia governor's mansion last month.
"There were parents that were in the same boat as I feel I am, that are fighting the same cause," said Nassib, a real estate agent and mother of an eighth grader, while sitting at a Starbucks on Leesburg's busy Market Street. "This is a movement that's not going to slow down. Parents are never going to be quiet again. We are never going to be asleep at the table when it comes to our children, to their education, to their upbringing."
Fight For Schools started two years ago by parents who were concerned the school district's efforts to promote racial equity would dilute the system's emphasis on academics. But it grew to include other issues, including COVID-19 mandates, concerns that school board members were violating open meetings laws, and the safety of students after a sexual assault in a high school restroom. Nassib joined the group earlier this year, distraught that some books that were added to the curriculum were too graphic and inappropriate.
The organization's members packed school board meetings, filed information requests for documents and attracted the attention of the media and Youngkin.
Youngkin's victory, using parents' outrage in Loudoun and other Virginia counties as a central theme, has given Republicans nationwide and conservative organizations such as FreedomWorks a potent campaign issue in battleground communities that will decide control of Congress and state legislatures across America. No matter with whom you agree, education will be on the ballot in 2022.
Hours after Youngkin was declared the winner, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy capitalized on the momentum by pledging to introduce a "parents' bill of rights."
"The one thing you will find is, the Republican Party will be the party of education," he said.
Less than two weeks later, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley introduced the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act, which would "give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats." Hawley has yet to release details beyond a call for more transparency about curricula and greater parental involvement in school board decisions regarding COVID-19 mandates that would trigger a cutoff of federal funds if not obeyed.
Democrats have traditionally polled well on education. But a Republican wave that swept Youngkin and other Virginia GOP candidates into power on Nov. 2 – and a far narrower than expected reelection win by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy – has Democrats on the defensive.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,001 U.S. adults after the election found respondents trusted Republicans (41%) almost as much as Democrats (44%) to handle education. In 2006, the last time the poll asked the same question, Democrats held a 56%-33% advantage.
Democratic voters and advocates told USA TODAY the party needs to directly and forcefully address Republican efforts to focus on education in next year's midterms to motivate their base.
“You cannot overstate the impact of (Donald) Trump and Trumpism and the turn the GOP has taken," said Tina Clay, a retired special educator for Loudoun County Public Schools and a lifelong Democrat. "We've had a lot of decent Virginians who are Republicans, but we're in a different place.”
Parents' revolt takes hold in Loudoun County
At the heart of the battle in a quickly expanding Loudoun County is a cultural divide that's also playing out in suburban enclaves nationwide.
Stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west to bustling suburbs hugging Dulles International Airport in the east, Loudoun is a study in contrasts.
The western part of the county leans Republican, white and rural. Dotted with wineries, horse farms and country lanes, it's home to the evangelical Patrick Henry College in Purcellville and the region's "horse and hunt capital" in tony Middleburg. The eastern part consists of an affluent, diverse and Democratic-leaning population exploding in growth as the Washington suburbs push outward.
Over the past 30 years, Loudoun has seen a population explosion as minority families – with Asian American families leading the way – moved into the county because of more economic opportunities. The white population has seen a sizable decrease.
Until the 1990 census, Loudoun's population never exceeded 80,000. Today it is Virginia's third-most populous county, with 420,959 people. The 2020 census showed the white population in Loudoun shrank 15 percentage points from 2010 to 2020 and 29.1 percentage points from 2000 through 2020. Meanwhile, the Asian American population increased by 16 percentage points from 2000 to 2020.
Brit Jones, a board member of the advocacy group Loudoun 4 All, attributed the backlash over critical race theory to the county's changing demographics.
"They are using words to appeal to a certain subset of the population that, quite frankly, does not like the fact that this county is becoming less white," Jones said. "I think it will continue to play a role because there are certain subsets of the population that don't like the change. They don't like the fact that this county is becoming more diverse.”
Loudoun County public schools were in the midst of implementing changes to combat systemic racism after an equity plan detailed instances in which students of color were on the receiving end of racial slurs and disproportionate disciplinary polices.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and its prolonged shutdowns of in-person classes. Parents' frustrations increased, and eventually boiled over.
Parents "were used to having a very strong academic curriculum. And suddenly, there were changes. And of course, change bothers people, regardless of whether it's good, bad or indifferent," said Loudoun historian Eugene Scheel. "I have a feeling that the majority of people are just not really cognizant of minority issues and the difficulties of people who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps."
Loudoun 4 All formed over the summer as school board meetings escalated into shouting matches and arrests over how race and history are taught, transgender rights and sexual assault incidents in the county.
Rasha Saad, president of Loudoun 4 All, told USA TODAY the group is not just concerned with teaching "true history" but with ensuring an inclusive and equitable learning environment for all students.
"We're talking about making our discipline policies more equitable for all so that students of color are not disparately affected by our discipline policies," said Saad, mother to a ninth grader and a third grader in Loudoun public schools.
Critical race theory is an academic concept in which the core idea is that racism is not only the product of individual prejudice but something systemic as well, stemming from the impact of slavery. It's not an individual course taught in schools, and most teachers say they never mention the theory in class. But the theme of systemic racism is part of many high school discussions.
Youngkin's pledge to eliminate CRT – or at least its principles – in Virginia schools resonated with suburban parents. But it wasn't the only way he tried to make education a GOP issue. He called for teacher raises, higher K-12 standards and an expansion of charter schools, mainstream platforms that appealed to a broad section of voters.
"When McAuliffe said that parents had no right in their children's education and we didn't deserve a seat at the table, that woke up a lot of parents," Nassib said. "Glenn Youngkin was so in tune to what the parents needed, the parents wanted, and what they were fighting for. He heard us, He really heard us. He heard our cry for help."
Youngkin beat McAuliffe by 63,480 votes of nearly 3.3 million cast, or nearly 2%, in a state that hadn't elected a Republican statewide since 2009.
Parents had a lot to do with that, especially in the sprawling suburban counties ringing the nation's capital: Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William. McAuliffe won those dark blue areas, but not by the margins Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam did four years ago.
In Loudoun, McAuliffe beat Youngkin by 11 percentage points (55%-44%) compared with the 20 point-win Northam enjoyed in 2017. (Democrat Joe Biden won Loudoun by 25 points over Trump last year). In Fairfax, McAuliffe's 30-point victory fell short of Northam, who won by 37 four years ago. And in Prince William, McAuliffe's 15-point win paled next to Northam's 23-point margin.
ALG Research, a Democratic polling firm that conducted focus groups of Virginia voters after the election, found that many were seething over schools, especially after McAuliffe said in one debate he didn't think parents should be telling schools what to teach.
"Education dominated – not so much CRT (which was a problem) but more broadly parental control + shutdowns," ALG's Brian Stryker and Oren Savir wrote in a memo. "These swing voters didn’t agree with what they thought the liberal position on race in schools was. However, it wasn’t as salient as the fact that they felt Democrats closed their schools and didn’t feel bad about it. They also knew about (McAuliffe's) debate quote on parents; it clearly burned in and resonated with them."
“I think that a lot of people didn't realize just what a kind of cataclysmic shift it was and experience it was for parents who were required to homeschool their kids or do online learning for their kids," Carrie Lukas, vice president of the conservative Independent Women's Voice, told USA TODAY. “I think that's really where this starts. And it was this kind of building frustration.”
The education issues roiling conservatives
Whit Ayres, Republican strategist and president of North Star Opinion Research in Northern Virginia, told USA TODAY it's not just critical race theory that mobilizes Republican parents. A host of other education issues are on voters' minds.
“It's critically important for Republican candidates to have compelling and persuasive messages about how to improve our schools. And that goes well beyond railing against CRT," Ayres said. "It includes a whole host of issues like parental involvement, like getting the schools open, like stopping the war on gifted and talented education.”
Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, chairman of the largest conservative caucus in Congress, the Republican Study Committee, released a memo on lessons learned from Virginia. Chief among them was to make concerns of parents the No. 1 policy issue for the party. Banks also listed rescinding President Biden's Title IX guidance, which protects the rights of transgender and gay students, as another priority.
But the parent revolt hasn't included just conservative Republicans.
Michelle Denise Mege, 45, who describes herself as liberal and voted twice for Barack Obama before supporting Trump in 2020, joined the movement in Loudoun because she was concerned that school lockdowns last year would hurt underprivileged families who couldn't afford private school or tutors. Then she found out what public schools were teaching.
"Once COVID hit and everything went virtual, then parents begin listening to what was going on in the classroom," said the Leesburg lawyer, who plans to send her eighth grade Catholic school student to public high school next fall.
Parents' pushback rising in battleground states
Parents could help Republicans take back Congress from Democrats who control Capitol Hill by whisker-thin margins. If the GOP can achieve a net gain of five seats, they win the House back. In the Senate, they need a net increase of only a single seat.
Many swing districts are in states where parental revolts are taking place.
Loudoun County could be a harbinger for next year's elections, said Laura Zorc, director of Education Reform at FreedomWorks, who helped organize the retreat. The gathering included parents whose concern has them actively considering a run for local school board.
Already, parents groups in Gwinnett County (suburban Atlanta), Scottsdale (suburban Phoenix) and Palm Beach County (South Florida) have been challenging school districts on their policies, their transparency and their respect for parents, said Zorc, a former school board member in Indian River County, Florida.
"I think everything that we're seeing boils down to the fact that parents have realized that they do not have parental rights in education, that it's pretty well dictated to them what their kids are going to be taught, how they're going to be taught, when they're going to be taught," she said. "Any candidate worth their salt, they're going to be talking about this issue – the education issue – because that is really the issue right now of the 2022 midterm elections."
Like Loudoun, Gwinnett has seen a demographic and political transformation. The county has added more than 150,000 residents since the 2010 census. It is Georgia's second-most populous county and has shifted to a Democratic-majority county.
Carol Anderson, a historian and professor of African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta, points to Gwinnett's diversity as a reason it could be the next battleground for education.
“In Gwinnett County here, which is the most diverse county in Georgia, you just had the Republicans try a takeover of the county commission," Anderson said. "This was the first year that you had a Democratic County Commission."
Republican state Sen. Clint Dixon recently said plans to overhaul the county commission and school boards are on hold as they create a study committee and gather more input.
In Arizona, Scottsdale Unified School District's Governing Board President Jann-Michael Greenburg was replaced by an interim president after parents accused him of spying on parents who spoke out on COVID-19 policies and critical race theory. The dossier allegedly contained personal information of parents, including their addresses and Social Security numbers.
Police have opened an investigation into the parents' claims. A petition signed by hundreds of parents was created calling on Greenburg to resign, and several board members also have asked Greenburg to consider resigning.
Ayres said it's "perfectly possible" for Republican candidates across suburbia to replicate Youngkin's path to victory.
“Our firm has preached for years that the best way for Republican candidates to gain support in suburban communities, especially among women of childbearing age, is to have a compelling message about how to improve education, especially public education that educates 85% of our kids.”
Advocates: Democrats must tackle education head-on
Next year's midterms will not just determine which party has control over Congress but which direction American voters want the country to move in the 2024 presidential election. Electoral prizes such as Arizona, Florida and Texas will be pivotal to each party's chances in both cycles.
Republicans, looking to move past 2020 and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, believe they have found a strategy to retaking Congress without invoking the ire of Trump given Youngkin's success in Virginia.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., told supporters at a rally hosted by the Independent Women’s Network last month that the GOP would continue to push for parents to have more say in their children's education.
“Other people now know what I’ve known for a long time – parents are a force to be reckoned with," said Foxx, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.
Critics, however, argue Republicans are using race-neutral language, which ostensibly excludes a person's race as a factor, to justify "a racist agenda."
“The new Southern strategy is one that cloaks a racist agenda in race-neutral language. And so we hear it in terms of election integrity. We hear it in terms of we want education, not indoctrination,” Anderson said. “And it is designed to stoke the fears of white Republicans, that something precious is under assault. And it's being taken from them by those unworthy people.”
Democrats also said that simply saying critical race theory is not taught in any public schools is not an effective counter-messaging tool.
"I believe that if Democrats don't wake up and put resources behind organizing and amplifying mainstream parents, Loudoun is the warning signal for 2022," said Katie Paris, founder of the activist group Red, Wine and Blue, which works to mobilize suburban women.
Margaret Stokes, an eighth grade teacher for Loudoun County, called the Republican campaign against critical race theory "useful propaganda” and "a load of garbage." She said she is determined to keep voting for Democrats.
“I'm more motivated than I've ever been to vote and make sure that Republicans do not take over the House, do not take over the Senate," Stokes said. "We've got to keep them out because they will destroy our democracy."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Education and critical race theory are on the ballot for 2022