Parents in Loudoun County are organizing against well-funded conservative activists.
Loudoun County is one of the richest and best-educated counties in the United States. Its public schools are considered some of the best in the country.
In recent months, the county has become a hotbed of conservative protest over anti-racist curricula and protections for transgender students. Public school officials in Loudoun County, and around the United States, have become the targets of a campaign being waged by conservative donors, media pundits, politicians, and local activists.
They are protesting what they call "critical race theory" — an educational philosophy mainly taught in colleges that is informed by the United States' history of racialized oppression. The conservative protests at school board meetings across the country have spawned viral images and videos of enraged adults shouting down school officials.
On Oct. 4, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the Federal Bureau of Investigations to investigate the "disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools."
Several Loudoun County School Board members have received death threats on multiple occasions. Last week, school board member Beth Barts announced she was resigning from her position effective Nov. 2. "This was not an easy decision or a decision made in haste," Barts said in a statement. "After much thought and careful consideration, it is the right decision for me and my family."
Conservative activists had for months been confronting Barts at school board meetings for supporting so-called "critical race theory" and had even filed a petition with Loudoun's circuit court to have Barts removed from her position. Among the petitioners' complaints were allegations that Bart and other school board members belonged to a private "anti-racist" Facebook group.
Fight for Schools, a conservative political action committee, is one of the main groups leading the effort to recall Loudoun County School Board members for allegedly promoting "critical race theory." The group's leader is Ian Prior, a former Department of Justice spokesperson during Donald Trump's presidency who has two children enrolled in Loudoun County schools.
After Barts announced her resignation, Prior's group released a statement saying she had "done the right thing" and warning that other school board members "should take notice."
Now, some Loudoun County parents are fighting back.
They are members of Loudoun4All, a new advocacy group organizing against conservatives' school board recall efforts in Northern Virginia. They hope to dispel the narrative that Loudoun is home only to irate conservative parents railing against anti-racist curricula and pro-LGBTQ school policies.
Loudoun County parents say the people who have gone viral by shouting at school board meetings represent a vocal minority of right-wing agitators.
Huyen MacMichael, who has two children enrolled in Loudoun County public schools, expressed anger over the conservative campaign to intimidate her local school board officials and even bully them out of office.
"I feel like they are happy to compromise my children's safety and education for the sake of negative publicity and their political agenda," MacMichael told the American Independent Foundation. "The extremists have harassed and threatened my school board representative and are trying to recall her because they don't like that she is not their political party. The truth is she's getting business done."
Katie Paris is the founder of Red Wine & Blue, a group of suburban women organizing against the right nationwide. Her group is pushing back against the media narrative about community members' confrontations with public school officials. (Disclosure: Paris served as CEO of the American Independent, then called Shareblue, from 2017 to 2019.)
"A small, well-funded extreme minority is trying to hijack our kids' education in suburbs across America," Paris told the American Independent Foundation.
Rasha Saad, a parent who has lived in Loudoun County for more than two decades and a member of Loudoun4All, agrees. She said she is "outraged" that "right-wing agitators" are funding the campaign against her local school officials to "stir up a culture war."
"It is clear that conservatives are using my neighborhood and community as a battleground to test their strategies in preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections," Saad told the American Independent Foundation. "At the end of the day, it is the people who will suffer, minorities even more so," she added. "Loudoun4All will not stand by and watch as our diverse community is turned against each other for political gain."
Deborah Morbeto, whose child graduated from the Loudoun County public school system, said she and her fellow parents wanted their children's education to be "inclusive and open."
"The parents who are yelling at school board meetings in no way represent the average parent of a child who attends public school in Loudoun County," Morbeto, a member of Loudoun4All, told the American Independent Foundation. "The rest of us are just regular folks who want the best for our kids."
Fight for Schools claims to be a "nonpartisan" group representing the "parent revolution." Between April and June, the group's political action committee raised $134,259 from 1,545 donors, according to the group's Federal Election Commission filings. From the beginning of July to the end of September, the group raised $165,890 from 2,183 donors.
"I think other parents should look in the mirror and say, 'Hey, we were distracted, we were apathetic,'" Prior told the conservative magazine National Review in June. "We just made assumptions, that your local school boards and your local school systems have the best interest of the students at heart, and they weren't going to be infected with political ideology one way or the other."
Another group, Parents Defending Education, calls itself a "national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas." The group has coordinated conservative efforts against what it calls "woke indoctrination" across the country.
Despite its grassroots branding, however, the group has deep ties to the conservative donor network bankrolled by billionaire Charles Koch. The group has quickly developed what appears to be a well-funded, extensive national media and legal apparatus.
Right-wing media has also helped create the impression of a spontaneous, grassroots movement of concerned citizens. Fox News has interviewed multiple paid conservative activists about "critical race theory" without disclosing their ties to national political groups, a recent Media Matters investigation found.
Many of the viral moments at the school board meetings appear to have been instigated by people who do not have children enrolled in the public school system.
Jon Tigges, a local businessman who attended a June school board meeting that was declared an unlawful gathering, was arrested and charged with trespassing after refusing to leave the building. Tigges told National Review he doesn't have any kids who attend Loudoun County public schools but said that didn't stop him from protesting the school board meeting.
"We're in a war," Tigges explained in a Fox News interview. "There's going to be some sacrifices. Freedom isn't free."
Northern Virginia will be key to electing Virginia's next governor. Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin has bet on conservatives' anger over public education as a winning message and has made it a core part of his appeal to suburban voters.
"Loudoun County is ground zero for the fight to return our schools to a curriculum that prepares students for the future," Youngkin said in June. "The classroom is not a place for a political agenda."
In September, Youngkin attended two events hosted by Fight for Schools, and his campaign has even tapped the group for help bringing people to his campaign events, the Loudoun Times reported.
The county's demographics — and its politics — have shifted over the past 20 years. In 2000, the county was 85% white, and 56% of the county's votes in the 2000 presidential election went to Republican candidate George W. Bush. By 2020, the county was just over 60% white, and 62% of its votes in that year's election went to President Joe Biden.
Still, the gubernatorial race remains tight. Recent polling shows Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee and former Virginia governor, leading Youngkin by a slim margin. The election will be held on Nov. 2.
"If Glenn Youngkin wins, Republicans are going to [use] Virginia as a blueprint for how to win in 2022," Paris said. "That's dangerous for our kids' education everywhere."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.