Matching similar efforts by Republicans nationally, Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidates hope labeling possible changes to the state’s education system will give them an edge.
RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Republicans pick their candidate for the 2021 gubernatorial election May 8 and while the party has a decade of losses under its belt, nominees are hoping issues like race and public education will return them to power.
“Critical race theory [CRT] fundamentally says the country is broken,” said State Delegate Kirk Cox, a 30-year veteran of Virginia’s House of Delegates. His tenure makes him the party’s most “establishment” candidate, but he’s tried to distance himself from the “career politician” moniker and last week he hit the controversial race issue hard.
“It pits once race against another,” he said of the academic effort to examine the intersection of race and the law, which has since been elevated as a conservative talking point.
But Cox’s effort is deeper than just Virginia. On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a handful of other Republicans sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to nix any plans to add such content to public schools.
“Americans do not need or want their tax dollars diverted from promoting the principles that unite our nation toward promoting radical ideologies meant to divide us,” he said.
Republicans took up the fight against the idea after the New York Times offered a version of their 1619 project to public schools, and they’ve since determined it’s a philosophy that imagines public school and colleges as hotbeds for radicalizing America’s youth in favor of communism, socialism and other policies they disagree with.
“The founding documents made great principals; life, liberty, and property and protecting those rights. I don’t think in CRT they see those as important,” Cox said.
The same concern over CRT was lobbed by state Senator Amanda Chase, a GOP candidate whose district includes suburbs to the south of Richmond.
“It teaches the opposite of what we should be teaching: the golden rule, treating others the way we want to be treated,” said the senator who’s never been one to shy away from controversy.
To that end she’s accused Virginia Democrats of racism after they criticized missteps by a white Richmond elections registrar and said more recently the conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd made her “sick” and only happened because the jury feared violent reprisal.
“We shouldn’t be revising our history and only telling the parts we’re comfortable with,” she said of her concerns about CRT being taught in public schools before searching online for examples of it occurring in Virginia.
“There’s plenty of examples out there,” she said, turning to another talking point shared by some of her competitors: a viral story suggesting the state is removing advanced placement classes to satisfy cries from the left.
“The Democrats have no confidence that kids can achieve at higher levels,” Cox, a longtime government teacher in a local public school, said of proposed changes to schools’ advanced placement programs. “Are we telling kids they’re not smart enough?”
The advanced placement rollback story originated with a Fox News report but additional reporting from the Virginia Mercury found the Virginia Department of Education has yet to receive any proposals stating to do as much, though they are considering efforts undertaken in other states which would alter their Standards of Learning tests.
No matter the reality, other candidates, like military veteran Sergio de la Peña, see an enemy in the public school system.
“This is what happens when you have socialists taking over our government and they are experimenting with all these bad ideas,” said de la Peña at a candidate debate earlier in the year.
A Mexican immigrant who migrated to the U.S. as a child and worked his way up to serving in former President Donald Trump’s Defense Department, he’s hoping his ethnic background might overcome CRT-related issues that he believes plague the state.
De la Peña said in an interview that he’s spoken with other immigrants around the state’s diverse D.C. suburbs who have “gone through the assimilation process” and want to see the country return to “Judeo Christian principles.”
“The American dream is under attack by the socialist policies of the current governor and General Assembly,” he said. “They planted the seeds leading to the destruction of that dream.”
He’d like to see Critical Race Theory replaced with education classes that devote more energy to those Judeo Christian philosophies that he thinks are currently lacking.
“There’s more of a prejudice against any kind of Christian classes; they run into more resistance,” he said.
This pushback against Critical Race Theory creates an interesting puzzle considering Virginia’s history with race and education. During the 1960s, in an effort to avoid desegregating schools, the state undertook “massive resistance” which forced most of the state’s public schools closed rather than open their doors to Black children.
Among those who were subject to eventual desegregation — shortly after the 10 years massive resistance campaign ended — was State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat from Richmond. She was among the first in her family to attend a mixed school and it’s something she hasn’t forgotten as she and the recently elected Democratic majority have rolled back some of the state’s race-based policies.
“I had a great-grandfather in 1901 who had to take a literacy test and find three white people to vouch for him to be able to register,” said the senator who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in a primary election being held in June. “In January, I found a copy of my dad’s receipt for the poll tax he had to pay.”
When asked if McClellan’s experience should be taught in Virginia schools, de la Peña said someone can always pick and choose the worst part of a country’s past.
“That’s the challenge you face when you want to dig into history,” he said.
Cox said the right thing to do would be to teach kids how to overcome that history.
“Kids get along great, maybe it would be nice if we didn’t try and divide them,” he said.
Cox also said the massive resistance effort was spearheaded by Democrats, specifically Democratic Senator Harry Byrd. Notably, Cox spent his first year in the minority shutting down an effort by his own party to bring down a statue of Byrd that still sits on the grounds of the Capitol in Richmond.
And while Critical Race Theory might be a way to message concerns about rapidly changing education methods, it also acts as a part of the right’s broader displeasure with the school system’s existence.
School choice and concerns about transgender students have also been common themes as nominees vie for an edge.
“There’s no way I’m going to come home to my daughter crying because she got cut because someone two weeks ago used to be a dude,” said businessman Pete Snyder, one of two heavily funded Republican candidates who did not make themselves available for interviews with Courthouse News.
“People’s capacity to reach the American dream is through education but our system is turned upside down,” said Glenn Youngkin, the other out-of-reach businessman gunning for the nomination.
Both Youngkin and Snyder have pointed to their fundraising hauls as reasons for their nomination, but it’s notable that those fundraising efforts are a product of their own doing: Youngkin gave $5.5 million of his own money while Snyder doled out $5.1 million.
Both have also topped straw polls as they participate in limited debates around the state; whether it’s the money, the stance on schools, or their lack of a political background, it’s too soon to see if it’ll pay off, but some think it might.
“Public education needs to get out of the 19th century straitjacket if it wants to produce 21st century students,” said Shaun Kenney, former head of the Virginia Republican Party who left in 2015.
Kenney left the state party after some of the early state-wide failures, but he pointed to the lack of diversity within the party as his reason for leaving. Still, he thinks pointing to critical race theory and education concerns might be a bigger hit not only in the base-driven convention, but statewide as well.
“The end game of CRT is condescending lowered standards for people who think they get the short end of the stick,” he said. “This is where people get antsy, when you start talking about destroying these institutions like education or the police.”
He pointed to concerns about defunding the police lobbed by Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, VA-7, after she narrowly held on to her seat during the 2020 race. Kenney argues that kind of radical messaging will help drive those in the middle to the right, especially those suburban moms his party lost under Trump as they look out for their top priority: their child’s education.
“If parents want to elect to take their children elsewhere — classical education, special needs or a faith school — they should have that latitude,” he said of school choice.
An estimated 54,000 Republican delegates from around the state will meet locally to pick their nominee on Saturday. They’ll use a rank choice ballot system, which adds some uncertainty to the end result.
Kenney thinks it will come down to Snyder, Cox and then Youngkin in a distant third, but the rank choice method could make it anyone’s game.
“Chase is stronger than people think,” he said before emphasizing the number of x-factors which make predicting any outcome a challenge.
“Frankly, if anyone tells you they know how this is going to play out they’re lying,” he added.