- USA TODAY received copies of a sampling of the emails sent to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin through a tip line he set up targeting critical race theory.
- One woman accounted for nearly half of the records, flagging various instances of alleged special education violations
- Few of the email reports related to curriculum or divisive teaching practices
Complaints about special education violations. Praise for teachers. Concerns about academic rigor and options.
These are some of the main themes in a sampling of the emails sent to a so-called tip line set up by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year for parents to report, as he put it, “any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated” and schools are engaging in “inherently divisive practices.” The email tip line was part of a larger campaign by the governor to root out the teaching of critical race theory. But few of the tips flag the types of practices Youngkin was describing.
The records became public this week through a settlement between the governor’s office and 13 media organizations, including the USA TODAY Network, which in April had sued for the emails after requests to see the correspondence were denied.
Youngkin has said the submissions are protected by exemptions to Virginia open records law for a governor’s “working papers and correspondence.” Some fraction of the tips sent to [email protected], however, were also sent to people in the Virginia Department of Education, and those email records were provided as part of the settlement. The remaining records have not been made public.
The January announcement about Youngkin’s tip line was met with immediate criticism and a surge of activity. All of the emails in the 350-record sample were dated in the first few months of 2022.
Despite the hundreds of records in the selection of emails, they comprise a small, vocal group of people at about three dozen email addresses who often reiterated their grievances in multiple missives.
Based on USA TODAY’s analysis of the sample, which may not be representative of what the governor has received, much of the activity may not have been what he was looking for. CRT, the graduate school-level framework that examines how racism continues to shape society, came up rarely.
“I explained to him that I was going to use that tip line to address issues that are real – not red-herring issues,” said Kandise Lucas, a special education advocate who accounted for nearly half of the email records obtained by the media organizations.
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Lucas, a mother of two and a former special education teacher, has worked for the past decade and a half as an advocate helping other Virginia parents navigate alleged special education and civil rights violations. “My main concern is that his mantra of ‘parents’ rights’ doesn’t apply to all parents,” she said
Of the 350 email records, some of which are part of the same message thread, roughly 160 involved Lucas. In her correspondence (which one hearing officer who was copied on some of the threads derided as “blast emails”), Lucas described instances of parents allegedly being denied requests for special education services, evaluations and documentation, among other violations. Many of the cases involve families of color and those who don’t speak English as a first language.
Lucas, a former school board candidate who has been involved in numerous lawsuits involving special education and arrested multiple times for her activism, was hopeful Youngkin would deliver on his promise of protecting parents’ “fundamental rights.” She said she voted for him and even helped his wife hold education roundtables ahead of his November 2021 election.
Lucas and the other special education “momvocates” in her network “expected some serious change to be made,” she said. They envisioned a future in which they would no longer be “silenced” or “retaliated against.”
But in Lucas’s view, that didn’t happen. She says she never heard back from the governor’s office or education department officials. “My primary purpose was to raise the issue of how the governor failed us,” Lucas said. “He won an election on how parents matter; parents voted for him because he validated their voice. And we learn now, 10 months into his tenure, that we don’t really matter.”
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Exasperation appeared to be a common sentiment among the parents included in our sample, whether in relation to special education, instructional quality and rigor, equity or COVID-related policies. Roughly 10 people sent emails to the tip line complaining about mask mandates.
Just a handful of the emails dealt with issues relating to curriculum. One parent in Loudoun County, whose name was redacted, was infuriated that they had to submit public records requests to get copies of the lesson plans and learning objectives for their child’s seventh-grade English, history/social studies and biology classes.
“As a Parent, I have the right to validate (through the Lesson Plans) that [my child] is NOT being taught divisive concepts (or in Biology not being taught divisive gender-bending LGBT-campaigns with overly sexualized lesson content),” the parent wrote in an email.
One complaint about teaching practices came from a student. “Much to my dismay, my teacher has based the entire curriculum around Critical Theory,” wrote the high school senior in Montgomery County. “The first book we are reading is ‘Beowulf.’ All my teacher wants to talk about is how the book is sexist because it portrays the warriors as men and not women.”
Another shared excerpts of seven controversial books in their school libraries, including George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. “These books distort what healthy relationships are and rob our children of their innocence,” the person wrote.
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Some parents were concerned about their child’s placement and curriculum. One frustrated parent said their child shouldn’t have been put in classes for students who aren’t native English speakers.
Mital Gandhi, a father of two in Loudoun County who was involved in 23 of the records, copied the tip line on an email to education department officials as part of his attempts to get accelerated math options reinstated in his district.
Loudoun County Public Schools had eliminated the Algebra 1 option for sixth-graders as a matter of equity, Gandhi said, yet his older son, then in fifth grade, loved and excelled at math and craved the rigor. “How do you take courses away from people who want to be challenged? How is that equity?” Gandhi said.
So Gandhi, a former PTA president, pushed district leaders to restore that offering and, unsatisfied with their responses, which pointed to state guidance, ran his grievances further up the flagpole.
This school year, sixth graders in LCPS once again have the option of taking Algebra 1, and some – including Gandhi’s son – are taking advantage. “I didn’t see (the tip line) as a tattletale line but something that helped level the playing field for parents like me,” Gandhi told USA TODAY. “When Gov. Youngkin got elected things changed for the benefit of parents and of students.”
The emails show a Henrico County parent also had her grievances addressed after emailing the tip line, in her case receiving acknowledgment from the education department that it would better enforce a rule giving parents 30 days notice before conducting surveys of students.
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The email sample suggests instances of teachers engaging in “divisive practices” were rare. “CRT is not the threat,” Lucas wrote in some of the emails sent to both the tip line and education department officials. “Not complying with IDEA is,” she said, referring to federal law governing the education of students with disabilities.
Youngkin, who had never before held elected office, ran and won in part on a platform of empowering parents. Some of his first acts after being sworn in were to sign executive orders allowing parents to decline to have their children wear masks at school and targeted what Youngkin labeled as “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in the classroom.
Since then, Youngkin has continued on his mission of bolstering parents’ rights, though some fear it’s at the expense of students. In September, he proposed rolling back a policy by his predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam, that would have required schools to honor students’ requests to be called by a different name or gender than what they were assigned at birth. It also allowed students to use restrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity. Youngkin’s revision would allow those choices – only if parents approve.
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That and other policy moves, including the anti-CRT campaign, have earned Youngkin the ire of many on the left.
Groups representing teachers, counselors, parents, superintendents and others in Virginia’s education system wrote to Youngkin asking him to shut down the tip line.
“The tip line that Governor Youngkin established for parents and citizens to report teachers, principals, or instructional materials directly to the Governor’s office, based on a subjective definition of ‘divisive,’ has already proven to be divisive itself,” the groups said in a joint statement. “The tip line will impede parent-to-school collaboration and directly undermine the very factors that educators know contribute to student success, including having high-quality teachers in classrooms.”
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Former teacher Sheila Jones, a member of the Virginia Education Association, also used the tip line liberally, and also not for the reason Youngkin intended: She sent the governor glowing notes about teachers she’s worked with in school districts all over Virginia.
Her intent, she said, was to counteract some of the contempt for teachers she felt Youngkin had inspired.
“One minute we’re fantastic and the next minute we’re being vilified,” said Jones, who lives in Chesapeake and is on medical leave from work supervising and training teachers of physical education and other subjects. “It felt like a witch hunt.”
When she heard nothing in response for days, she began looping the Virginia Department of Education into her notes.
“I have written a tip a day for the past 34 days about 36 outstanding teachers in Virginia,” she began one March note. “I have received no response from your office (not even an auto-reply from your tip line).”
Jones shared her notes with the teachers she wrote about, some of whom said they felt honored and that the emails could not have come at a better time.
“While none of the teachers chose the profession for the money, fair compensation and respect are not too much to ask,” Jones closed one email to Youngkin. “I hope this tip is helpful to your office.”
A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed on Thursday that the tip line was deactivated in September, having “received little to no volume.” Constituents, she said, are still able to send confidential correspondence to the governor through other methods.
Despite public criticisms and decline in activity, the teacher tip line is getting heaps of praise from the person who started it: Youngkin. Speaking Tuesday at an appearance in Petersburg, where he helped cut the ribbon on a new $8 million downtown park-and-ride deck, the governor sounded pleased with the messages the line had received.
“We get emails, we get phone calls, we get letters,” Youngkin said, stressing his constituent services office continues to receive “basic input.” “And all of that just makes me a better governor, and I think those are the kinds of things that have allowed us to be responsive to needs in Virginia.”
He was not willing to divulge the overall nature of any of those messages, saying that content is “confidential between whoever sent it and the governor’s office.”
The governor’s staff did not answer repeated questions about how many tips Youngkin has received in all or whether he has responded to or acted on any of the messages
The left-leaning nonprofit ethics watchdog group American Oversight represented by the law firm Ballard Spahr also sued Youngkin in August about the tip line, looking to find out his response to tips sent to the email address, if any. Ballard Spahr also represented the news organizations in their suit.
The group said it hasn’t received any information about any responses. And on Monday, Youngkin’s office asked a court to throw out the suit.
“They have done nothing with this stuff,” American Oversight’s chief counsel Dan Schwager said in an interview. “That doesn’t seem like a credible way to implement a policy.”
If the sampling of emails is any indication, many parents are underwhelmed with Youngkin’s education achievements thus far. And that could have a bearing on the midterms.
A lot of the parents Lucas knows are “going to send his whole party a strong message in this next election about being betrayed,” she said.
Contributing: Chris Quintana, USA TODAY; Bill Atkinson, Progress-Index
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.