Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Problem of Loudoun County Schools

 At the New York Times, "How a School District Got Caught in Virginia’s Political Maelstrom":

LEESBURG, Va. — Long before the father was tackled by sheriff’s deputies at the school board meeting, before there was shouting to reopen classrooms and before “parents matter” became the central slogan of the most closely watched campaign in the post-Trump era, Loudoun County was just another American suburbia taking a hard look at its schools.

The county, at the edge of the Virginia sprawl outside Washington, had grown much more diverse. White students were no longer in the majority, and educators were trying to be more aware of how racism could affect their students’ education.

The district hired a consulting firm to help train teachers about bias. It tried to hire more teachers of color. And a high school changed its mascot from the Raiders, named for a Confederate battalion, to the Captains.

But there were rumblings of resistance.

Vocal parents protested the district’s antiracism efforts as Marxism.

Some teachers disliked the trainings, which they found ham-handed and over the top.

And evangelical Christians objected to a proposal to give transgender students access to the restrooms of their choice — complaints that were magnified when a male student wearing a skirt was arrested in an assault in a girl’s bathroom.

Within a year, Loudoun County had become the epicenter of conservative outrage over education. Several hundred parents, in a district of 81,000 students, managed to pummel their school board and become a cause célèbre for opposing the district’s handling of race and gender issues.

Along the way, they got plenty of help from Republican operatives, who raised money and skillfully decried some of the district’s more aggressive efforts, even buying an ad during an N.F.L. game.

The media also jumped in, feeding the frenzy. The story rebounded from one outlet to another, with conservative media leading the way, from The New York Post to The Daily Wire to Fox News, which aired 78 segments on the racial issues at Loudoun schools from March to June this year, according to Media Matters, a left-leaning group that scrutinizes media coverage.

By November, these skirmishes had been transformed into a potent political movement — parents’ rights — that engulfed the state’s schools and the governor’s race. The Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, successfully tapped into the fury, adopting the slogan “parents matter.”

“Glenn became a vessel for their anger,” said Jeff Roe, the founder of Axiom Strategies, Mr. Youngkin’s campaign consultant.

The campaign identified early on, he said, that education was a key issue that could make inroads in Democratic strongholds. Mr. Youngkin’s opponent, the former governor Terry McAuliffe, won Loudoun County, but by a far narrower margin than President Joe Biden had won last year.

Ian Prior, a Republican political operative who lives in the county and has been at the center of the fight, called education the “one unifying issue out there that kind of gets everybody.”

Now, Republicans and Democrats are dissecting how these educational issues can be used in the midterm elections next year.

Loudoun may well be their case study. 
A District, Struggling With Change

In the not-too-distant past, Loudoun County was dominated by farmers and Republicans. In recent years it has experienced a wave of residential growth to 420,000 people, becoming more suburban, increasingly diverse and, at the same time, more liberal.

The student body has changed, too. Twenty five years ago, 84 percent of the students were white; today, 43 percent are, owing partly to an influx of immigrants working in technology jobs. Currently, 7.2 percent of students are Black.

The shift hasn’t been easy. In 2019, for example, an elementary school asked students, including a Black student, to emulate runaway slaves during a game mimicking the Underground Railroad, drawing criticism from the local NAACP.

Parents also said they encountered racist treatment, both subtle and overt. Zerell Johnson-Welch, who is Black and Latina, moved to the district in 2008 with her husband and three children.

One day, her daughter came home upset, she said. “She was in an advanced math class,” Ms. Johnson-Welch said. “A kid yelled out, ‘Why are you in this class?’” — using a racial epithet to emphasize that she did not belong.

Loudoun County commissioned a study by a consulting firm, the Equity Collaborative, which bore out such stories, concluding that Black, Hispanic and Muslim students had been the focus of racial slurs and that Black students were disciplined more frequently than others.

Loudoun set out on a plan. In addition to changing the high school mascot, the school system released a video apologizing to Black residents for past racial discrimination. The schools devised a protocol for dealing with racial slurs and other hate speech. And teachers underwent training in cultural sensitivity...