How Virginia school boards are being weaponized to help elect a GOP governor
"I am a concerned parent. I am not a plant. I am not an activist. And as anyone who knows me, I've always been identified as a Democrat," Virginia resident Harry Jackson said on an October 14 appearance on Fox News. Jackson has been outspoken at school board meetings in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County, which is a key battleground in Virginia's upcoming gubernatorial election.
Jackson is a parent. He was recently elected president of the Thomas Jefferson High School Parent Teacher Student Association. But that is not the full story.
Jackson is also part of the "Leadership Team" of Parents Defending Education (PDE), a dark money group created earlier this year. In its first tweet, PDE said its intention was to "build a grassroots army to begin reclaiming our K-12 schools."
While PDE claims to be non-partisan, it has deep ties to the right-wing Koch political operation. The president of PDE is Nicole Neily, who also serves as the president of Speech First, another self-proclaimed "grassroots" organization that targets college campuses. Neily has refused to disclose Speech First's donors but its board includes "a former head of a Koch-backed trust and two conservative attorneys from Koch-funded programs." Neily previously worked at the Independent Women's Forum, another dark money group funded by the Charles Koch Institute, and Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2013 was "the Kochs’ leading media investment to date.”
According to its tax filings, Speech First pays the law firm Consovoy McCarthy hundreds of thousands of dollars ($980,000 in 2018) to sue universities for race-related policies. William Consovoy, the named partner of the firm, is a "conservative warrior" who represented Donald Trump in his efforts to keep his tax records secret. A week before PDE's "public launch," it filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit involving New York City's gifted-and-talented elementary school programs. PDE was represented by William Consovoy.
Prior to joining PDE, Jackson co-founded Coalition for TJ, a group that opposes changes to admission policies at Thomas Jefferson High School. In March, Coalition for TJ filed suit to invalidate the changes. In that suit, the group is represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a right-wing legal group that received $1,000,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2019.
Jackson is also directly involved in Virginia's gubernatorial election. Jackson is an active participant in "Educators for Youngkin," which is part of the campaign of Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin. The chairwoman of "Educators for Youngkin" is Suparna Dutta, who founded Coalition for TJ with Jackson.
While Jackson publicly claims to identify as a Democrat, he frequently promotes messages supporting Youngkin and attacks Democrats on his Twitter account.
Youngkin has made it very clear that the politicization of school boards was a central part of his political strategy. Here is what Youngkin said in a video submitted as part of candidate forum hosted by Coalition for TJ earlier this year:
Parents have come together all across the commonwealth in order to stand up against school boards... Standing up against the school boards is one of the reasons why Suzanne and I started Virginia Wins — in order to provide financial support and campaign support for local races, including school board races. We must find a way to elect conservative voices to these very very important seats. My victory in November will not be alone. We will bring a whole crop of new Republicans with us.
Since then, the activities of PDE, Jackson, and others at school board meetings have been incorporated into Youngkin's political strategy. It's a case study on how school boards will likely be weaponized in hundreds of political campaigns next year.
Popular Information posed a series of questions about PDE to a spokesperson, but the organization did not respond prior to publication.
Playing it by the book
On September 23, Stacy Langton, a Fairfax County parent, appeared at the Fairfax County School Board and claimed the high school library was carrying two books that contain "pedophilia, sex between men and boys." The books at issue, Lawn Boy and Gender Queer, do contain same-sex sexual content but neither contain pedophilia.
The author of Lawn Boy, Jonathan Evison, explained that the allegation is based on a misreading of a passage in which an adult recounts a sexual experience he had as a minor with another minor. Both books received the "Alex Award" from the American Library Association which is awarded annually to "ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18." Evison received death threats after similar allegations were made in Texas.
PDE pounced on the issue immediately. The following day, Asra Nomani, PDE's Vice President for Strategy and Investigations, tweeted a video of Langton's speech, repeating the allegation of pedophilia:
For parents concerned about their teens being exposed to sexually explicit content in 2021, award-winning books in the high school library is an odd area of focus. But what kind of books are appropriate for high school libraries is an ongoing debate. The following day, both books were pulled from the shelves, pending a review by "staff, students, and parents."
The controversy, however, was quickly injected into Virginia's gubernatorial race. Educators for Youngkin posted Nomani's video on their Facebook page. Two days later, Youngkin launched this attack on Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, who served a previous term as Governor:
In fact, in Fairfax County this past week, we watched parents so upset because there was such sexually explicit material in the library they had never seen, it was shocking. In fact, you vetoed the bill that would have informed parents that they were there.
"You believe schools should tell children what to do. I believe that parents should be in charge of their kids' education," Youngkin concluded.
Youngkin's charge was false. In 2016, McAuliffe vetoed a bill that "would notify parents if a teacher planned to provide 'instructional material that includes sexually explicit content.'" If a parent objected to the material "a student would be given 'nonexplicit instructional material and related academic activities.''' Since the issue in Fairfax involved books in the library, and not assigned in class, the bill would not have applied.
McAuliffe, however, defended his veto as if it would be relevant to the current controversy in Fairfax. "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," McAuliffe replied, "I get really tired of everybody running down teachers. I love our teachers." At the time of his veto, there was concern that the law would prevent teachers from assigning Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved because it has some explicit scenes.
The next day, Youngkin's campaign created an ad featuring Youngkin's false charge, Langton's speech at the school board, and McAuliffe's response.
Different versions of the ad have been in heavy rotation on air, online, and even displayed on giant screens outside of early voting locations. Youngkin began holding "Parents Matter" rallies which his campaign says are for people who are opposed to McAuliffe's "attempts to silence parents and stand between them and their children’s education.”
The books are off the library shelves pending review, but Jackson, Langton, and PDE have helped to keep the issue alive. On October 6, Langton filed a request with Virginia's Attorney General to investigate whether it "violates Virginia criminal law" for Fairfax High School library to carry the two books. The request was announced in a press release posted by Educators of Youngkin.
On October 7, Jackson returned to the Fairfax County School Board to give a speech about "porn and pedophilia" in school library books. Jackson was unable to get off the waitlist to speak but gave his speech on camera outside the meeting. He falsely claimed that the books imply that "illegal acts on children is no big deal." The speech was filmed by PDE's Nomani and posted on Twitter with a link back to PDE's website.
On October 19, Youngkin will return to Fairfax County to highlight a "school system that has told parents they don't matter." Jackson quickly shared the news on Twitter.