Expect more attacks on public education in Virginia 2023

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, expects to be playing defense during the upcoming General Assembly session, at least when it comes to the ongoing push by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Republicans in the state legislature to carry out a culture war crusade in state education.

“Democrats are going to be a little bit on our heels again, trying to protect the progress that we’ve made,” Simon said, “against efforts to redefine obscenity, to limit access to educational materials and to elevate the desires of some parents under the guise of ‘parental rights’ over what’s really best for students and parents all over the commonwealth.”

The progress he referred to has to do with educational materials and directives compiled during Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, especially during the final two years, when Democrats also controlled both houses of the General Assembly. He made the remarks during a panel discussion held over Zoom teleconference software as part of the Virginia Press Association’s “VPA Day in the Capital” virtual event.

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The notion of what “parental rights” means, exactly, drives this conflict.

Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, offered a definition. “It’s very simple.” Parents, he said, “want to go to school boards, they want to be able to say, ‘We are concerned about this curriculum, we are concerned about math standards, we are concerned about excellence in education,’” he said.

Central to this concern is a belief that educators are hellbent on shutting parents out of the process, a notion that Northam’s would-be successor, Terry McAuliffe, blundered right into his September 2021 debate gaffe, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

“When they go to the school boards and they try to complain, they’re ignored,” Anderson said. The feeling that parents with conservative views have that they are being blown off helped drive Youngkin’s election victory in 2021. “The conservative side of this equation is messaging, correctly, that parents’ voices matter, parents’ rights matter. I think we’ll continue to gain that support until parents feel like they’re being listened to in the educational system.”

Radical restrictions

Anderson’s relatively benign-sounding explanation earns a glance askance when one considers his national newsmaking and ultimately failed lawsuit to restrict access to books containing sexually explicit material by having them declared obscene (May 23 editorial, “Virginia is for book censors?”). His suit aimed for the restrictions of two books, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas, to be applied not just to school libraries but, astonishingly, to commercial bookstore chains.

Thursday morning, Anderson explained his suit, which a judge ruled was unconstitutional under due process, as “trying to restrict retailers and school libraries from being able to have these types of books in circulation and be distributing them to children, no different than a movie. theater restricts R-rated movies.” He has said that he is considering introducing legislation in continued pursuit of his goal.

“That is a radical idea that is not just about parental rights, that is about the erasure of certain communities,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Executive Director Mary Bauer.

Simon effectively explained the troubling aspect of the “parental rights” campaign — in practice it involved imposing a conservative Christian viewpoint on all families in the school system. “They’re restricting what my kids can see. right? And so wait a second, I want these books to be available to my kids. what about my rights as a parent?”

“Parents can ask students not to be taught certain books,” Bauer said, “but one parent should not have a veto over what the entirety of a class learns.”

Ominous agenda

Bauer’s comments about erasure encompassed not just the push for book banning that has swept the commonwealth and the country — for a prime example, consider the Roanoke County School Board’s removal of the picture book “When Aidan Became a Brother” from a school library because the story’s central character is a trans boy — but also the Youngkin administration’s attempts with new policy proposals to strip away the established rights of trans students (Sept. 25 editorial, “Youngkin tramples trans student rights”) or to change standards for teaching American history so that they de-emphasize Black Americans and other minorities (Dec. 8 editorial, “Education dept. could have avoided do-over”).

Youngkin’s administration has been reminded that support for this socially conservative agenda among Virginia residents is not at all unanimous. Of a stunning 72,000 public comments on the governor’s proposed changes to how trans students would be treated in schools — including forbidding students to use restrooms matching their gender identity, in defiance of a federal court ruling — most comments were not in support of the proposal, but written by “overwhelmingly people raising questions and concerns about those policies,” Simon said.

Simon asserted that fanning the flames of conservative outrage over “parental rights,” stirring anger over the supposed removal of rights that haven’t actually been taken away, serves a bigger long-term goal. “It’s just all part of the effort to say, look, because these things are too controversial to overcome, the only solution is to have a private school,” and push for the widespread establishment of charter schools and vouchers. “It’s accentuating our divisions and our differences in an effort to say that a public school is just untenable, we can’t do it. It’s a part of this larger effort, I can’t emphasize this enough, to just undermine the whole concept of public school.”

Of the forthcoming legislative conflicts, “I’m not really looking forward to much of it,” Simon said “Hopefully, we can just limit the damage.”