Thousands of people used Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line to issue a range of complaints, from accusations that schools are not complying with special education laws to anger about mask mandates, according to a review of records released from the governor’s office this week.
Youngkin’s administration on Monday released roughly 350 emails sent to the tip line, which was set up in January after the governor issued an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive concepts.” Youngkin encouraged the public to use the tip line to report any teachers or schools that were teaching “divisive concepts.”
The release of the emails comes as part of a settlement that the administration reached with a coalition of news outlets — including The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press — of a lawsuit they filed this spring. The group argued that, in refusing to release the emails, the administration was not complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Youngkin’s office claimed the emails were not public, citing an exemption that allows “working papers and correspondence of the Office of the Governor” to remain private.
The coalition of news outlets — which also includes The Associated Press, National Public Radio, The Washington Post and CNN, among others — agreed to a settlement from Youngkin’s office that only emails that were also sent to the Department of Education, in addition to the tip line, would be released.
On Monday, the governor’s office released the files — many of them featuring repeated email threads — as part of the settlement.
“While we are grateful to have gotten some insight into the contents of this tip line, we know that this represents only a fraction of the thousands of emails the administration has received,” said Kris Worrell, editor in chief of Virginia Media, which includes The Pilot and Daily Press. “Questions remain about why this line was set up in the first place and how Gov. Youngkin intends to use the information they have gathered from the public, if at all.”
Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Youngkin, said in a written statement: “We are pleased that the attorney general’s settlement with the representatives of several media outlets preserves the principle that a constituent’s communication with a governor is protected under the law and exempt from FOIA. The governor wants constituents to be able to reach out to him without fear that their communications will not be kept confidential.”
The executive order and tip line were part of a conservative-backed wave across the country taking aim at critical race theory, an academic concept generally taught in law school examining racism as a systemic problem embedded in U.S. social institutions. K-12 districts throughout the country have said they do not teach the concept.
The tip line drew criticism when it was announced, with people arguing that it pits teachers against parents. In January, Virginia Education Association President James J. Fedderman said the tip line was “poorly conceived.”
“The governor has not created a reporting mechanism for any other professionals in the Commonwealth — we question why he has singled out Virginia educators, and only educators, for this additional scrutiny now,” Fedderman wrote in January.
A review of the 350 released records shows the majority do not address critical race theory or any other curriculum concern. It is unclear how many of the emails not released relate to divisive concepts. The governor’s office did not respond to requests asking how many total emails the tip line received. When it was first announced, some public figures on social media encouraged people to flood the tip line with fake tips.
Most of the emails released this week were about reported violations of special education laws. Dozens came from Kandise Lucas, who advocates for families with students with special needs. In her emails, Lucas outlines various reports of schools and districts not complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In one of these emails, Lucas encourages the governor to specifically create a tip line for the public to report IDEA non-compliance.
In an interview Tuesday, Lucas said she was “livid” when she heard about the “CRT tip line.” Lucas said before the election she spoke to Youngkin during a roundtable event and told him that “CRT is a red herring.”
“It is not something that is really, you know, even a real issue in public schools‚” Lucas said.
“When I heard about the hotline, I was like, well, when are you going to create a hotline to address the civil rights violations of students with disabilities, which is rampant, it is prevalent, and it needs to be addressed immediately,” she said.
When no such tip line was created, Lucas said she decided to use the existing one to report and document her concerns. She said the governor’s promise to put parents’ rights first should include parents with children who have disabilities.
“The rights of all parents matter, not just the ones that are the political hot topic,” she said.
Lucas said no one from the governor’s office has responded to any of the emails she sent to the tip line.
Sheila Jones, an educator from Chesapeake, also sent multiple emails. Her emails were focused on highlighting the good work of teachers across the state. Jones said she sent a total of 34 teacher spotlights to the governor’s tip line, and never received a response.
“I’m just so tired of teachers getting beaten up,” said Jones in an interview.
Jones, who has worked as a program coordinator at several districts throughout Virginia, said she sent the emails because she wanted teachers to know they were appreciated. She said the tip line was doubly troubling because it came on the heels of teachers going above and beyond during the pandemic.
“And I just thought, maybe the governor would see some of these,” Jones said of her emails.
In a response to one of Jones’ emails, a Department of Education employee in the Division of Learning’s STEM Office wrote, “Great idea, overload with the wonderful things happening instead of a ‘1984′ big brother watching mentality.”
Other emails came from parents who were upset about how their children were treated by school staff when they went to school without masks, or concerns that some schools were still trying to enforce a mandate despite the governor’s orders. Others talked about children being bullied, a lack of advanced math options at a certain middle school and too many remote days in one district due to inclement weather.
A few of the emails did express concern about divisive concepts being taught at schools.
One parent copied the tip line on emails sent to their child’s middle school in Fairfax County, requesting to see lesson objectives and lesson plans. The email asks why school officials have ignored the request.
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“In accordance with the Governor’s Executive Orders, & Virginia DOE’s guidance, parents are fully entitled to have that information in order to understand exactly what is being taught…Your school & the teachers work for us parents, using our tax dollars,” the email states.
After receiving the requested materials, the parent then expresses concern about the family life education curriculum and “gender identity indoctrination.”
Another email comes from a student who seems to confuse the terms “critical race theory” with “critical theory.” The high school student, in Riner, writes that in English class, “much to my dismay, my teacher has based the entire curriculum around Critical Theory.”
“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. She tries to make us believe that every scenario in the book is sexist in some way. Nobody besides her reads the book and sees anything sexist about it,” the email continues. The student then attaches a screenshot of the course syllabus, which states that students must formulate a thesis of their work of literature based on “one of the critical theory approaches” discussed in class.
The tip line appears to no longer be operating. Lucas, the special education advocate, said her emails have started bouncing back. A test email sent to the tip line on Tuesday also bounced back.
The governor’s office did not answer specific questions about whether the tip line is still operating and how reported incidents are handled.
Nour Habib, firstname.lastname@example.org