In the Documents: Virginia Department of Education Emails about Anti-Critical Race Theory Executive Order

In January, newly elected Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed his inaugural executive order banning “the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in public schools. Critical race theory, an academic framework not formally taught in any K-12 public schools, has become a buzzword among conservatives across the country seeking to build political power and stifle classroom discussion of systemic oppression, racism, and current or historical inequality.

To enforce the order, Youngkin’s office established a “tip line” through which concerned parents could report if their children were being taught supposedly “divisive” subjects at school.

In March, American Oversight filed records requests to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) seeking the release of information regarding the tip line and about the implementation of the executive order. Documents we obtained include information about a $10,000 payment to a far-right consulting firm, records showing state officials fielding complaints from right-wing activists, and emails illustrating the confusion brought by the executive order’s broad and ill-defined mandate.

Communications with Right-wing Activists

An email obtained by American Oversight included a receipt from Feb. 8 indicating that VDOE paid $10,000 to consulting firm RealignEd LLC for “subject matter expertise, review and evaluation, and policy advice related to inherently divisive topics and other provisions” in the executive order. 

RealignEd is run by Kimberly M. Richey, a former official in the Trump administration Department of Education, where she served as acting assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights. During her tenure, the office rescinded guidance from 2014 on reducing the disparate impact of disciplinary policies on students of color.

According to Richey’s resume, which was also included in the records, she now helps “draft model legislation” to “eliminate critical race theory” in public schools. She also serves as an education fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank whose top legislative priority in 2022 was to “put parents in control of their child’s education.” 

The documents also include a March 22 email from a Liberty University professor who sent a racist critique of curriculum changes to the state’s African American history curriculum, which had been adopted in 2020 by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. The comments sent by the professor, Mary Prentice, to Assistant State Superintendent Elizabeth Schultz were written by a Lynchburg resident without any apparent expertise in pedagogy, and argued for a “states’ rights” explanation for the start of the Civil War, claimed that massacres of Native Americans were “rare occurrences,” and emphasized that “Africans also captured their fellow Africans to sell to European traders.” The comments also complained that the state’s African American History Commission’s goal was to “inundate every classroom with material that is specifically African American-centric.” In a reply, Schultz thanked Prentice for “the comprehensive insights” and noted that she had shared the content “by way of cc with Superintendent [Jillian] Balow’s Senior Advisor, Jon Russell.” 

In another email, Prentice complained that certain VDOE employees should be fired, including one whom she described as “clearly a leftist” for having liked Black Lives Matter resources on their social media. Prentice criticized another employee for supporting civil rights activist Malcolm X, calling him “a hate filled divisive radical.” Schultz acknowledged the email by asking for Prentice to resend some attachments that were not correctly formatted. 

Schultz also received a March 7 message from a local chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty in which a member wrote that the group was “concerned about some of the content” in science and English curricula that the Bedford County school board was preparing to purchase for the coming school year, and was hoping the board would “put the pause button” on the purchase. Schultz forwarded the email to Balow and other officials and wrote, “adding to our 1 pm for discussion.”

In another email, an education policy research assistant from the conservative American Enterprise Institute invited Balow to “the next virtual Conservatives for Education Reform meeting” on Feb. 1. Balow responded by saying she planned to attend.

Confusion Around Ill-Defined Standards

Among the executive order’s long list of banned topics are lessons that advance the following ideas:

  • “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” 
  • “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, sex or faith” 
  • “meritocracy or traits, such as a hard work ethic, are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race”

Civil rights and education advocates have raised alarm over the nebulous nature of anti-critical race theory measures similar to Youngkin’s, pointing out that such ill-defined and broad mandates could have a chilling effect on classroom discussion. “In several states with new legislation,” Chalkbeat reported in December, “teachers say the ambiguity of the laws, plus new scrutiny from parents and administrators, are together chipping away at discussions of racism and inequality. Right-wing leaders pushing for anti-CRT measures are also more broadly pushing to restrict the rights of transgender students and to ban books about race or LGBTQ-related subject matter.

In emails, VDOE employees and others expressed confusion about how to interpret Youngkin’s executive order as well as concern about its effect. In one email sent on March 21, a senior VDOE official, Adria Merritt, emailed Rosa Atkins, the chief diversity, opportunity and inclusion officer, pointing out that the modules of an elective African American history high school course that was introduced in August 2021 might conflict with the language of the order. 

“Because history is history, one of the overarching objectives states how slavery put one group of people over another as historical fact,” Merritt wrote. “It contradicts with the language of Executive Order 1 – or maybe my interpretation is wrong. I have no idea how to reconcile that truth.” 

On March 3, Department of Special Education and Student Services Director Henry Millward asked for guidance on how to decline potential event speakers who may bring up potentially “divisive concepts.” Millward wrote that a colleague’s team was planning a conference and had “been in contact with two presenters whose biographical info suggest that the content of their presentations may address ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ information.” Millward noted that they did not plan on inviting those two speakers, but asked if there were “any guidance on what a response should be when declining such presentations and the question is asked as to ‘why’?”

Also in early March, a researcher with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Autism Excellence emailed the director of instructional services at VDOE, asking if a passage from an upcoming article would “violate the guidance” in Executive Order 1. The paragraph discussed the disproportionate rate of punishment that students with disabilities face in schools, including the disparate outcomes for disabled students of color. The director responded, “Please proceed,” and said that there didn’t appear to be anything in the passage that would violate the order. 

In another set of emails, VDOE employees were apparently worried about the word choice in an outside organization’s draft educational toolkit. “One flag that I noticed from a quick glance – they’re using ‘equity’ throughout,” the associate director of quality measurement and improvement wrote on March 11. “Do we need to ask them to change this to something more related to ‘for all’ as we’ve been doing in our docs?” 

American Oversight obtained these records in response to requests submitted to the VDOE in March. This spring, we also filed additional open records requests seeking information from Youngkin’s office related to the tip line and executive order. In August, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against the governor’s office for failing to release those records. More information on American Oversight’s investigation can be found here.