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Youngkin calls for police in all Virginia schools, tapping into heated school issues to close his campaign
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Youngkin calls for police in all Virginia schools, tapping into heated school issues to close his campaign

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With less than two weeks remaining before Election Day, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin stopped in Stafford Tuesday afternoon. Youngkin spoke for 25 minutes along with other regional Republican candidates running for election next month. Youngkin, 54, announced his campaign for governor against Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe in January. Since then, the campaign has drawn significant national attention. McAuliffe, a Democrat, had served as the 72nd governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018.

As many Virginia localities examine the role of police in schools, Republican Glenn Youngkin is calling on every school in the state to have a law enforcement officer on its campus, or face losing state education funding.

Youngkin, who is in a close contest with Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor, is tapping into contentious education issues in an effort to turn parent frustration into a victory in the Nov. 2 election.

“For months, we’ve seen chaos seep into our schools,” Youngkin said Tuesday during a rally in the Fairfax County community of Burke, flanked by young children and a crowd peppered with signs that read “Parents for Youngkin.”

“The already passionate parent-driven movement has understandably become more and more outraged.”

The Virginia governor’s race, already the political contest to watch in 2021, has grown increasingly heated as the election winds to a close. McAuliffe, once heavily favored in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points, is now in a virtual tie with Youngkin, according to recent polls.

Heated school issues — COVID-19 restrictions on students, whether teachers should talk about systemic racism, rules around transgender students, school choice and, now, school safety — appear to have boosted Youngkin’s popularity among the kinds of voters he needs in order to overcome McAuliffe in a state that has recently favored Democrats.

An end-of-the-race poll out Wednesday from Monmouth University found that between September and October, independent voters swung toward Youngkin, who also made gains among women. Other polls have shown him chipping away at McAuliffe’s support in the suburbs that form the state’s key battlegrounds.

Underlying those crucial gains is a key shift: The Monmouth survey found that education and schools is now one of the two issues voters care the most about, along with jobs and the economy; moving past COVID-19.

“Something has happened in the last few weeks among suburban women,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which has conducted polling in the race for months.

“The poll confirms that Youngkin’s strategy is working. And that McAuliffe was unwise to blow it off, to think that suburban women who have tended in recent elections to vote for Democrats would continue to do that, couldn’t be moved off that track,” Murray said.

Youngkin’s speech on Tuesday focused on school safety; the lengthy address mostly focused on incidents causing parent uproar in Loudoun County.

There, parents have protested the school district’s disciplinary process after two students at different high schools allegedly were sexually assaulted by the same student, months apart. The school district is facing criticism for not responding more quickly after the first assault; the district has said its hands were tied by federal rules requiring a full investigation first. A parent of one of the victims was later arrested, accused of disrupting a School Board meeting.

Youngkin used the case to boost his argument that Virginia schools are not safe and that “parents matter,” blaming McAuliffe for what he said is “chaos in our schools.”

“Parents matter” has become a banner for the Youngkin campaign since the second gubernatorial debate, when McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

McAuliffe was responding to comments from Youngkin about some parents being dissatisfied with the books available in their students’ schools.

In response to Youngkin’s education plan, the McAuliffe campaign accused the GOP candidate of leaning on “angry Trumpian conspiracy theories and constant threats against public school funding.”

McAuliffe, who launched his campaign last December outside a Richmond elementary school, has promised to invest $2 billion annually in education and raise teacher pay above the national average.

McAuliffe has said rules surrounding transgender student access to school bathrooms and team sports should be left up to school districts with guidance from the state, a stance Youngkin also supports.

Officers in schools

The call for uniform law enforcement presence in schools comes after many localities and school districts examined the role of law enforcement officers amid the racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd.

Arlington County voted this summer to remove law enforcement officers from school hallways. Richmond’s superintendent considered such a proposal, but withdrew it, lacking School Board support.

“If you are a school board and you refuse to equip your schools with school resource officers to keep our children safe, you will need to find your funding for your school on your own,” Youngkin said Tuesday.

In school districts, civil rights advocates said the presence of law enforcement creates a pipeline between schools and the criminal justice system, particularly for students of color.

“Any school that has a police officer has a higher incidence of referrals to the court system. There is also a higher incidence of officers being involved in matters that should be handled by the school division,” said Valerie Slater of the RISE for Youth Coalition, which advocates for children involved in the criminal justice system.

“Youngkin is quite blatantly saying, we need to go law and order on these kids, and that’s problematic on every level.”

Youngkin also called on school districts to report any crimes committed on campus to law enforcement. A bill from Democrats that cleared the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law last year gave principals more discretion on when to involve law enforcement if a student commits a misdemeanor.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said he “wholeheartedly” agrees with Youngkin, and said “House Democrats made children less safe in school.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who sponsored the bill, said giving principals more discretion was meant to curtail police referrals for things like “disorderly conduct,” offenses that could better be handled by trained school officials or mental health experts.

“There were lots of things kids were being reported to police for that even law enforcement and the courts felt would better be handled by schools,” said McClellan, adding that schools still have to report crimes to parents, who can involve police if they see fit.

“Youngkin is following the same playbook Republicans have used since the ’60s,” she added. “Stoke fear, anger and division in order to win.”

Charter schools

Youngkin’s “Day One Game Plan” for education laid out last week goes beyond school safety. He made a series of promises, including that parents would have greater access to teaching materials and lesson plans in their kids’ schools. Youngkin doubled down on a promise to ban “critical race theory” from schools, a term Republicans use to challenge schools that are teaching students about systemic racism.

Youngkin and McAuliffe have promised to invest heavily in public education and teacher pay.

Youngkin’s plan for public education also includes expanding charter schools in the state. Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by private entities, like a public university or a for-profit company.

Virginia has only a handful of charter schools, compared with more than 600 in such states as Florida and California. Betsy DeVos, a key proponent of charter schools who served as U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump, has donated to Youngkin’s campaign and has appeared on TV as a surrogate supporting his bid.

Virginia Gentles, a Northern Virginia parent who has advocated for charter schools in Virginia, said public enthusiasm for alternatives among parents may be growing following the pandemic’s shutdowns. Gentles pointed to the growing number of parents who opted to home-school their children as many schools went virtual.

“Remote learning was dreadful, but I also think that that reflects that there are a lot of dissatisfied parents, and that there is a need for schools to provide education in a way that the district is not providing,” she said. “Maybe they want something else.”

Democrats in Virginia have criticized Youngkin’s plan to expand charter schools by arguing the schools will pull needed funding from existing public schools, and contribute to disparity and segregation in the school system.

“Fully funding our public school systems is the only way to ensure that our students will receive the education they deserve no matter what ZIP code they live in,” McClellan said.

Virginia’s gubernatorial elections, coming a year after the presidential election, have always served as a key test of policy issues and voter enthusiasm ahead of the midterm congressional elections. A Youngkin victory on Nov. 2 could thrust these heated education issues to the forefront in those races.

Murray of the Monmouth Institute said McAuliffe has a path to victory, but it is complicated.

“He can still win if he has a strong turnout among voters of color, for example. He has ways to offset Youngkin’s gains, but the problem is that McAuliffe is having trouble turning out other groups of voters because of this enthusiasm gap, mainly due to what’s going on in Washington,” Murray said.

“For many Democratic voters, things are not working out the way they hoped after kicking Trump out of office.”

Murray said a McAuliffe win almost certainly would not follow Northam’s path, when he trounced Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 points.

“The suburbs, especially Northern Virginia, were key to Northam’s victory in 2017,” he said. “McAuliffe is nowhere near as strong as Northam in those areas.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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