Nov 3, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Inside the emails to Gov. Youngkin's school tip line

Photo illustration collage of Glenn Youngkin surrounded by computer windows and an arrow cursor.

Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photo: Robb Hill/Getty Images.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s controversial school tip line drew complaints from around the state about pandemic precautions, a symbolic “equity month” and, in one case, a 12th grade English teacher’s take on poetry.

Why it matters: Youngkin created a national uproar just days into his administration when he launched the tip line, urging parents to report schools teaching “inherently divisive concepts” — a term he has used to describe critical race theory in particular. But the contents of the emails have remained a mystery until now.  

What’s happening: Axios received 350 tip line emails from the Youngkin administration this week as part of a legal settlement with a coalition of news organizations who sued for access to the records.

  • The cache is a portion of the thousands of emails the administration received. Per the settlement, Youngkin turned over only messages that were also sent to the Department of Education. 
  • While incomplete, the documents offer the first window into the concerns some state residents hoped Youngkin would address.

Zoom in: One Fairfax County parent copied Youngkin on an email to local school administrators complaining about a free online tutoring program offered by the district.

  • "There is no Controls over what these (supposed) Tutors might be telling our children," the parent wrote. “This seems like just another potential path for unknown perverts to gain 1-on-1 access to our children.”

In Chesterfield County, someone complained that the school board had named March 2022 “Equity Month.”

  • “Equity is so embedded in Chesterfield county they are going to have to dismantle everything,” the email warned.

A high school senior in Montgomery County reported that they believed their English teacher was violating Youngkin’s ban on teaching “divisive topics” by criticizing the portrayal of women in the sixth century epic poem “Beowulf.”

  • “She tries to make us believe that every scenario in the book is sexist in some way,” the student wrote.

Reality check: Many of the emails flagged potential problems with public schools, but had little to do with “divisive concepts.”

  • A little over half were sent by a Richmond-area advocate for children with disabilities who has long been at odds with school districts over the accommodations provided for students with special needs.

Worth noting: About a dozen messages aimed to subvert the tip line by instead offering detailed compliments of teachers.

The big picture: Youngkin said he was going to use the tip line to “root out” and “catalog” critical race theory and “instances where (parents) feel their fundamental rights are being violated,” but it’s unclear what impact the messages had.

  • The governor’s press secretary Macaulay Porter did not answer questions about how Youngkin’s administration has used the emails.
  • Meanwhile, a Department of Education spokesman said he was “not aware of any policy decisions made in response to information received from the tip line.” 
  • Queries to school districts and organizations that represent teachers and superintendents around the state yielded no evidence Youngkin’s administration intervened in local school decisions as a result of the emails.

Yes, but: There are hints that Department of Education staff were paying attention to the notes.

  • In one email, a DOE employee indicated the agency would reach out to a private Montessori program in Charlottesville after a prospective parent complained about the school’s policy requiring masks, which is allowed under state law.

In other cases, Youngkin’s superintendent of public instruction Jillian Balow forwarded messages along to other department staff.

  • In response to one email complaining that Stafford County Public Schools had violated rules around remote instruction, Balow forwarded the note to her policy team “in case we're asked to speak to them applying for a waiver.”

What they’re saying: Porter would not address the substance of the messages, saying in a statement only that Youngkin considers the legal settlement a victory. 

  • It "preserves the principle that a constituent’s communication with a Governor is protected under the law and exempt from FOIA,” she told Axios in an email. “The Governor wants constituents to be able to reach out to him without fear that their communications will not be kept confidential."

The intrigue: As of Wednesday, the tip line appears to have been shut down. 

  • Emails sent by Axios bounced back as undeliverable. Porter did not respond to a question about the status of the initiative.
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