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It might not be a coincidence that Loudoun County, Virginia, has become the epicenter of the debate over “critical race theory” in schools: One of the parents leading the fight isn’t just some mad dad—he’s a top national Republican operative. And Virginia just happens to be hosting 2021’s most important election.
Ian Prior has presented himself as a concerned parent in his numerous speeches and television hits speaking out against CRT. But he’s also a well-known veteran GOP strategist who served as then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ spokesman from 2017-2018.
Prior co-founded Fight for Schools, an organization fighting to recall the county’s school board members that has extensively relied on his connections in Republican politics and the right-wing mediasphere to push its agenda. With Prior’s help, the CRT issue has become critical in the key battleground region in Virginia, giving Republicans a campaign issue they think can help take back the governor's mansion in the first big post-Trump political test of 2021.
Prior says he got involved because he’s legitimately frustrated by the direction of his school district, worried about his kids’ education and angry at the actions of the school board.
“My driving motivation is not the fact that I’m a Republican; it’s the fact that I’m a parent and I have to send my kids to these schools that I pay for, and I don’t want them coming home with a clouded view at a young age when they’re not ready to critically think for themselves,” he told VICE News.
But his targets see themselves as a convenient target for Republicans looking to motivate their base and make inroads with suburban voters.
“To me it’s clear they’re using our kids as a wedge issue for this November’s election,” said Atoosa Reaser, one of the school board members Prior is trying to remove from office.
Because Virginia is one of only two states that elects its governor the year after a presidential election, it has long been used for beta-testing messages and strategies ahead of the midterm elections.
And if Republicans are going to win the Democratic-leaning state, that means making inroads in places like Loudoun County.
The wealthy suburban territory, about an hour outside Washington, D.C., is emblematic of the kind of fast-growing, fast-diversifying and well-educated areas that have swung hard away from the GOP in recent years—and that Republicans know they need to win back.
The county’s population has more than doubled in the last two decades, growing from 174,000 in 2000 to 421,000 in 2020. Its population was 85% white in 2000; it’s now just 60% white, 20% Asian American, and 15% Hispanic. Its schools have diversified even faster: Loudoun’s student population is now 44% white, down from 83% white in 1995.
That rapid growth and diversification has swung both the county and the state away from the GOP. President George W. Bush won Loudoun by a double-digit margin in 2004, the last time the GOP carried the state in a presidential contest, and Republicans stayed competitive there through the 2014 midterms. But the Trump era erased that: Hillary Clinton won Loudoun by 17 points in 2016, and Joe Biden carried it by a lopsided 25-point margin in 2020. And in 2019, Democrats won control of the county school board for the first time in a generation.
Reversing that trend is critical for Republicans’ hopes in the state this fall—and improving their numbers in areas like this will be key to their chances in the 2022 midterms, when they hope to win back control of Congress. And Republicans have made crystal-clear that critical race theory is the wedge issue they want to use this election.
“Our children should not be the victims of the left-liberal progressives’ culture war.”
On June 30, Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin headlined a rally outside the Loudoun County Public Schools office building where he called the district “absolutely ground zero for the fight to return our schools to a curriculum that prepares our students for the future.”
“Our children should not be the victims of the left-liberal progressives’ culture war,” he said, pledging to issue an order banning the teaching of CRT “on Day One” if he wins in November.
Prior was the event’s first speaker. He lamented “a drift away from excellence in education, a drift away from meritocracy, and a new mission where all students must finish in the same place.”
But Prior, who moved out to Loudoun County from D.C.’s inner suburbs a few years ago, never mentioned the decade he’s spent working for Republican candidates and causes.
He was a senior Justice Department spokesman during the Trump administration under AG Jeff Sessions. Before that, he worked for American Crossroads, the Republican super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ official campaign organization. He got into politics working on a Rhode Island congressional campaign in 2012, after a few years as a practicing lawyer in New England.
And Prior still works for a number of Republican campaigns and causes, including Pennsylvania Senate candidate and Trump ally Sean Parnell, as well as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who’s facing legal troubles but recently landed a major reelection endorsement from Trump.
As the liberal watchdog group Media Matters reported, Prior is one of at least a dozen Republican strategists and former Trump officials from around the country who Fox News has had on as a parent concerned about CRT, without bothering to mention their partisan affiliation or previous political work.
Other Republican activists involved in this specific recall effort who have appeared on Fox as angry parents include Patti Hidalgo Menders, a GOP media strategist who also heads the Loudoun County Republican Women’s Club, and Lilit Vanetsyan, who was introduced as a local teacher on Fox but is also a media personality with ties to the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA.
And Fight for Schools’ close ties to the GOP are reflected in its donor list, who it’s paid, and where it’s gone to find signatures.
The group began its petition signature drive at the Republican Party of Virginia’s gubernatorial convention, Prior told VICE News, and its website lists multiple petition-gathering events connected with the Loudoun County Republican Club.
The group’s largest payment so far is to WinRed, the Republican online donation-processing platform endorsed by the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign. Next on the list are Eli Data Services, a firm founded by a Republican operative; and Jamestown Associates, a well-known GOP ad agency that produced a number of 2020 ads for Trump and made this slick Fight for Schools fundraising video:
While the $130,000 that the organization has raised so far came largely from smaller donations, unlike other well-funded anti-CRT organizations that have sprung into existence in recent months, some of its larger donors are well-known Republican activists—like businesswoman and GOP mega-donor Sharon Virts Mozer, who gave $10,000, and the conservative direct-mail firm HSP Direct, which gave $1,800.
Prior shrugged off his organization’s heavy reliance on Republican firms for their operations.
“Those are the people I know and have personal relationships with,” he said.
How Loudoun became the epicenter of the CRT fight
Loudoun County has a dark history—it didn’t desegregate its schools until the mid-1960s, a full decade after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. And recent events indicate that the county isn’t completely over its past.
In 2019, after an incident where one school’s students were told to play runaway slaves as part of Black History Month made national news, the local NAACP filed a complaint against the school system with Democratic Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. The complaint alleged the schools had seen a pattern of racist incidents and criticized its flagship STEM schools, the Academies of Loudoun, for admitting disproportionately few Black and Hispanic students.
To address these issues, the district hired The Equity Collaborative, an education consulting firm, which found in its own investigation that many students of color reported that they’d faced racist insults or “racially motivated violent actions” against them by other students, while teachers and staff had little training on racial issues.
“People are unclear and fearful on how to participate in conversations about race, let alone respond to racially charged incidents,” the report said.
A November 2020 report from Herring’s office found the district’s actions “resulted in a discriminatory impact” on Black and Hispanic students.
The school board agreed to enter a resolution agreement with the attorney general’s office in early 2021, with a promise to invest in outreach to communities of color and make reforms to address the issues.
The school board was already under siege for their COVID-driven school closings. But its August decision to eliminate two of the four assessment tests used for the Academies’ application tests and focus on boosting diversity within the school program, which passed by a narrow 5-4 vote. That was met with extra fury from some parents, who in September formed a group called Parents Against Critical Theory to push back.
All this happened to neatly coincide with Republicans’ sudden interest in turning critical race theory, an academic theory that racism is inherently woven into America’s institutions, into a catch-all term for diversity and equity efforts. This began to gain steam ahead of the 2020 elections and has only grown in recent months.
The anti-CRT movement fits in nicely for Republicans: Many of the people now pushing the issue are the same ones who protested COVID-related school closures last year. And there’s a lot of overlap between those protesting CRT and those pushing hard to ban transgender kids from school athletics.
Fox News began pushing alarmist coverage of CRT last summer, and President Trump followed suit last September with an executive order that banned the teaching of critical race theory in federal agencies.
Prior jumped into this fight shortly before the election. In an October op-ed in The Federalist, a national right-wing website, he accused Loudoun County of using its district’s kids as “guinea pigs for critical race theory.”
To buttress that claim, he revealed information he’d dug out with a Freedom of Information request that the county had spent more than $400,000 on the Equity Collaborative, and found a document on the consulting firm’s website that showed it uses critical race theory in formulating part of its program.
He also spoke at a school board meeting that month, complaining that a proposed speech and dress code was a First Amendment violation.
School board members say that CRT is a trumped-up issue made to score political points.
“We became ripe for the picking for a group of people who want to affect our governor’s race,” said Loudoun County Public School Board Chair Brenda Sheridan, one of the members Prior’s group is pushing to recall.
The consultant was hired by the previous school board, which at the time had a Republican majority. And Sheridan says critical race theory isn’t even being used in the classroom.
“I worked closely with the Equity Collaborative. They helped get our equity committee off and running and to find a purpose. Not once did I hear CRT be brought to the table by them,” Sheridan said. “I’ve taken the first module of our equity training three different times. … There’s no critical race theory in it. It’s essentially asking you to reflect on how you look at things.”
Prior insists that while the theory itself isn't being taught to students, it’s being put into practice.
“The school continues to play word games. I’ve never said they teach critical race theory. What I’ve said is the ideas and the foundations of critical race theory which the Equity Collaborative bases their entire training on, according to their own documents, is present in Loudoun County public schools,” he said.
Prior points to the board’s changes to the Academies’ admission policies as proof. When asked if his daughters have been subject to CRT-influenced teaching, he used an example that he’s used in speeches: that his second-grade daughter was taught about Christopher Columbus’ genocidal history in a violent video that’s meant to be shown to older students.
When asked for a second example, all he could come up with was another video that was available on his kindergarten-aged daughter’s school laptop, which wasn’t assigned and which she hadn’t viewed, about last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Prior says he only got involved in the way he has because the school board picked a fight with him.
In March, one school board member, Beth Barts, posted in a Facebook group called “Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County” asking the group to list out their opponents and organize to oppose their efforts. Her call was met by an activist who called for volunteers to “expose” these activists, infiltrate the anti-CRT organizations using false names, and potentially hack their websites. Parents began listing conservative organizers in the area—including Prior.
The efforts were concerning enough that both the FBI and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department investigated them. But the FBI dropped the case after an initial investigation, and the sheriff’s department announced on Saturday that after a “thorough investigation,” it had determined that any potential legal violations were misdemeanors, not felonies, it wouldn’t proactively pursue the case.
The Facebook group included numerous school board members in addition to Barts. But it’s not like people see every post that’s made in every Facebook group they belong to. And Barts, who didn’t respond to an interview request, was already an outcast on the school board—it had already voted to censure her and stripped her from her committee assignments for her inflammatory social media comments even before this incident.
But Prior was furious that other board members didn’t step up to condemn an attempt to threaten, doxx and “cancel” him and other conservatives in the community.
Prior wrote a scathing piece in response, labeling the group “Chardonnay Antifa” and accusing them of violating multiple laws. He launched his group a month later.
When asked what more the other school board members could have done in response, Prior told VICE News they should have joined him in trying to push Barts out.
“They could censure her again, they could publicly call for her resignation,” he said. “They could say publicly ‘there’s not much more we can do, you should recall her.’ They could support her removal from office.”
Tensions have continued to escalate in the community, with anti-CRT groups confronting school board members in hostile and rowdy hearings. Two meetings ago, a local gym teacher spoke out against the schools’ proposed policy to call children by their preferred pronouns.
"I'm a teacher, but I serve God first, and I will not affirm that a biological boy can be a girl and vice versa, because it's against my religion," said the teacher, Tanner Cross. "It's lying to a child. It's abuse to a child. And it's sinning against our god."
That led to his suspension by the school’s superintendent. Cross sued to be reinstated and won his initial ruling, but the school district has appealed.
The last school board meeting, in late June, went completely off the rails, with anti-CRT and anti-trans protesters shouting down the board members and the arrests of two protestors who’d become unruly with the cops after the school board voted to end the meeting early.
Prior wasn’t at that particular meeting—he says he was out knocking doors to gather signatures—and the other main group pushing anti-CRT activities in the region, Parents Against Critical Theory, were the main folks at that hearing. Both sides are bracing for fireworks at the next hearing, slated for August 10.
The process for removing school board members is also an unusual one. Prior’s group needs to gather enough signatures to prove there’s public interest in the removal. But the decision won’t be decided by the voters: A judge will make the call. Prior argues that because the members were discussing school business in a private Facebook group, they violated the state’s open meetings law, and he says their behavior violated their own code of conduct.
His group is likely to file petition signatures first for Barts, then may come for the others next in a process that’s likely to last months if not years—and drag on well through this fall’s gubernatorial election and possibly into next year’s midterms.
Prior says if his motivation was profit and politics, he could have taken on more campaign work rather than this unpaid position.
“I’d much rather spend 40 hours a week doing things that actually pay the bills than 40 hours a week doing something that I don’t get paid for that may have an impact on an election,” he told VICE News.