Loudoun County, Virginia has been the home of substantial education activism over the past year, as more and more parents fight to keep harmful ideologies about race and sex out of classrooms.
Last year, the Loudoun County School Board tried to prohibit any teacher or staff member from expressing beliefs “not in alignment with the school division’s commitment to action-oriented equity practices,” even in private conversations and on social media. In practice, this would have forbidden school employees from objecting to, for example, critical race theory’s racist tenets and transgender ideology.
Swift and decisive backlash kept this proposal from passing, but this school culture persisted. Loudoun County elementary teacher Tanner Cross was suspended after speaking out against a proposal to force teachers to encourage young students’ gender confusion. While he was reinstated through a court injunction, his case is ongoing. An eighth-grader also called out the school board for proposing to allow boys in girls’ locker rooms.
This insanity has mobilized the parents of Loudoun County. Several parents sued the school board for racial and viewpoint discrimination. More voters in Loudoun and neighboring Fairfax County oppose critical race theory than support it, according to local polling. A bipartisan coalition of residents organized a rally to support “education, not indoctrination.”
I spoke to one parent, Cheryl Onderchain, a mother of three who is fighting for open schools and intellectual freedom in the classroom. She explained her motivations and what it’s been like to move from mom to education freedom fighter. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
How did you first get involved in fighting critical race theory in schools?
I call myself an “accidental activist.” Last summer, I was part of a grassroots movement that started because we wanted schools reopened.
We were writing emails, making phone calls to the governor’s office, to our school board members, to some of our state delegates, congresspeople, and nobody was listening. When they started opening up public comment again at the school board in person, we started holding rallies before the school board meetings.
We were a large group, and then it distilled down as the weeks dragged on, because it’s exhausting work. Most of us have day jobs. I have a high-pressure sales job during the day and I’m a single mother to three teenagers. It’s kind of a second job. We were telling the school board about what other schools were doing to successfully reopen, and we tried to reason with them and explain to them the toll that this was taking our children.
Then there were people coming, and they were starting to talk about critical race theory. I knew a little bit about critical race theory because I took a course on race, class, and gender in college. I tried to steer clear of that and really just focus on the “open schools” theme, because that’s my top priority, getting my kids back in school.
I got kind of dragged into the bigger story. Some local people got together in a secret Facebook group, which included three of our school board members and a member of the board of supervisors as well as our commonwealth attorney in Loudoun County, which is pretty alarming. I woke up on a Saturday morning and found out that I was named on a “hit list.”
I got pulled into the forefront of this because there were several of us who were just astounded that we ended up on this “hit list.” We got together and we decided, you know what? Enough is enough. We need to get serious about this.
Now that the schools have agreed, in theory, that they will reopen in the fall, the critical race theory issue has really come to the forefront. You’re hearing about it everywhere now. These school districts really shot themselves in the foot by keeping schools closed as long as they did, because they’ve awakened a sleeping giant — and parents are now much more aware of what is going on in public schools.
What concerns you about the ideology being pushed onto students like your children?
I’ve looked at some of the documentation from the county’s “equity committee” meetings and it was eye-opening. They had a table that they published, and there were two columns: one was oppressor, and one was oppressed.
They listed a number of traits: man/oppressor, woman/oppressed; black/oppressed, white/oppressor; and it went down. It went into such granular detail about things, and I fell in both columns. I’m oppressed because I’m a woman but I’m an oppressor because I’m white and then I was also oppressed because I’m divorced. It went into such crazy things.
I don’t want my children going to school and being taught that they’re oppressors. They’re not oppressors, they’re just trying to get an education. By keeping the schools closed we have really been able to take a hard look at what these school systems are focusing on. I don’t hear a lot about academic excellence, but I’ve heard a whole lot about “equity.”
How do you explain that to your kid? “You’re half in this column, and half in the other.” How confusing is this for a biracial child? I have friends who are in mixed-race marriages, and how do you explain that to your kid: “Your dad’s an oppressor and I’m oppressed?”
Many people are coming out on social media saying we’re crazy because Loudoun County doesn’t teach critical race theory. Our superintendent claims we’re not teaching critical race theory. However, our previous superintendent admitted they were using a lot of those ideologies in our education system here in Loudoun County. We had a school board member pretty much admit the same thing two weeks ago.
I’ve had one or two teachers talk to me about how demeaning some of these trainings have been for them. I know for a fact they held one last summer, and I’ve confirmed this with at least two teachers that I know. They actually had a session called “Whiteness.” These trainings they’re making these teachers sit through are going to cause a lot of good teachers to quit.
I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had kids in Loudoun County Public Schools for 14 years now, and we’ve had some amazing teachers. But with all of this union influence, these social justice agendas are going to drive out the good teachers.
How did you and your fellow activists react to former governor and current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s comments that critical race theory in schools was a “right-wing conspiracy” theory? Do you believe it will have an impact on his election chances?
Some immediately thought, “Could you be any further out of touch?” Anybody who has talked to parents who have been living this for the last 15 months, he’s just completely out of touch. It’s really a slap in the face to parents. We do our homework. We have [open records] documents, and we have documentation. You would think somebody running for office would want to maybe talk to parents and not just dismiss us.
I’m part of Fight for Schools, which is a nonpartisan organization. I don’t belong to any political party, although seeing what’s going on in public education has made me lean definitely more on the conservative side.
We have a lot of Democrats joining us, and they say, “You know what? I’m a Democrat but I’m with you guys.” I think he’s missing the boat on such a huge issue. I don’t know who his strategist is, but [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Glenn Youngkin has been fantastic about listening to us.
What do you hope you and the other involved parents can accomplish?
For starters, I want the politics out of schools completely. These are lessons that are taught at home. I want the public schools to focus on academic excellence, math, English, science. I want my children to be prepared for college. I don’t want them being put in positions where they need to talk about political hot-button issues in front of their peers. They have those conversations anyway. They should be happening in the lunchroom.
The schools’ priorities are out of whack, especially since my kids will have missed out on 18 months of school — even if the board says we’re going back in August, but I don’t trust this board as far as I can throw them. Our number one priority right now should be getting everybody back up to speed.
My kids are going to be competing for highly coveted college slots, and their peers in other states and in private schools have had the luxury — which is sad we have to call that a luxury — of an in-person education over the last 15 months, so mine are already at a disadvantage. I just want them to go to school to learn and to be prepared for college and for life.
If you look at the Loudoun County Public Schools’ website or any documents or emails they put out, there’s very little about academic excellence. It’s all about feelings and I don’t need my children being taught how to feel. Teach them how to think. Prepare them to go out into the world. In America, we’re all about the marketplace of ideas. But what we’re doing is telling kids what to think. We’re not teaching them how to think.
Part of parenting is teaching your child all of those things. I don’t want the government doing it — I do not co-parent with the government. I really hope when my kids look back 10 years from now, they can appreciate that I did this fight for them. Part of this has been hard, because I’ve lost a lot of friends who don’t agree with my advocacy. But I cannot live with myself if I don’t do what’s right. Honestly, this is the fight of my life.