RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — During a CNN townhall on Thursday, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin cemented education as the defining topic of his administration. His answers and simultaneous protests in Washington DC and Richmond highlighted the controversies at the heart of his agenda.

The townhall, lead by CNN’s Jake Tapper, focused on education but touched on other issues, such as a potential presidential run for Youngkin, who has spent time building a national profile, but fell far behind other Republican hopefuls in a recent poll of Virginians.

Walking the Line

Youngkin ultimately declined to offer a definite answer on his presidential ambitions. A run for president would cut his term as governor short, but under Virginia law, he would be barred from seeking re-election anyway.

One of the questions presented during the townhall was from Niko, a 17-year old transgender student from Arlington. He pressed Youngkin on his proposed policies for transgender students, which would restrict trans students to using bathrooms aligning with their sex at birth and ban them from participating on sports teams aligning with their gender identity.

“Look at me. I’m a transgender man,” Niko said. “Do you really think that the girls in my high school would feel comfortable sharing a restroom with me?”

Still of a CNN townhall in which Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin answered questions over his education policies. (Photo: Still from CNN Video)

Youngkin spoke about trans girls playing on school sports teams, claiming it was “uncontroversial” that they should be barred from competing on girls teams, but avoided addressing the student’s question directly, redirecting the conversation to the state’s bathroom policy.

“What’s most important is that we try very hard to accommodate students. That’s why I have said many, many times we just need extra bathrooms in schools,” he said. “We need gender neutral bathrooms, so people can use the bathroom they in fact are comfortable with.”

That puts Youngkin at odds with the Federal 4th Circuit Court, which ruled in Grimm v. Gloucester that a Virginia school’s decision to require a transgender student to use a gender neutral bathroom — barring him from using the boys restrooms and locker rooms — was unconstitutional and violated the equal protection clause.

Youngkin also faced questions over his ban on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and “inherently divisive concepts,” both of which were included in his first executive order as governor.

“Can you give us a specific example of what is an inherently divisive concept?” Tapper asked.

“CRT isn’t a class that’s taught,” Youngkin responded. “It’s a philosophy that’s incorporated in the curriculum.”

Virginia Department of Education officials have repeatedly denied that CRT has ever been included in state-wide curriculum.

Still, he said the goal of the commonwealth’s newly proposed history standards was “teaching all of our history — the good and the bad.”

Those standards have received praise from the conservative groups, such as the Fordham Institute, who helped craft them.

But they’ve also been harshly criticized by a broad coalition of academic groups, who pointed out that the revised standards removed references to fascism from the section on World War II and an entire section covering the history of labor unions.

Youngkin also weighed in on the use of ChatGPT, an AI language-learning model, which can be used to remix writings drawn from large databases to produce “new” essays.

“I do think it’s something to be very careful of, and I think more school districts should ban it,” he said.

The Opposition

Youngkin’s national appearance was met with organized protests in DC and Richmond, with many focusing their ire on his proposed policies on transgender students.

In DC, the Pride Liberation Project, an LGBT advocacy group, assembled about three dozen protesters outside the location of CNN’s townhall.

“Trans students do not feel safe in Gov. Youngkin’s administration,” said Casey Calabia, rally organizer and high school senior.

Attendees also spoke out against Youngkin’s approach to teaching history.

“We are here because we deserve accurate history, because we deserve comprehensive school funding, because we deserve to feel safe and included in our schools,” said Ranger Balleisen, another rally organizer and high school senior.

In Richmond, protesters took a more light-hearted approach, hosting a mock townhall featuring “John Tapper,” “Glenn Tucked-in” and, of course, “Big head Glenn Youngkin” — a papier mache costume that drew laughs from the crowd.

A mock townhall hosted at Richmond’s historic 3rd Street Bethel AME Church featured a parody of the CNN townhall hosted in DC. (Photo: Still from Virginia Public Education Partners livestream)

During the mock townhall, hosted by liberal, anti-school privatization advocacy group Virginia Public Education Partners, “John Tapper” pressed “Glenn Tucked-in” on a $200 million error by the Department of Education and the sudden departure of state superintendent Jillian Balow.

“I’m not saying that it’s her,” said Nyka Belotti, the local college freshman who played the part of the governor. “But I’m not not saying that it’s her.”

The budget error and Balow’s departure were not brought up during the CNN townhall, but the real Glenn Youngkin has declined to say whether he requested her resignation, and supported efforts in the General Assembly to retroactively fill the funding gap.