Youngkin rolls back diversity, inclusion efforts in education, calling them ‘divisive concepts’

Free Press wire reports | 3/10/2022, 6 p.m.
Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin’s administration has rescinded a series of policies, memos and other resources related to diversity, equity and …
Gov. Youngkin

Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin’s administration has rescinded a series of policies, memos and other resources related to diversity, equity and inclusion that it characterized as “discriminatory and divisive concepts” in the state’s public education system.

In an interim report released late last month, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow outlined the initial findings of a search for such “divisive concepts,” including critical race theory, that Gov. Youngkin tasked her with as one of his first acts after being sworn in as governor.

The report did not identify any instance of the teaching of critical race theory in the classroom. But it pointed to a range of state Department of Education online materials, memos, a webinar and a math pilot program as examples it had identified and was rescinding or evaluating.

Gov. Youngkin, who took office in mid-January, campaigned heavily on education issues and specifically on a promise to rid Virginia’s schools of critical race theory, or CRT, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

The governor called Ms. Balow’s report “the first step in improving Virginia’s education system, restoring high academic expectations, equipping our future generation to be career or college ready, and providing equal opportunities for all Virginia students.”

Democrats have long argued that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools and that the term has been weaponized by Republicans who object more broadly to other diversity or curriculum reform initiatives.

The pushback to the report was immediate.

In a scathing statement, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called the report another attempt by the Youngkin administration “to further revise, rewrite and erase history.”

“The centuries-long legacy of slavery and Jim Crow did not magically disappear with a magic wand when Jim Crow legally ended,” stated Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, vice chair of the VLBC.

“We must educate all Virginians about the good, the bad and the ugly in our history and the intentional effort to undo the inequities caused by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Gov. Youngkin’s attempts are dangerous because they unravel our efforts to redress inequity in education while at the same time making it more difficult

to teach that history and its impacts,” she said. “Covering our eyes to the reality of history will only serve to worsen education and inequities in Virginia.”

The state NAACP said Ms. Balow, in effect, has declared war on teaching accurate American history.

“Virginia has a long, torrid history as it pertains to educating Black children,” said Robert N. Barnette Jr., president of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. “Black slaves in Virginia were prohibited by law and practice from learning to read or write. Even when Virginia established a free public education system, educating Black children was a complete afterthought.

“It is apparent that the governor has no real interest in teaching our shared history,” Mr. Barnette said. “You cannot characterize truth as divisive and be open to teaching history accurately.”

Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn of Northern Virginia, the House minority leader, said the governor was “embracing a bizarre far-right agenda” and engaging in “race-based witch hunts designed to intimidate educators and censor our history.”

Elicia Brand, a Loudoun County mother and co-founder of the Army of Parents activist group, welcomed the report, which she said shows that Gov. Youngkin is keeping his promises to parents like her who are concerned about CRT.

In a letter at the start of the report, Ms. Balow wrote that it contained just a “sampling of critical race theory- based materials.”

“However, the concepts have become widespread in the Virginia Department of Education and in Virginia school divisions and we will need to proactively review policies, practices, and pedagogies around the state to uphold the Civil Rights Act and comport with Executive Order One,” she said.

One of the priorities Ms. Balow’s report said had been rescinded or would be evaluated was a state Department of Education initia- tive called EdEquityVA. A description on the department’s website described the initiative as the “combined efforts to advance education equity, eliminate achievement gaps and increase opportunity, and decrease disproportionality in student outcomes.”

Ms. Balow wrote that numerous resources within EdEquityVA “employ the concept that current dis- crimination is needed to address past discrimination. (Treating people differently based on skin color to remedy old/previous discrimination.)”

Another initiative highlighted in the report was the Virginia Math Pathways Initiative, which Gov. Youngkin had already rescinded by executive order.

That program sought to modernize how math

is taught. Critics linked it to critical race theory, though, because early versions of the initiative included some discussion of eliminating op- tions for grade schoolers and middle schoolers to take highly advanced math. Reformers have been critical of accelerated math pathways in part because they believe children don’t thoroughly master the material if they move at too fast a pace, and because they believe it creates inequities as students of color have historically had less opportunity to participate.

Ms. Brand, the Loudoun County activist, said she was particularly pleased to see the Math Pathways Initiative scrapped. She said it’s false progress for a program to purport to eliminate an achievement gap by simply holding back high-achieving students.

“That’s discrimination,” she said. “What they should be doing is lifting up all students.”

The 19-page report was overdue. Gov. Youngkin’s executive order asked for it 30 days after Jan. 15.

The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the document and was told initially by an Education Department official that it was “still currently being developed.” The report was dated the next day.

Under Gov. Youngkin’s executive order, another report is due in about two months identifying any “necessary executive and legisla- tive actions needed to end use of all inherently divisive concepts in public education.”

The Democrat-controlled state Senate has not looked favorably upon much of Gov. Youngkin’s education agenda during the ongoing legislative session, and among the measures the chamber has killed was one aimed at banning critical race theory.