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Former VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni: In Opening Days, Youngkin Administration Launches Assault on Public Education, Equity

"Youngkin's administration is stoking the fires of racial discontent in his attacks on public education"

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by former Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni

In the opening days of his new administration, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has issued a number of executive orders, the first two of which directly concern Virginia’s public education system – an area I know something about, having served both as a public school teacher and as Virginia’s Secretary of Education for the past four years. I’m very proud of the Northam administration’s record on public education, but don’t take my word for it: Virginia has been recognized nationally, with CNBC writing, “Virginia’s strongest category is Education, where it finishes a close second to perennial leader Massachusetts.“ This ranking was the result of a great deal of dedication and hard work by many committed professional educators, who should be thanked profusely for their work, particularly in the midst of a historic pandemic.

 

Unfortunately, educational excellence is now coming under threat by the new Youngkin administration, which has made clear its intention to halt progress in how Virginia teaches history to K-12 public school students, as well as to end “Critical Race Theory” – a completely manufactured crisis generated during the campaign to wage war on public education and educators.  I say “manufactured” because this subject is not even being taught in Virginia public schools.  
 

Regarding Youngkin’s executive order about not teaching “inherently divisive concepts,” the reality is that history is full of “divisive concepts,” including some very bad people and ideas.  Perhaps we don’t agree on what “bad” and “good” is anymore — this may be the crux of the problem. As a former history teacher, I can tell you firsthand that we teach history so that young people can understand how we got to where we are. Youngkin’s attempt to ban “Critical Race Theory” is really an attempt to ban the truth about what happened in our history, beginning with the arrival of the first ships to Virginia’s shores. Some of these conversations can be uncomfortable, but they need to be had because even if slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws no longer exist, we still have various forms of discrimination and systemic racism in our country. Students should understand what anti-Semitism looks like, what Islamophobia looks like, what homophobia looks like, and so forth. History is not just learning about the oppression of minority groups, it is also about teaching about their many contributions and accomplishments to our society. We have progressed as a society because of the struggles endured and sacrifices made by those who came before us.

To be blunt: the Youngkin administration is using some of the same language heard during “Massive Resistance” (to desegregation of schools in the 1950s). In the area of education, in fact, one can argue that the Youngkin administration is leading a new “Massive Resistance” in Virginia, including an unwillingness to engage in teaching the full truth about our history. Let’s quickly review the facts of what happened the past four years in Virginia’s education policy related to history curriculum and cultural competency.

First, numerous experts (teachers, historians, etc.) spent many months looking through the history curriculum and providing feedback so that it could be made more inclusive and accurate. For example, our past curricula have left out the contributions of many groups like African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and also minority religious groups like Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.

 

Second, subject matter experts in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) – people who have a great deal of experience and expertise in designing and teaching cultural competency – built the framework for professional development which is now mandatory for every teacher and staff in Virginia. Also worth noting is that, far from being changed on a whim, Virginia curriculum during the Northam administration went through a rigorous, lengthy, and highly professional process. And, of course, historians from many different minority groups were engaged in this process. As for the mandatory piece about cultural competency, experts were engaged in fully developing the framework for this. Many school divisions were already ahead of the game, conducting professional development and cultural competency training for educators.

In stark contrast to the previous Administration (and yes, I’m admittedly a bit biased here), the new Youngkin administration does not include any individuals with classroom teaching or DEI (Diversity Equity Inclusion) experience. Instead, the new administration is taking a highly politicized approach, in which they are aiming to undo much of the good work accomplished in the past four years to deliver a quick “Win” for their team. Youngkin’s administration is stoking the fires of racial discontent in his attacks on public education, eerily reminiscent of the 1950s.  It is dangerous. It is divisive. It is un-American.  
 
On the commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday, I share a quote from him on education: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”  I ask that all Virginians honor Dr. King’s legacy and memory by staying vigilant to what is happening in public education. To be courageous and speak up when they see a wrong that needs to be righted. Because the “dream” that Dr. King envisioned will only be reached if we choose to walk this path towards racial justice TOGETHER, moving forward, never backward.
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