On Friday, July 1, I had a chance to catch up with former Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, and given all that’s happened the past few weeks (see Video: Virginia House, Senate Democrats Condemn Governor Youngkin’s “Totalitarian” Attacks on the Virginia Community College System Board; Youngkin appoints opponent of admissions changes at TJ to Va. Board of Education; and also Molly Ball Pens the Most Pathetically Bad Article Ever Written About Glenn Youngkin?, which makes some crazy assertions about Youngkin’s education record), we had a lot to talk about! I’m going to break the interview up into three parts over the holiday weekend: 1) today, what Atif Qarni had to say about Youngkin’s appointments to the Virginia Board of Education; 2) tomorrow; what he thinks about Youngkin’s assault on the community college system; 3) on July 4th, our discussion about the bizarre profile of Youngkin by “journalist” Molly Ball in Time Magazine. Enjoy!
Qarni: “For your readers, it’s important to understand a timeline. So each year around late June, a bulk of appointments are made because that’s when the current board members…they’re on a staggered basis for different boards…some people roll off when their term comes to an end so they can either get reappointed or they might not be eligible to get reappointed, some new people have to be replaced, so it’s not uncommon for any governor to appoint people generally associated with the political party or some big donors. So that’s not uncommon. Each board varies depending on the Virginia state code on what type of authority each board has. Some boards are more relevant than others. In this specific case of education, that’s why you’re seeing a lot of round of appointments, whether it’s a community college system or…a board of visitors…for universities like UVA, Tech, William and Mary – they’re really sought after because they’re prestigious…And then there’s a state board of education, the state board of education appointments that he did, the five appointments, I think two or three were up for reappointment but I think that there…were some issues…with certifying…the most recent appointments that Governor Northam did, so that’s why there were five. But regardless of the state board of education, which is getting probably the most amount of news…what the state board of education has a lot of authority over is accreditation of schools and different types of regulations, things like teacher license or revocation of licenses, if you know of folks getting in any trouble or any issues, so that’s…basically the general purview of the state board of education.”
Qarni: “So as far as the your second part of the question…how powerful would you say, how important is the board of state board of education…should people be really concerned about it or is it not that big a deal…[the board] is made up of nine people…in the Northam administration there were some issue areas that we wanted to cover like special and early childhood education, STEM education, and then we also looked at it from a lens of racial and economic diversity, gender diversity…regional diversity. There’s only so much you could do with nine positions and you’re only appointing two or three at a time every year…As far as power, that’s a really subjective answer on how powerful is the board or how influential you are. You’re a nine-member board with very different perspectives…depending on the circumstance and the situation, it can be powerful and then at some times it might not be as powerful; it really depends on the situation. But the main thing is what they do is oversight over accreditation, that’s a pretty big deal…”
Qarni: “I know that there was criticism that he’s bringing in people who really focus on private education and this is a state board of education that’s focused on public education. I think that’s a fair criticism. However, if you look at the five individuals – I know a handful of them well, the other handful I don’t know well – so for example one person who got a lot of critique was Grace Creasey, who was the executive director of the council of private education. Yes, she’s coming from a private education background. However, if you look her at as a person or as an individual, I worked closely with her during the pandemic and she was actually very helpful, because only about three percent of children in Virginia attend private school, so it’s not a significant amount, but still still still you know a lot of people…roughly three percent of school ages…attend private schools in Virginia…which is a standard I think across the nation too…but my point is that Grace for example during the COVID pandemic there were a lot of families that were hurting that are not linked to public schools, she was on our COVID task force. I regularly communicated with her. She was wonderful in being a liaison and really giving us an insight and thinking through what are the challenges that families are facing. I still think that we don’t necessarily need a private school perspective on the state board of education, because its purview is over public education, but as a person I mean she’s been very collegial, very smart about policies. And because the policies of students in private school versus public schools there’s a lot of similarities, right, children are children everywhere, class sizes might be different and maybe the diversity demographics might not be just a same or economic diversity, but things like special needs or other related curriculum needs and so forth, there’s a lot of similarities…having a digital divide and so forth…the nuances of the different policy areas, but you know I think it’s unfair to attack her as a person, I think it’s not a fair critique…some people offer a fair critique, but you know we just have to be objective….I am probably the biggest critic for Governor Youngkin and having been Secretary of Education, I’ve openly criticized him and his policies. So we have to take it case by case.”
Qarni: “Dr. Alan Seibert for example, who is currently the government relations person for Roanoke City, he was a superintendent in Salem, I was actually surprised by that appointment because Dr. Seibert…he really worked on the standard of accreditation that Governor Youngkin actually criticized. If you listen to Dr. Seibert, he is always talking about social emotional learning, equity and innovative practices – all of the things that Governor Youngkin was adamantly opposed to. So that was one I was actually surprised about. And that’s the thing is like you know in this appointment process, I think sometimes the politics are involved, sometimes not. I mean Dr. Seibert is one of the most thoughtful education minds in Virginia, so I’m happy for that appointment, but I’m surprised, just based on what Governor Youngkin’s been saying…I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Qarni: “The other three individuals I don’t know as well…one is associated with charter schools and big charter school movements, so that’s not a surprise because you know Gov. Youngkin is focused on charter schools. The other gentleman [Andrew Rotherham] I think has been a part of the Clinton administration and I think he’s focused on school quality or something like that, which might make sense that there’s a focus on data analysis or whatever. I think both of those gentlemen have somehow either been in relevant positions. So one issue that I have with those two appointments is not political in nature, it’s perspective in nature. Actually, I take that back – the charter school perspective, that is political, that I do have a strong opposition to. But in addition to that, there are much-needed perspectives where if you look at what are the needs of our children, you know 14% of our children have some kind of special accommodation they need, they’re classified as special needs students, so I think we need we’ve had that perspective on the Board of Education, we’ve got to sustain that and maintain that. And that’s something that might have cycled out with the five people leaving …five people getting replaced. A teacher perspective – I worked really hard to get a teacher of the year, the first ever teacher, an active teacher serving the board of education, Anthony Swann, who was a 2021 teacher of the year. That’s probably one of the most valuable perspectives. I don’t know why you would replace that, he just got appointed to the board and they should have just reappointed him. You need a teacher or get another teacher to appoint to the Board of Education. You know you can’t say that, hey, you’re about teachers if you’re just going to take a teacher of the year out, very very popular and knows a lot and you’re going to replace him. And then the other thing is there’s a lack of diversity, so four white people, one person of color.”
Qarni: “And then let’s go to the person of color, Ms. Suparna Dutta, I don’t know her personally, but the correspondence if she were to FOIA the emails that were sent to me, the governor’s office, other legislators in the TJ admissions process, there is some loaded racial language there, where it’s very anti-Black. So that coalition that she’s part of, and you know I don’t think she’s as problematic as some of the other people maybe…that whole movement…it was really racially charged, specifically I think really anti-Black, anti-Hispanic…I mean, you know…the emails and correspondence I saw, the rhetoric…again, Governor Youngkin you know capitalized on that too, I guess that’s his network…you probably don’t know a lot of other diverse people. And so this is where I do have a problem is that ok, fine, I think we have had parents’ perspectives on the board of education but it is concerning to me, and again not knowing the other two gentlemen really well, no idea what their stance is on…equity and so forth….That’s pretty normal [to appoint people who campaigned for you] so that people shouldn’t be surprised about…we can get all frustrated as we want, but the fact is that in three years when Democrats are in charge, we’ll replace these folks with better folks.”
Qarni: “Governor Youngkin ran his campaign on racist rhetoric. I mean, I think he’s a racist, I think he’s a bigot, I think that people around him are racists and bigots. So why are we surprised he’s going to appoint racists and bigots?…The governor himself is a racist and a bigot right, I’ve been saying that to people. Like you know there are people in the South Asian or the Asian community or the Muslim community who…have to deal with them because they’re like, it’s okay if he comes to our mosques. I’m like, look, the guy ran on a racist agenda, you want to brownnose him because he’s governor that’s fine, but him and DeSantis and Abbott and others are racists and bigots…it’s just a fact…I don’t know, I have to go by statements, I don’t know if necessarily I would say Youngkin is a white supremacist, maybe? But [Youngkin] definitely ran his campaign on a racist and bigoted platform and when he took office he took action. So the evidence is clear. And that’s the thing, so qualifications based on what?…Overall, I don’t think the appointments are as bad as I thought it would be.”