by Atif Qarni, who served as Virginia Secretary of Education in Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration
As Virginia Secretary of Education during Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, I learned many lessons, including that one of the biggest threats to our society is mass ignorance, including watering down or skewing what is taught in our public schools. We certainly have seen this since Glenn Youngkin took office as governor in January 2022, as Youngkin has appointed right-wing ideologues to oversee our public education system, intimidated teachers, and pushed policies that would be highly detrimental to Virginia’s students – and to our future.
Sadly – and Youngkin would know this if he’d studied history – none of this is new in Virginia or in America. Instead, what we’ve seen is that, time and time again, whenever progress has been made, whether on combatting racial injustice or just about anything else, there has been significant right-wing (and overwhelmingly white) backlash, ranging from “Jim Crow” racial segregation, “separate-but-equal” schools, and of course the infamous Massive Resistance to school integration in the 1950s and 1960s.
Another recent example is the so-called “Tea Party” movement, which worked relentlessly to demonize and to undermine our nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama. This movement then evolved into something even worse, namely Trumpism, as the right-wing found its cult leader. And now, the “MAGA” movement is metastasizing, with its field generals like Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, and Glenn Youngkin colluding with right-wing media to spread lies, as well as an all-out assault on public education.
This isn’t just rhetoric, of course – it’s dangerous. As we’ve seen, whether we’re talking about COVID-19 mitigation measures or the hysteria over non-existent teaching of “CRT,” the right wing has led local insurrections, bullying and threatening school boards and superintendents, while vilifying professional educators, families, and even students. It’s truly dangerous.
What makes me so angry – but also determined not to give in to the right wing’s intimidation tactics – is that, in addition to dedicating much of my life to public education – as a teacher, coach and Secretary of Education – I also put my life on the line for my country during my Marine Corps days. Then, as Virginia Secretary of Education, I faced a significant – and nasty – backlash by the right wing to our policies aimed at protecting and improving our public education system. But I never gave in – and never will – because I’m absolutely convinced that we cannot and must not ignore the problems and look the other way.
Thus, we’ve seen the right wing weaponize terms like “equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” “woke,“ etc. – all in an attempt to undermine public education and the teaching of all our history. Now, this might seem laughable, but one thing I’ve learned, including from the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, is that we must never underestimate the right wing or think it lacks intelligence. To the contrary, these people are quite savvy and determined – and they know exactly what they are doing, fear mongering and using dishonest demagoguery to stonewall, or even roll back, progress.
With all this in mind, on September 8th, I will be launching a monthly series, in which I will invite panelists to discuss – and debunk – the right-wing’s many lies about Virginia public education. The sessions will include elected officials, school board members across the commonwealth, K-12 teachers and support staff, college faculty and staff, groups organizing efforts to fight back against right-wing lies, student leaders from across the state, business owners, interfaith leaders, etc. The specific topic of each session will focus on what’s happening at the time. Examples of possible topics include COVID, teacher shortages, collective bargaining, “CRT,” curriculum, equity, diversity, etc.
The first session I am holding, on September 8th at 7 p.m. ET, will focus on K-12 history standards in Virginia that are currently being updated. Over the past two years, dozens of historians and thousands of Virginians have worked diligently to provide recommendations as new standards are prepped for release. Sadly, but not surprisingly given what we’ve seen from him so far, Gov. Youngkin wants to stonewall or even roll back this process.
In general, Gov. Youngkin has relentlessly spread misinformation about public education. Youngkin’s recent attempts to lie to the public that his own Department of Education wants to erase George Washington and James Madison is absurd. This is a deliberate attempt to rile up the right-wing’s predominantly white voting base. In fact, the history standards need an overhaul because they are inaccurate and incomplete.
The fact is, Republicans like Youngkin deny facts and create falsified information because they want to present a worldview where the “white” man is the hero, and where all others are either subservient or villains. In reality, people are complicated, and historical perspectives are complex. We must teach our children the full truth and our complicated history. Teaching a complete history is not indoctrination but an awakening.
So please join me on September 8th, as I have an honest conversation, debunking Republican lies about Virginia public education, with my friends Senators Louise Lucas, Ghazala Hashmi, Mamie Locke; and Delegate Elizabeth Guzman. To sign up for the webinar, please click here. Thanks.