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Former VA Sec. Education Atif Qarni Says Board of Education Has a Choice on Youngkin’s “whitewashed, false and inaccurate” History Education Standards; “Their reputations are on the line”

The Board "can either side with the truth and facts or...side with the racists."

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I had a chance to chat with former VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni earlier this afternoon about the Youngkin administration’s proposed new Virginia history/social studies standards, which are – for good reason – stirring up a lot of controversy and backlash. For instance, the Virginia Education Association’s president, Dr. James J. Fedderman, said thatThe standards are full of overt political bias, outdated language to describe enslaved people and American Indians, highly subjective framing of American moralism and conservative ideals, coded racist overtures throughout, requirements for teachers to present histories of discrimination and racism as ‘balanced’ ‘without personal or political bias,’ and restrictions on allowance of ‘teacher-created curriculum,’ which is allowed in all other subject areas.

So I was curious to hear what Gov. Northam’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, thought. We had a fairly long conversation; here are a few highlights.

  • In evaluating these standards, “you have to compare with the revisions that happened last year…a lot of the experts had weighed in…who are not politically aligned with any party, they’re just historians, to teach a more complete and honest history.”
  • “The significant problem I have is that the Department of Education and the Board of Education said that they’re delaying this process because there are some grammatical errors and we also want to consult with constituents and parents and families across the state. Which they never did…they never did roundtables…like they said they were going to do…What they did was they consulted with the right-wing groups who have a specific political agenda…If you do a side-by-side comparison, a lot was changed.”
  • “Somebody like, who’s taught history and social studies, I worked on these, yes there are significant changes…These mirror what happened in 2015, they added a few things, they took some things.”
  • There are numerous examples [of what’s wrong with these proposed standards]…the way Native Americans or indigenous populations are framed…it’s going about this right-wing political approach, it’s really trying to mislead folks about who the land in America belongs to; there’s this idea to really push under the rug the mass atrocities that indigenous populations faced due to European settlement and colonization.”
  • The standards definitely go backwards in how they talk about Columbus and Columbus Day...There have been a lot of historical updates for many many years now about the atrocities that Columbus committed, and this romanticization that we have, this false narrative that we’ve created about Columbus that used to exist…they’ve definitely gone backwards there…and exploration, that’s a big part of human history well BEFORE 1492…It’s a false narrative, again to romanticize Columbus.”
  • “There’s also a [romanticization] of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson…There is an archaic concept of how we tell history about ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’…either-or, not as individuals being complex…but now that old concept has really been challenged by historians…The folks that are so hung up on the heroes are having a really hard time letting go, that’s why we see a lot of resistance in telling a full and honest history about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington…they were slaveowners…came from wealth…they also benefited from a lot of free labor that they got from enslaved people…They were rich aristocrats; that’s the complete and honest truth, but people have an uncomfortable time telling that truth, same thing with Columbus…Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson.”
  • “The fact that they brought back [the book by Peter Sis, “Follow the Dream,” on Columbus]…is such an outdated book, the fact that they brought this back…that’s a glaring example of a really problematic work that’s just inaccurate.”
  • This draft was put together by the state superintendent, “who’s from Wyoming who has no knowledge of what Virginia’s really about, so that’s a problem in and of itself…Wyoming is pretty homogenous compared to the diversity Virginia has.”
  • Here’s the simple thing: the Board of Ed has a choice, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, whether you were appointed by Northam or Youngkin is irrelevant, this is an individual reputation on the line – you have a choice to adopt the revisions that  were done the last two years that are really really robust and honest, or you have a choice to go with the Youngkin version, which is whitewashed, false and inaccurate. You can either side with the truth and facts or you can side with the racists. It’s a really simple choice. It’s a reputational thing. I’m going to be keeping an eye on which way the vote…their reputations are on the line, they also represent organizations that financially benefit from working with school systems in Virginia, and their vote will impact their own future on what kind of opportunities they get or don’t get.”
  • On the Virginia Board of Education, “there are five Youngkin appointees and four  Northam [holdover] appointees…They’ll be meeting tomorrow, this will be on the agenda…I know some of the Board members have issues with it…”
  • Once standards are passed by the Board, then “it is the responsibility of the school divisions to follow that…the state does have that power by law…The school divisions develop their own curriculum…the standards are what to teach, curriculum is how to teach it…[SOL tests] are based on the standards.”
  • What is the point of whitewashing history? “In my opinion…America is becoming more and more diverse; right now, in Virginia, the majority of students are students of color, white students are in the minority…there’s always been a resistance to change…In Virginia…there was a glorification of the Confederacy…There’s resistance to the truth. Then you have this whole anti-CRT movement that Youngkin is a part of, it has an eerie similarity to ‘Massive Resistance’...What these people don’t realize is that the truth is actually what’s needed…children need to learn the truth so they don’t make the same mistakes of the past…but just we have to be honest with our children – people are complicated, society is complicated, this is the full truth…[as opposed to] dignifying the individuals that we deem that are important…and oversimply the way the other is evil and bad…there’s good and bad about each person…each era of history…they’re so afraid to get into that.”
  • “Another thing that was really taken out in this…is about Asian-American history...more details about the contributions of Asian-American communities, indigenous communities, Hispanics, immigrant communities, African Americans, a lot of that was taken out…Cesar Chavez has been there for over a decade… was put in in 2008, that was omitted.”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. in these proposed standards is “not being taught in elementary schools, only the holiday is mentioned…[Martin Luther King, Jr.] doesn’t get taught until 6th grade.”
  • “In my opinion, I don’t think there’s going to be a good resolution to this until the next administration…I think that this governor ran – and his base voted on – it’s a very very anti-CRT, racially charged base…I just don’t see how robust history standards get passed that are inclusive of all different communities, because the Republican Party and their base doesn’t want that, they’re completely against that…the Board of Education is stuck in the middle…
  • To [the Republican base], education is not valuable, upward mobility is not valuable; to them, preservation of their white supremacy is valuable, that’s at the heart of the problem. We need to name it. I don’t understand why people won’t just name it.”
  • There’s now way in hell I’m going to support a single Democratic candidate…unless they are in favor of teaching a full-and-honest history; we have to teach our children the truth.”
  • Right now, the 2015 standards are in effect; the revised standards developed during the Northam administration never took effect, because the process wasn’t completed.
  • There’s been minimal public comment into these proposed standards, because the Youngkin administration decided to “skip that part.” Why? Because they presumably know that “the vast majority of Virginians support those revisions that we did…we did dozens of public townhalls…there’s a lot of different communities that want their stories to be represented in the larger American narrative…”
  • What “these right-wing groups are doing is they really want to twist things to [teach] inaccurate information.” In fact, the ancestors of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. “were greedy; they used human exploitation in the form of slavery to really advance their own pockets, and that wealth was passed down from generation to generation. That’s really the history that SHOULD be taught…and they really really whitewashed it…The Founding Fathers had significant shortcomings…they didn’t care about everyone – women, Black people or even poor people.”
  • Teaching a full and accurate history does NOT make white kids feel bad…The backlash against teaching a full and accurate history is “all about white fragility and preserving white privilege, white entitlement…”
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