From former VA Secretary of Education Atif Qarni:
Dear Senators Spruill and Lucas,
Hope all is well with you. I am the Former Virginia Secretary of Education and served in Governor’s Northam’s cabinet. Prior to that I was a middle school mathematics and social studies & history teacher in Prince William County.
As someone who has dedicated his life to public education, I am deeply concerned about the direction our state is headed under the leadership of Governor Youngkin. Under the banner of “CRT,” the governor has systematically attempted to dismantle the tremendous progress made in education under Governor Northam. One of these areas is the Social Studies and History Standards. The last two years I was in office, the VA Department of Education (VDOE) was directed to actively engage numerous historians, experts, families, students, educators, and many more. This process resulted in a robust set of standards which were more honest and complete compared to the older version we have been teaching since 2015.
The new version was fully released in August 2022 in front of the State Board of Education (BOE) to discuss – from hereon I will refer to this version as the “Honest” version. VDOE, along with the BOE, was supposed to open the “Honest” version up for review and get public feedback. However, this was not done. In lieu of this, the State Superintendent carried out the political agenda of Governor Youngkin and released a whitewashed version of standards which are even worse than what we have been teaching since 2015 – from hereon I will call this version the “Whitewashed” version.
Yesterday, thousands of public comments were submitted online and hundreds of people came and spoke in front of the BOE demanding that the “Honest” version be reinstated. I was pleased, but not surprised, to see this support. Many communities across Virginia want children to learn about their historical contributions. If you look at our K-12 school data here, you will find that majority of the students in Virginia public schools are students of color, and each year the demographics are getting more diverse. I think we will continue to receive demands from many communities until this is made right, and a full and “Honest” version of history is taught. Additionally, teaching an honest and complete history is extremely beneficial for all children. The reason we see movements like “Massive Resistance” and the recent anti-“CRT” is due to mass ignorance. Education is not just about learning how to read and do math problems. It is also about learning how to think critically and apply one’s abilities to improve society. The “Honest” version of history standards creates an opportunity for our children to do just that, and that must not be compromised.
The BOE, and more specifically the five recent appointees by Governor Youngkin, want to take the “Honest” version and the “Whitewashed” version and mix the two to come up with a “Compromised” version. However, this is like mixing oil and water. The “Whitewashed” version is extremely problematic and not close to an accurate representation of facts; therefore, it is unwise to use that. In contrast, the “Honest” version went through a rigorous, two-year process with enormous amounts of input.
Therefore, my request is that Senator Spruill, as Chair of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, that you kindly consider taking the five Youngkin Board of Ed appointees’ names off the confirmation list. As I understand it, this would make them ineligible to serve on the BOE. If this is something that is not suitable, at a minimum I would request that before they are confirmed, that Senator Lucas as Chair of Senate Education and Health Committee, that you kindly consider asking each of the five new appointees to testify in front of your committee so they can be questioned about their credentials and their intent on what they plan to do with issues like History Standards. I think the public needs to know if these appointees will succumb to pressure from Governor Youngkin or will they act with integrity and listen to the public.
I strongly believe, from my observations, that the State Superintendent and the new BOE appointees are acting in bad faith, due to the pressure from Governor Youngkin and his office because they are beholden to him. That is why I recommend a full removal of the new appointees’ names from the Senate confirmation list.
Lastly, the VDOE is a state agency which is not just under the purview of the Governor. As a taxpayer-funded body, the General Assembly has powers over state agencies as well. Senator Lucas, I recommend your committee consider an investigation into the operations of VDOE. In the last year, since Governor Youngkin has taken office, it seems that there have been numerous mistakes, sharing of misinformation, lack of transparency, and circumvention of legal processes. I think an investigation and interviewing VDOE staff may reveal significantly more problematic issues. I think we owe it to our children and families that we have an efficient State Department of Education.
Thank you both for all you do and your considerations. I am available to chat with you or your staff, if you would like to discuss further.