A House committee voted Monday to approve a bill requiring new cultural competency training for Virginia educators — part of a sweeping effort to reform the commonwealth’s what critics says is outdated curriculum on African American history.
The legislation, sponsored by Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Suffolk, would help codify recommendations from the Virginia Commission on African American History Education. The workgroup, formed through an executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam in 2019, spent nearly a year developing comprehensive reforms for how Black history is taught in K-12 schools — driven by long-standing concerns that current state curriculum fails to contextualize, inaccurately describes or simply omits key moments and nuance from a centuries-long struggle for racial equity.
“What we’re trying to talk about is how we’re going to better prepare our teachers to teach African American history,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a teacher and member of the House Education Committee. “Which is what the legislation being proposed both here and in other bills is about.”
The legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and would require the Virginia Board of Education to develop minimum standards for cultural competency training by Dec. 31, 2021. Local school boards would also be required to adopt and implement new policies requiring the training for Board-licensed employees — including teachers and administrators — at least every two years.
Once those policies were in place, any educator would be required to complete training by the start of the 2022-23 school year. The training would also become a requirement for obtaining or renewing a license from the Board of Education.
The commission’s recommendations defined cultural competency as “having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.” The National Education Association has adopted a similar definition, writing that using a student’s culture as a basis for learning — as well as “reshaping curriculum to reflect students’ diversity” — leads to better educational outcomes.
“Black history is American history, and we have really outdated standards and curriculum and an antiquated way of teaching history and social studies,” said Education Secretary Atif Qarni, who spoke in favor of the legislation. “As we’re making those reforms, we have to concurrently make reforms in professional development, and the cultural competency piece of the language is quite clear.”
Both he and VanValkenburg said that the commission’s work is still ongoing. In 2020, Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, successfully sponsored legislation to create a broader advisory group for culturally relevant and inclusive education. That workgroup is tasked with ensuring that the state’s Standards of Learning reflect a range of historical perspectives, from anti-Semitism and the underpinnings of the Holocaust to indigenous cultures.
Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, said he agreed that the state’s curriculum was outdated (“I remember growing up and Harriet Tubman maybe got half a page,” he said) but had concerns that the new standards would create an unfair burden for educators.
“Am I to expect that to get a license in teaching, or renew your license, there will come a time in the very near future when you’ll have to pass a complete instruction for Native American history, Latino history, maybe Greek history, obviously African American history?” Davis said on Monday.
He also said his biggest worry was what would be taught in the training, describing himself as “severely concerned” when one speaker at a conference held by the Virginia Department of Education said that the United States was founded on white supremacy.
“I am concerned that I have a Department of Education that’s going to try to pass down what I would call indoctrination,” Davis said. VanValkenburg responded that he was “cherry-picking” an example from a single speaker to oppose the bill.
The committee passed the bill 15-6, on a largely party-line vote, with Davis joining the majority of his Republican colleagues in opposing the legislation. One exception was Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, a former high school principal who joined Democrats in voting for the bill.
The legislation will go next to the Virginia House of Delegates for three readings before a final vote.