After nominee standoff, Youngkin is poised to appoint a majority on the Virginia Board of Education

The move could provide the governor with a way to shape education policy without the General Assembly

By: - February 15, 2022 7:51 pm

The Virginia Department of Education’s offices in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. The agency has recently launched new initiatives aimed at teacher recruitment and retention with the help of federal aid money. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

A standoff over gubernatorial appointments will allow Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to appoint a majority of members on the state’s Board of Education far sooner than expected.

After Senate Democrats refused to confirm Andrew Wheeler, Youngkin’s controversial cabinet pick for secretary of natural and historic resources, the Republican-led House of Delegates initially refused to take up a resolution confirming more than a thousand appointments made by former Gov. Ralph Northam to various state boards and commissions. 

The deadlock ended after House Republicans approved the vast majority of Northam’s nominations, ultimately voting down 11 picks.

Three of those blocked appointees included interim members of the Virginia Board of Education, who had spent months — and, in one case, years — serving while waiting on the General Assembly to officially confirm their nomination. One, Anthony Swann, was appointed in early 2021 after being named Virginia’s Teacher of the Year.

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter declined to comment on whether the governor had specifically asked House Republicans to block Northam’s Board of Education nominees. But the move will allow Youngkin to appoint a majority on the nine-member board more than a year sooner than anticipated. The governor plans to name three new appointees “as quickly as possible,” the administration said, and two additional members — also appointed by Northam —  will see their terms expire in June.

“It was just a matter of Glenn Youngkin getting his picks,” said House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott. “That way, he can appoint most members and move forward with his priorities.”

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes the stage at an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021 in Chantilly, Virginia. Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the gubernatorial race that pitted Youngkin against Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Many of the governor’s core policy issues have been stymied by Senate Democrats, including his push for more charter schools, an attempted legislative ban on ‘divisive concepts’ and legislation that would prohibit transgender student athletes from participating on the team that aligns with their gender identity. But a board majority could allow him to circumvent the legislature to some extent, with potentially major implications for Virginia education policy.

It’s the Board of Education that has final say over the state’s Standards of Learning, the minimum expectations for what students are expected to learn in every subject at every grade level. Members can also independently initiate and consider changes to those standards, including a recent effort to rethink math education in Virginia.

Republicans argued that the initiative would lower educational standards, and Youngkin already ordered Jillian Balow, his recently appointed state superintendent of public instruction, to end the program in his first executive order. But the board has oversight, and final approval, over a broad range of policy options, from a proposal to consolidate standard and advanced diplomas to the state’s model policy on the treatment of transgender students, which local school districts are required to adopt.

“That’s a big concern in particular,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who sponsored legislation ordering the board to adopt a statewide model. “With a Youngkin majority, they’ll be able to rewrite that policy, and I think that’s why they’re not terribly concerned with repealing that bill.”

The administration hasn’t named any potential appointees, and it’s still unclear what actions the board might take to align with the governor’s priorities. But the move to block Northam’s nominees was widely criticized by House Democrats and several advocacy groups, including the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union.

“The education of our children is far too important a topic to be used as a pawn in political gamesmanship,” President James J. Fedderman said in a statement. “VEA members are highly concerned not only about this blatantly political attempt to remove three highly-qualified professional educators from the Virginia Board of Education, but with a growing pattern of lawmakers basing decisions on political expediency instead of what’s best for the commonwealth or for public education.”

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, speaks on the floor of the House of Delegates during the 2020 session.

Ty Bates, political director for the Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the move was particularly concerning given Youngkin’s continued pledge to ban “divisive concepts” — including what the administration has described as critical race theory — in public schools. 

The governor’s definition of the term “divisive concepts” includes any instruction suggesting that an individual student bears personal responsibility for past actions committed by members of the same race or sex. Opponents have repeatedly argued that the ban could prevent students from learning about policies such as redlining or Jim Crow laws, which systemically excluded Black Americans from many neighborhoods and other public spaces. 

Bates said some teachers are already concerned they could face disciplinary action for lessons seen as divisive by students or their families. And some Democrats said the removal of three serving board members — two of whom are Black — aligns with Youngkin’s efforts to flame debate around race and public education.

“I don’t think that’s by accident,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. “I think that’s a continued pattern that he’s shown around divisiveness, in striking those African Americans away.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.