Virginia House passes legislation aimed at banning ‘divisive’ concepts in public schools

Senators have already killed a similar bill as the General Assembly continues to debate K-12 instruction

By: - February 15, 2022 1:44 pm

The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In a largely party-line vote, Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed legislation Tuesday that would ban educators from teaching concepts framed as “divisive” by many Republican leaders.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, wasn’t officially endorsed by Gov. Glenn Youngin. But its language mirrors the text of other administration-backed legislation and closely resembles Youngkin’s first executive order banning so-called divisive concepts — including critical race theory — in Virginia schools. 

LaRock’s bill is all but certain to meet a quick death in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where legislators already rejected a similar Youngkin-supported bill from Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach. But the opposing votes between the two chambers speaks to the fierce debate still occurring over public education in Virginia, a core aspect of Youngkin’s campaign platform.

“I think this bill gets into legislating emotions and beliefs,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a public school civics teacher who’s become a vocal critic of many of the administration’s initiatives. “And to paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts, I think that is a sordid business.”

The legislation would ban any public school employee from teaching concepts largely related to race, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior” to another. Like the Senate bill and Youngkin’s executive order, it takes aim at equity initiatives adopted by some Virginia school districts, some of which have focused on the concept of privilege among students or racial affinity groups among teachers intended to provide “safe spaces” for educators to speak about their experiences. 

LaRock’s bill would ban educators from teaching students that any individual is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, “whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that an individual bears responsibility for past actions committed by members of the same race or sex. 

Democrats in the House unanimously opposed the legislation, arguing it would ban public schools from educating students on historical injustices. In a lengthy floor debate before the bill went for a final vote, they unsuccessfully tried to introduce 11 different amendments specifically excluding certain subjects from the bill.

They included specifically allowing educators to teach about the Lost Cause — a push by ex-Confederates and their defenders to frame the Civil War in favorable terms to the South — and the Jim Crow era. Del. Clinton Jenkins, D-Suffolk, introduced an amendment that would exempt the story of Ruby Bridges, the first Black student to desegregate an all-White school. And Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, endorsed a change that would allow instruction on policies that led to still-existing wealth and income gaps between different races and genders.

“When it comes to dollars and cents, we end up unequal,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone could, in good conscience, teach American history, civics or economics without confronting how race and gender drive income and wealth inequality in this country.”

Republicans in the House unanimously voted down the amendment, saying the legislation wouldn’t prohibit any specific history lessons.

“I am very glad to say that this bill would in no way prevent the teaching of these amendments in schools,” LaRock said. 

“It would, however, prevent teachers from taking sides and presenting these in a manner that indoctrinates children to accept one side or the other in these issues,” he added.

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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.