Youngkin administration ends equity initiatives at the Virginia Department of Education

The move comes after the release of an interim report on ‘divisive concepts’ in schools

By: - February 25, 2022 2:50 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)

In a push to end “divisive concepts” in Virginia education, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is ending virtually all equity initiatives launched by the state’s Department of Education prior to the governor’s inauguration last month.

The policy changes, announced in an interim report from the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, hew closely to directives already issued by Youngkin in his first executive order. According to Balow, every resource listed on the department’s EdEquityVA website falls under the category of a “divisive concept,” including a 52-pageroadmap to equity developed by the department under former Gov. Ralph Northam and Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.

Jillian Balow, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction. (Wyoming Department of Education)

The Northam administration document details plans to “dismantle any and all forms of inequity in Virginia’s public education system,” including the disproportionate impact of disciplinary measures such as suspensions on Black students, which is well supported by state data and outside investigations. The roadmap explicitly supports concepts such as cultural competency training and anti-racism, defined as the acknowledgement “that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives.”

The administration is also eliminating an audit tool intended to help local school divisions develop and implement their own equity initiatives.

“All Virginia students should have the opportunity to receive an excellent education that teaches all history — the good and the bad, prioritizes academic excellence, and fosters equal opportunities for all students,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Our Virginia students should not be taught to discriminate on the basis of sex, skin color, or religion and VDOE policies should certainly not direct such concepts.”

The report specifically addresses internal policies within the Virginia Department of Education, but it’s still unclear whether the administration plans to expand its audit of “divisive concepts” to local school divisions. 

Youngkin officials, including Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera, have cited local programs such as a “privilege bingo” assignment in one Fairfax County class as examples of the concepts they’re seeking to eliminate from public schools. But the report does not identify any district-specific initiatives, though Youngkin directed Balow to include any policies, programs, training, or curricula that fell within the administration’s definition of inherently divisive concepts in his first executive order.

The superintendent was also directed to submit an additional report within 90 days of any executive or legislative actions needed “to end use of all inherently divisive concepts in public education.” But legislators in both the House and Senate have effectively killed Youngkin-backed measures to ban divisive concepts through the General Assembly, and the administration could not immediately say whether it believed the governor could end local programs through executive action.

Otherwise, the report treads familiar ground for Youngkin, who made opposition to “divisive concepts” — including what he’s described as critical race theory — a central part of his platform. As an academic term, critical race theory describes the concept that U.S. systems, including criminal justice, public education and housing, include racist policies that have led to still-existing inequalities between different racial groups. But critics, including the administration, have expanded the term to include virtually any discussion or training related to equity or antiracism in local school systems.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and House Speaker Todd Gilbert, Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his first State of the Commonwealth address on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo by Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Youngkin has already rescinded or criticized many of the initiatives included in the report, such as a 2019 memo from former state Superintendent James Lane on “resources to support student and community dialogues on racism.” The communication, sent out to division superintendents, recommended the books “White Fragility” by author Robin DiAngelo and “Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education,” an academic text that also explores how the discipline moved from legal studies to the educational field.

“Numerous resources within EdEquityVA employ the concept that current discrimination is needed to address past discrimination. (Treating people differently based on skin color to remedy
old/previous discrimination.),” the report says in a section justifying rescinding resources on the EdEquityVa site.

Youngkin and his education appointees have argued that critical race theory and other academic concepts such as anti-racism pit students against one another and encourage some children to feel personally accountable for historical injustices such as slavery.

“We must continue to ensure that no student in Virginia is taught to judge or treat others differently solely on the basis of their race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith,” Balow wrote in the introduction to her report.

Other rescinded policies, though, don’t have any direct relationship to historical racism. In his first day as governor, Youngkin ordered Balow to end the Virginia Math Pathways Initiative, another program the superintendent identified as an example of “divisive concepts.” 

The Virginia Department of Education was exploring the initiative to reform the state’s mathematics curriculum before Youngkin took over as governor, partially due to data showing that Black, Hispanic and low-income students have lower pass rates on state math assessments than White and Asian students. But at least 22 states have explored the idea, which is based on decades of research on how traditional math coursework is failing students from many backgrounds.

The initiative was launched in partnership with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia after many colleges and universities shared that students were coming in unprepared for higher-level math courses. 

“What we learned was that it wasn’t the students’ ability to do calculus or not that was preventing them from being stellar engineers or stellar scientists,” Patricia Parker, SCHEV’s adviser for the program, told the Mercury last year. “It was that they were coming with weak foundational skills.”

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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.