Va. superintendents push back on Youngkin administration’s ‘divisive content’ report

‘Very little research as to what’s actually being done in schools’

By: - March 10, 2022 5:59 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)

Local school administrators are pushing back on an interim report that rescinded equity initiatives at the Virginia Department of Education and calling on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration to terminate a tipline for “divisive” teaching.

In a Thursday letter, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents said the recent report made “gross assumptions” about public education in Virginia and failed to solicit input from local school administrators. Members of the association, which represents the state’s 133 local school divisions, first read the report after it was picked by the media, according to Executive Director Ben Kiser. 

Despite the lack of local involvement, Jillian Balow, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, concluded that “discriminatory and divisive concepts” had become widespread in public school divisions.

“We recognize that was a campaign issue,” Kiser said. “However, we’ve never agreed with that. It’s a topic that’s gained traction — a lot of misinformation, a lot of assumptions and very little research as to what’s actually being done in schools. It just got legs and now we’re trying to respond to it as those campaign positions are now becoming policy and legislation.”

Balow said the letter did not express her willingness to engage with local administrators.

“The letter fails to reflect the good faith efforts of which the secretary and I joined the conversation,” she said in a statement to the Mercury. “The specific requests listed in the letter are actions that the secretary and I offered to the superintendents as a way to keep open productive channels of communication that could lead to partnership and ensure we are serving all students in Virginia.”

The letter, and later exchange, underscore tensions that have emerged as Youngkin attempts to make good on his campaign promises to ban critical race theory and implement what he’s described as much-needed reforms in Virginia schools. The interim report — which Youngkin on his first day in office tasked Balow with producing — made sweeping changes to VDOE policies that had been developed over the last three years.

The document effectively terminated a series of resources and guidance documents focused on equity and narrowing achievement gaps among student populations. Kiser said the materials had been developed in collaboration with local school leaders and aimed to address demonstrable disparities in the disciplinary measures and standardized test scores between different groups, including low-income learners and students of color.

“When that work was unilaterally rescinded with assumptions that it was all divisive because of the word ‘equity,’ that did raise eyebrows,” he added. Kiser said administrators have also raised concerns with the administration’s push to replace the word “outcomes” with “opportunities” — an initiative they worry will set back progress across the state.

“We’re willing to listen on that point and we’re willing to discuss that point as long as they can show us that the resources and the strategy and the access are across the board for all children,” he said. “And that we are not going back several years and just providing opportunity without the capacity to actually respond to children’s needs.”

VASS President Zeb Talley, superintendent for Martinsville City Public Schools, said administrators were also hoping to restore the level of communication that local divisions have typically enjoyed with state education leaders.

Kiser said that Balow reached out after the association released its letter and that he would continue to encourage regular meetings between the administration and division superintendents. But he said the association considers the governor’s tipline “highly offensive” and still disagreed with many of the statements made by state leaders. Youngkin’s administration has refused to release details about messages sent to the email account associated initiative. 

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone, but the use of ‘divisive content’ and how that applies to teaching history — there are many individuals, especially minority superintendents, who consider that to be racist rhetoric,” Kiser said. 

“So, you could imagine how our African American superintendents, who are terrific leaders, are trying to ascertain what the new administration means and what their overall intent is,” he added.

VASS Letter to Superintendent Balow

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Jillian Balow, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction.

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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.