Gov. Glenn Youngkin, shown earlier this year surrounded by school children at the Capitol, released a report Thursday that he says shows a decline in educational outcomes for Virginia’s K-12 students. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Pandemic learning loss and subpar standards have led to a significant decline in outcomes for Virginia’s K-12 students, Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his education appointees argued Thursday as they presented a new data analysis of school performance.
Pointing to what the 34-page Virginia Department of Education report described as an “honesty gap” between what state learning assessments show and how Virginia students fare on a national assessment, Youngkin suggested decisions of prior administrations created an inaccurately rosy picture of the state of K-12 education.
At a news conference in Richmond, Youngkin called education “the singular most important issue for Virginia’s future” and said trends going in the wrong direction could jeopardize the state’s reputation for high-quality schools.
“The significant lowering of expectations, the lack of transparency with data, the weak accountability for these results, that all ends today,” Youngkin said.
Citing findings from the education reform nonprofit Achieve, Youngkin and his schools team said Virginia has an unusually wide gap between its state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests samples of students from each state to produce a metric called “The Nation’s Report Card.”
For 2019, state Standards of Learning assessments showed 75 percent of Virginia fourth-graders proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent proficiency under the NAEP, according to the new report. The gap was wider at higher grade levels, with 76 percent of eighth-graders showing reading proficiency on SOLs, and 33 percent showing proficiency according to the NAEP.
To underscore some parents’ frustration with the state of public schools, the Youngkin administration’s report notes the number of homeschooled students jumped 56 percent in the 2020-2021 school year. That same year, the report says, 3,748 public-school students transferred to private schools in Virginia.
“We are not serving all of Virginia’s children,” Youngkin said. “And we must.”
The Youngkin administration’s analysis showed similar assessment gaps in math scores, and wider gaps in both math and reading for Black, Hispanic and low-income students. The governor’s office also presented data showing those achievements got worse due to pandemic-era school closures, with SOL pass rates dropping substantially between 2017 and 2021 for Black, Hispanic and low-income third-graders while white students showed a more modest decline.
The Virginia Education Association, an advocacy group representing Virginia teachers, blasted the Youngkin report as a political document that relied on “blatant manipulation of data” to “disrespect and belittle the amazing work Virginia educators have done, and continue to do, under incredibly difficult circumstances.”
“If Governor Youngkin is concerned about an ‘honesty gap,’ he need look no further than his own office to find it,” VEA President James J. Fedderman said in a news release.
When asked if the group has any specific critiques of Youngkin’s methodology, a VEA spokesman said the organization was still reviewing the report and expects to have “a more detailed rebuttal” next week.
Education Secretary Aimee Guidera said the data makes an “irrefutable case that this state has not been serving all students well,” a conclusion she said was obscured by past leaders shifting standards and expectations.
“And they often did this in the name of equity,” Guidera said. “President Bush used to refer to this as ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ I call it plain rotten. We cannot afford to lose another generation of our children because of our inability to hold ourselves, our schools and our students to high expectations.”
Youngkin’s education agenda, which has focused largely on ending pandemic-related measures like online learning and mask mandates, giving parents more input into school operations, and expanding charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools, has seen mixed results so far in the General Assembly. Democrats have resisted charter schools, prompting Youngkin to pursue a less contentious proposal for “lab schools” in partnership with colleges and universities. He was successful in winning some bipartisan support for legislation to end mandatory masking in schools and notify parents of sexually explicit reading assignments. The still-unfinished state budget is expected to include significant new funding for K-12 education and teacher pay raises.
After the failure of legislation meant to deliver on his campaign promise to rid Virginia schools of so-called critical race theory, a catchall term conservatives use to describe a variety of racial equity and diversity initiatives in K-12 schools, Youngkin has used his executive powers to try to purge the concept of equity from the state’s education bureaucracy. He also drew strong criticism for setting up a confidential email tipline allowing parents to lodge complaints about allegedly divisive teaching or purported examples of critical race theory.
The tipline and Youngkin’s rhetoric about “restoring excellence” in Virginia schools drew a sharp rebuke earlier this year from the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, which accused Youngkin of presenting an “inaccurate assessment of Virginia’s public education system currently and historically.”
“Again, by most measures, Virginia ranks near the top and surpasses most states throughout the country,” the superintendents’ organization wrote in the March 10 letter. On Thursday, the VASS said it was in the process of reviewing Youngkin’s new report.
“As always, we remain committed to the highest standards for public education in Virginia and hope that we can work with the administration in ascertaining and facilitating the resources and support referenced in the report that will be needed for all children to succeed at those standards,” VASS Executive Director Ben Kiser said in an email.
Proponents say equity-driven initiatives allow for a fuller reckoning with systemic racism and realign resources to address lingering educational disparities in a former Jim Crow state famous for fighting to block racially integrated schools.
Youngkin has said he supports teaching all Virginia’s history, but he contends equity initiatives encourage overbroad racial stereotyping and division. Among the seven priorities laid out in his new education report is “zero tolerance for discrimination,” described as barring “the ascribing of traits or behavior based on race, gender, political beliefs or religion.”
“We shouldn’t be teaching our children to be judgmental,” the governor said.
In a statement, Senate Democratic leaders ripped the Youngkin report’s assertions as “an outright lie,” “a joke,” “tomfoolery” and “dog-whistle talking points.”
“We all know Governor Youngkin’s end goal — to erase Black history and any mention of equity from Virginia’s curricula,” Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who chairs the Senate’s Education & Health Committee, said in the news release. “This misguided effort based on fake news and debunked theories is an outright attack from the far right, riling up racist constituencies with lies and deceit. This report shows once again that Governor Youngkin wants to take us back to the days of Jim Crow.”
Joining Youngkin for Thursday’s announcement was former Gov. Doug Wilder, who was elected as a Democrat in his history-making campaign for governor in 1989, but more recently has made a habit of criticizing Democrats and supporting Youngkin.
Though Wilder didn’t speak from the podium during the event, he huddled with Youngkin afterward as reporters looked on, praising the governor’s call for administrators, teachers and parents to work together to put students first.
“I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t believe in you. God bless you,” Wilder told Youngkin. “I hope you have continued success.”
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