Commentary

Youngkin leveraged public education to beat Democrats once. Will they let him do it again?

May 31, 2022 12:02 am

(Getty Images)

Sometimes in debates on public policy, it pays to slow down, think a minute and ask whether the other guy just might have a point.

When Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued his report earlier this month that the status quo in Virginia’s public education has not held its own relative to achievement rankings of other states and that new approaches to schooling are warranted, legislative Democrats peremptorily dismissed it.

Its conclusions, they insisted before the ink on the report dried, are just another way for the Republican governor to push ahead with alternatives to the state’s legacy system of public education like charter schools.

Is the report a political document? Well, it’s not not a political document. His team designed it to position the governor’s agenda in its best possible light. It does that in part by tacitly noting ebbing student performance metrics over the terms of two Democratic governors. That’s how political communications work.

But that doesn’t wholly invalidate it, either. The 34-page report draws on data from respected national sources, particularly the last five years since the State Board of Education de-emphasized grade level proficiency in math and reading to enable more schools to meet accreditation requirements.

The report compares results from the commonwealth’s Standards of Learning tests with benchmarks from the National Assessment of Education Progress, which prepares “The Nation’s Report Card.”

The governor’s report asserts some sobering findings that, distilled to their essence, show Virginia slipping from the top echelons of states with the most accomplished and highly regarded public schools, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at homegrown school assessments.

For instance, three-fourths of the state’s fourth-grade pupils were rated grade-level proficient in reading in the state’s 2019 SOL tests, yet only 38 percent were shown to read at a fourth-grade level in the NAEP survey, Youngkin’s report says. The document refers to the 37 percentage point difference between the state and national figures for fourth-grade literacy as the “Honesty Gap,” a dig that implies deceit and certainly does nothing to win over Democrats.

There are discomfiting findings in the report that convincingly withstand protests of partisan authorship.

In 2015, for example, Virginia ranked third nationally in the percentage of high school graduates whose scores on college advanced placement, or AP, tests qualified them for college credit. By last year, Virginia had dropped to ninth.

It notes that Virginia parents are voicing their frustrations with public schools by moving their children to private schools or home-schooling them. The pandemic-scarred 2020-21 academic year was especially bad.

The number of home-schooled students in Virginia was 59,638 in the first full year of the pandemic, up from 38,282 in the 2019-20 school year, a 55.7 percent increase. For the school year ending now, with students mostly back in classrooms, the number of home-schooled pupils declined by only 6 percent.

Across cultural lines, home schooling has boomed since COVID-19 hit

Another 3,748 public school students transferred to in-state private schools for the 2020-21 year, the report said.

The report says that the learning loss among children who remained in public schools and attended class remotely for much of the past two years was significant for Virginia pupils, especially children of color. In a study of math and English language arts outcomes in 11 states for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Virginia showed the steepest declines of all the states surveyed – 34.1 percentage points in math, and 10.1 percentage points in language.

For African American students, the report notes, the toll from the pandemic and online classes was harsh. Forty-five percent of Black third-graders passed their SOL reading assessment for 2021 compared with 61 percent who passed it in 2017. For Hispanic third-graders, that figure fell from 66 percent five years ago to 43 percent last year.

The state’s teacher advocacy organization, the Virginia Education Association, understandably took umbrage. It accused the administration of deceitfully manipulating the data and belittling teachers. A VEA spokesman said Friday that the organization expects to have a more detailed response ready later this week.

Last week, Senate Democrats released a rebuttal that convincingly pushes back on the suggestion that they sat idly for years when they had full control of both the General Assembly and governor’s office. There’s an exhaustive menu of Democratic-authored public education legislation offered and enacted the past few years.

Initially, Democrats called the report “an outright lie,” “a joke,” “tomfoolery” and “dog-whistle talking points.” An ad hominem harangue by Sen. Louise Lucas accused Youngkin of trying to revive Jim Crow and dismissed his report as an “outright attack from the far right, riling up racist constituencies with lies and deceit.”

That’s a lot to unpack, and it goes back to last year’s election.

Youngkin’s use of public education as an issue was arguably his decisive tactical maneuver in defeating Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Sure, he used education as something of a Trojan horse packed with conservative culture wars grievances dear to his base. In his campaign, Youngkin thundered against the alleged (and widely disputed) indoctrination of pupils into “critical race theory,” mandatory masking of students in classrooms and reading assignments for books that touched on issues of race and sexuality, saying parents should have veto power in such matters. It resonated among some suburban voters in Northern Virginia and the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas who had assured the Democrats years of primacy in statewide politics.

When Youngkin flustered McAuliffe in the televised final debate of the campaign to the point where the former governor blurted out that parents should have no say in determining what their students are taught, it was a turning point for some affluent, educated commuter moms and dads who select their neighborhoods based on school district rankings. McAuliffe still won the populous suburbs, but his margins were insufficient to withstand record turnouts in GOP-voting rural localities.

Then, as now, Democrats raised the bloody shirt of bigotry and doubled down on efforts to equate Youngkin to former President Donald Trump whose toxicity in Virginia poisoned one Republican statewide candidate after another from 2016 through 2020. It didn’t work last November. Absent specifics to impeach the governor’s data and the report’s conclusions, it won’t work now.

That’s not to say that Democrats should accede to the governor’s education agenda for the next 3½ years. To the contrary, they have a duty to vet and challenge his education aims and assert better ideas if they have them. Youngkin’s charter schools proposals have already been shot down by a Senate that Democrats will rule at least through next year. But it’s also tone-deaf of Democrats to not acknowledge that the state’s once-sterling public schools have accumulated far more rust than Virginians gladly tolerate and to summarily reject viable analyses from credible national sources.

Youngkin has already cloaked himself in the mantle of public education to his benefit and the Democrats’ detriment once. His deft political weaponization of it has been elevated by the GOP nationally as a “best practice” for the mid-term congressional and gubernatorial races in numerous states.

It’s going to take more than denial, outrage and invective to checkmate an apprentice politician who is far shrewder than his detractors care to admit.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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