Education Roundup: Youngkin’s “Report Card” on Schools Indicates Less-Than-Stellar Performance

FILE - Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks during news conference announcing the Department of Education report on education Thursday May 19, 2022, in Richmond, Va. A GOP sweep of Virginia’s 2021 statewide elections, and particularly Youngkin’s win, appears to have energized the Republican field in two of the country’s most competitive U.S. House races. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

By Amie Knowles

March 9, 2023

Since Youngkin took office in January 2022 after building his campaign on attacking the state’s public education system, he’s made a multitude of questionable decisions involving schools in Virginia.

Would you trust someone to lead your child’s class who didn’t have experience in the classroom? Of course not. But a lack of experience hasn’t stopped Gov. Glenn Youngkin from meddling in Virginia’s education system.

Since Youngkin took office in January 2022, he’s made a multitude of questionable decisions involving Virginia schools, which he attacked routinely on the campaign trail. 

On his very first day as governor, Youngkin signed Executive Order One, which claimed to “end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory (CRT), and to raise academic standards.” Just to clarify, CRT is not and has never been part of the curriculum taught in Virginia schools. The same day, he also rescinded the life-saving mask requirement for Virginia’s K-12 schools with Executive Order Two.  

Over the past year and two months, the man who attended and sent his own kids to private schools continued to make changes impacting the commonwealth’s public education system.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who teaches government and history in Henrico County Public Schools and has 18 years of experience in the classroom, gave Youngkin low marks on his education efforts, saying that the governor has been “repeatedly ginning up that kind of fake outrage or attacking a minority of people, versus trying to actually do the work of making our schools better.”

“Since the governor’s election you’ve seen a rise in an extreme right-wing [education] agenda; whether that’s vouchers which defund public schools, lowers student outcomes, or attacks on history curriculum or students because of who they are,” said VanValkenburg.

History Standards

One hot-button issue prevailing in the commonwealth’s schools is ongoing revisions to school history curriculum standards. 

In 2022, Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) curriculum came up for its periodic review. Typically these revisions meet with little public attention or debate, but during this revision process, Youngkin and Jillian Balow, his former state superintendent of public instruction who announced her resignation earlier this month, took issue with some of the changes proposed by the Virginia Department of Education during former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration. They proposed a raft of changes of their own, which raised alarms from educators over the apparent lack of content focusing on races, ethnicities, and cultures beyond white Europeans. Further, the revised curriculum includes 132 new standards but provides no additional time to teach them.

The version of the revised curriculum that’s moving towards final approval—the 68-page January 2023 version—includes controversial changes like omitting Indigenous Peoples Day while including Columbus Day and contains an introduction striving to “restore excellence, curiosity, and excitement around teaching and learning history” (education experts who spoke to the board during a public comment opportunity expressed that restoration wasn’t necessary because the passion was already there).

In January, the board voted to move forward with the newest version on a divided vote of 5-3, with the three board members who voted against accepting the January version of the proposed standards being appointed by former Democratic Governors Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe. All board members appointed by Youngkin voted to advance the standards to the next stage in the process.

Teacher Shortage

You’ve probably heard about the state’s teacher shortage by now. Well, Youngkin attempted to tackle that, too, but with limited success.

His effort to alleviate the shortage by using social media ads to recruit out-of-state teachers, retired teachers, career switchers, military veterans, and other professionals launched on the heels of the VDOE’s 2021 Annual Report on the Condition of Needs of Public Schools in Virginia and the Staffing and Vacancy “Build-a-Table” tool. While the first showed a total of 1,063 unfilled teaching positions for the 2019-20 school year, the latter revealed 2,594 teacher vacancies. 

Other reports, like a National Education Association (NEA) survey conducted last January, looked into the reasons teachers were leaving the classroom. Burnout, pandemic stress, low pay, and unfilled positions leading to more work for remaining staff were some of the reasons educators listed. 

One of those issues, teacher pay, has been an ongoing struggle for the past 50 years in the commonwealth. Not once in the past five decades has Virginia teacher pay topped the national average. The closest the commonwealth came to filling the gap was in the 1989-90 school year, when Virginia came within 1% of the national average under the leadership of former Gov. Gerald Baliles, a Democrat. Youngkin proposed a modest increase in teacher salaries last year, but the slight increase wasn’t even enough to keep pace with inflation, and Virginia educators’ salaries remain well below the national average.

$201 Million Mistake

Recently, the Youngkin administration’s education budget took a $201 million hit caused by a calculation error. The proposed budget in both June and December 2022 did not account for the 2023 decrease in sales tax revenue that resulted from a cut in the state’s grocery tax.

According to Charles Pyle, VDOE communications director, it wasn’t until late January that the VDOE learned of the calculation mistake, although reports indicate that the error was discovered last December.

Virginia legislators scrambled to patch the mistake in February and agreed to appropriate nearly $133 million for the current school year and more than $125 million for the next year. 

Unfortunately, the stopgap budget actually provided just $16.8 million toward fixing the $201 million problem—the rest came from technical updates that school divisions would have gotten regardless due to increasing enrollment and changed sales tax estimates.

State legislators are currently working on the budget amendments. Until the changes are agreed upon by members of both the Virginia House of Delegates and Virginia Senate, the fate of Virginia’s education funding remains unresolved. 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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