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Editor's note: This story is the second installment of our "Schooled" series about how adults are failing this generation of students. Read part one, a roundup of student reflections on safety and power, here.
There's a recent painting that sums up what's happening to public education in Virginia: A white man, white paint roller in hand, is covering up Black historical figures—Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X—their bodies whitewashed, faces stoic.
The piece by Detroit artist Jonathan Harris, titled "Critical Race Theory," stuck with Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a professor at Norfolk State University, a Historically Black University, since she first saw it online.
Newby-Alexander is the former co-chair of the African American History Education Commission (AAHEC), a group of educators and historians brought together by former Governor Ralph Northam in August 2019 to recommend changes to add more Black history to Virginia's K-12 curricula. The state Board of Education implemented their recommendations in the fall of 2021.
Among the changes was a new statewide elective African American history class for high schoolers, through which students learned about topics like Virginia's slave codes and the founding of local Black colleges. Students taking the elective have created podcasts, books, and even presented at a global U.N. conference. It is one of a handful of Black history courses implemented in states like Florida, Kentucky, and Texas, after the short-lived racial reckoning of 2020.
In 2021, the commission also recommended professional development by way of cultural-competency training and African American history instruction for every K-12 history teacher. Last session, the General Assembly enshrined into law those trainings to help prepare educators to teach Black history. The trainings were supposed to be phased in over the next few years.
Educators and community members said in public comment and listening sessions that these curriculum revisions were a long time coming.
Litia Turner, a then-rising junior at Goochland High School, 30 miles outside of Richmond, called on the Virginia Department of Education in a July 2020 letter to include Juneteenth in the curriculum. Turner, who is Black, said students are taught a version of the past that is "less gruesome"—for example, in the previous curriculum, slavery was depicted as an economic necessity—and that in order to move forward, the past must be recognized, no matter how uncomfortable. Now, because of the commission's recommendations, Virginia students learn about Juneteenth in Kindergarten. As of October 2020, it became a state holiday.
For Black families, these changes were a breath of fresh air during the summer of 2021 as white parents flocked to school board meetings in droves to speak out against critical race theory, even though the theory requires a collegiate-level framework that was never in place for K-12 classrooms.
All of this progress happened under Governor Ralph Northam, a term-limited Democrat who spent much of his tenure championing racial equity, in part because a picture that revealed him wearing Blackface resurfaced early on in his term. Instead of yielding to pressure to resign, Northam met with Black leaders across the state to listen and take action, including creating the African American History Education Commission.
But then, an election.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and wealthy businessman Glenn Youngkin ran the nation's first successful, though disingenuous, campaign against critical race theory. Republicans like Youngkin use the framework as a catchall term for anything concerning race and ethnicity. On the day he was sworn in as governor, he signed an executive order to ban teaching "inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory." Youngkin also created a tip line for people to report educators who might be teaching anything "divisive."
Despite Youngkin's proclaimed critical race theory crackdown, the first six months of his term have left educators, students, parents, and other school officials confused about what his education policy really means. It's possible that the AAHEC's work to increase Black history in schools may soon be erased, as Youngkin continues to lead the charge of conservative politicians across the U.S. who've had their sights on limiting which history is or isn't taught.
Virginia is not alone in navigating the vague nature of these laws. According to EdWeek, since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills that would restrict schools from teaching critical race theory or freely discussing racism, and 17 of those states have passed legislation.
Newby-Alexander said it's not possible to teach American history without talking about horrible, racist things. Although Youngkin says all this oversight is an attempt to make people feel less uncomfortable, he only has one group in mind: white people, especially white parents. He's prioritizing politics over teaching real, accurate history, Newby added.
"I have real issues with that," she said. "You're telling me that the discomfort of a white person is more important than my discomfort. That's what you're saying."
State Senator Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, and York County, is a member of the senate's Education and Health Committee. Youngkin's inauguration swiftly challenged some of her work to measure inclusiveness in schools. His agenda also made it harder to differentiate fact from farce.
"Critical race theory is not being taught in K-12, in the Commonwealth of Virginia," Locke said. "But even though that's factual information, they are not allowing facts to get in the way of what they're saying."
Over the last year, she's witnessed her Republican counterparts sweep the cultural competency training she penned into law into their anti-critical race theory campaign to eliminate any teachings about race or nonwhite history in the classroom. Locke's March 2021 legislation, which had support from one of the largest teacher's unions in the state, required school leadership to undergo biannual training on creating an inclusive, equitable curriculum. Cultural competency was also a metric for routine teacher evaluations.
Youngkin's critical race theory ban targeted these cultural competency trainings and the updated Virginia curriculum, flagging them to be reviewed by Virginia's Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who is white. Locke also told Scalawag that it's unclear what the Republican party views as "'wrong"' to teach, or what people would report to the tip line.
In addition to the broad language in the governor's executive order and tip line, Youngkin has denied FOIA requests for emails to his tip line, and refused to release email communications between himself and the state department of education. Thirteen news organizations, including The Washington Post, The Virginian-Pilot, USA Today, CNN, NPR, and the AP, filed a lawsuit against Youngkin on April 13 for refusing to release the tip line emails.
His office has not responded to Scalawag for multiple requests for comment. And though the commission page is still up on the Secretary of Education's website, the link to their final report is no longer active (but is still available on this Dropbox link).
Turner, who finished her senior year at Goochland High this year, remembers feeling extremely frustrated when she read the first headline about Youngkin banning critical race theory.
Day-to-day, Turner said that, like most other high schoolers, she doesn't pay attention to the fine details of curriculum changes. But all of the attention on Youngkin has sparked lots of conversation among students, some of which has been difficult to listen to. One student Turner overheard in the hallway said they'd already learned about slavery, and that they don't think there's anything else important to learn.
She wonders what other misconceptions she'll hear from students, her community, even her textbooks.
"It feels like we're taking a step back in our education system," Turner said. "We're literally going backwards."
Siatta Kaba, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University who identifies as Black and Liberian, graduated from Forest Park High School in Prince William County Schools in 2018. She said when she was in school, her Black history education was scarce. She learned about surface level history, like more palatable civil rights figures, but said that there was a lot that was left out. Similar to when Trump was elected, she thinks as the people who support Youngkin feel more empowered, Black and minority communities will feel even more unprotected.
"I just feel like Black history will be buried even more than it has been," she said.
Educators are also stumped about what qualifies as "divisive." Many are unsure what might get them reported—be it a line from a poem or a quote from a history book.
"There's a complete lack of clarity," Newby-Alexander said of Youngkin's vague language and unwillingness to clarify his intentions.
Youngkin's January 15 executive order requires Virginia's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, to report all "inherently divisive" or "inherently racist" policies, programs and materials in the state's curriculum to be removed. The order can be interpreted as instruction for Balow—and Balow alone—to study the curriculum and report topics taught that are racist or "divisive."
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"Do something. Pass legislation. 'Thoughts and prayers' without action to prevent tragedy is faith without works."
Balow did not publicly consult school districts or other groups for her first report, published February 23, which halted the work of EdEquityVA, a Virginia Department of Education initiative to close achievement and opportunity gaps. (The program's resources and training materials have been removed from the VDOE website, but are still accessible on the Virginia Education Association's website). Balow wrote in her report that she viewed EdEquity's purpose to close racial gaps in student discipline, college readiness, educator diversity, and resource allocation, as discrimination.
In response to the report, 133 Virginia school superintendents published a letter in March stating that superintendents and stakeholder groups should have been consulted beforehand, and that they disagree with the report's assumption that discriminatory, divisive concepts are widespread in Virginia schools.
While Governor Youngkin's administration did not respond to Scalawag's requests to clarify the definition of divisive teaching, Superintendent Balow included the following reasoning for removing EdEquityVA and other resources in her February 23 report:
- The resource advances equity.
- The resource encourages reading Black authors Ibram X. Kendi and Gloria Ladson-Billings.
- The resource teaches anti-racism, including the idea that white people benefit from racism.
Teachers: Are you looking to incorporate more Black history into your class?
Check out these resources from the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Collaborative that address the technical edits to the Virginia Standards of Learning developed by the Commission on African American History Education.
Students: Do you have a story to share?
Use this form to tell us about what's going on in your life, what you wish adults would get right, and what resources you need.
Jack Preis, associate dean of the Richmond University School of Law, said that if Youngkin and his superintendent want to change the curriculum, legally, they're going to be able to do so.
"Essentially, he's telling [the superintendent of public instruction] to make a list," he said. "Now, the real question will be what her list looks like."
In order to actually change the curriculum, Virginia will have to go through an ordinary review and revision process through the Virginia Department of Education, one that requires public comment periods and approval from the Board of Education.
Until recently, the nine-member Board was comprised entirely of members who were selected by Democrats, either by Northam or his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe. Two of these members are Black: 2021 teacher of the year Rodney Johnson, and University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies dean Jamelle S. Wilson.
But on February 15, the majority-Republican Virginia House of Delegates removed three interim Board members by refusing to confirm their appointments. The removals include Stewart Roberson, who had served on the Board since February 2021 when he was appointed by Northam mid-session, and Anthony Swann, who was appointed at the same time. Wilson, who was appointed by McAuliffe and reappointed by Northam and has served since 2017, was also removed. Their seats have yet to be filled.
Under Virginia and state law, appointments to the state Board of Education are subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, the legislative body of the state's house and senate.
Two more Board of Education members' terms end in June, meaning Youngkin could have a majority on the Board by then. The Board has the power to revise state standards of learning for each subject, which happens every seven years—unless it has special direction from the Governor, like when it implemented the commission's recommended changes. Preis said if the Board wants to make Youngkin's desired changes, it will be able to do so.
Another potential avenue for curriculum change is through the General Assembly, which also has jurisdiction over local school districts. For example, in February, the General Assembly passed a bill ending mask mandates in public schools.
Several anti-critical race theory bills were introduced in this year's session. House Bill 787, which would have required the board of education to remove all "divisive" teaching from the curriculum, passed in the House with a 50-49 vote, but was killed by the Senate education subcommittee in March. While the General Assembly's regular session for 2022 has now ended, the Governor can call special sessions; the General Assembly reconvened June 1 for a special session to vote on the state budget.
Monica Manns, director of equity and diversity for Henrico Public County Schools in Virginia, said she's been getting emails from Black parents in her district who are frustrated because it feels like their history is being taken away.
"They're kind of like, 'We are finally getting history to be taught a little bit better than it was before,'" Manns said, quoting those parents. "'Finally, my child is seeing themselves somewhere. Why do we want to take it away?'"
Manns, whose job entails advising the school district's leadership on equity and diversity matters, also served on the African American History Education Commission. She said that no one has reached out to her district to clarify what the term "divisive content" means, but that more specific language would help ease tremendous anxiety she's seen in teachers and students, so they know what the governor's expectations are.
The dearth of communication from Youngkin's office has made Manns' job harder. She has an increased number of Black and white parents asking her questions about what their children will and won't be learning, and she doesn't always have the answers. There's a painful irony in the silence from Youngkin's office following his election that both popularized and proved the power of running an anti-critical race theory campaign.
"It's vague and subjective. And maybe that's what they want. I'm not really sure," she said.
Manns said her students are approaching the term "divisive" from a different lens, drawing their own conclusions from the verbiage
For example, she said, they'll tell her that in previous classes—before the commission improved how Black history was taught—they didn't learn the entire "I Have a Dream" speech from Martin Luther King Jr., or both perspectives of the Vietnam War. Instead, Manns said students learned them by scrolling through TikTok on their own.
"And they're like, 'Isn't that divisive teaching, Dr. Manns?'" she said. "I can't tell them no, and I can't tell them yes."
Manns says her students aren't learning critical race theory anyway. However, she said, her students have still been engaged in their history classes, including the African American history elective HCPS started offering in 2020 alongside 15 other districts in the state as part of a pilot program before it was implemented statewide in 2021.
She's been able to hear directly from students about how much they're learning in the course. They have been fascinated at how braids were used as maps to get people out of slavery or how abolitionists like John Brown, a white man, resisted enslavement.
She has also witnessed their frustration.
"That's the one thing that completely comes up every time," she said. Her students keep asking: "Why did I just find this out?"
Manns believes culturally responsive, inclusive curricula are necessary for all students.
Her son, who attends a school outside of her jurisdiction, was the only Black person in his history class, where his teacher decided they would have a debate about the positives and negatives of slavery. (Editor's note: There were no positives, because this is not a debate.)
"There are ways in which you could have taught this and not made my child feel this uncomfortable," Manns said.
She said continuing the commission's work would have created a space where students would learn to value their differences and celebrate their similarities. She even pictured expanding the commission's work to create an ethnic studies course so other students of different cultural backgrounds could also see themselves in their coursework. All the time, students of different backgrounds—Asian American, Muslim, Hispanic—tell her they don't feel represented in history classes either.
Now, she's not sure this is being prioritized.
"What we don't teach, we will repeat," Manns said. "It's just the facts."
Governor Youngkin's focus on education is all related to politics, Newby-Alexander said. He's created a base, and is focused on the short-term political win, not its long-term impacts. She pointed out how already, by weaponizing critical race theory, Youngkin has created a national profile for himself.
"Whenever you start politicizing knowledge, you always create a very dangerous society," she said.
Manns said this has taken a toll on her students. COVID-19 has already disengaged students from learning, she said, and Youngkin's rhetoric around what should and shouldn't be taught has made this even worse.
But Newby-Alexander has faith in young people. She pointed to historical examples like the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960, or the youth-led George Floyd protests that sparked in 2020. When Youngkin created his tip line to report divisive content, young people took to TikTok to create a campaign to spam the line.
She's inspired by students like Turner, who ran her school's first student-led Black History Month assembly this year, where students listened to interviews about equity and inclusion in their schools and participated in activities like a Black trivia Kahoot. Turner is also helping create Goochland High's first Black Student Alliance group to give students at her school a place to feel represented.
Turner is thinking about writing another letter to the VDOE about college readiness initiatives for students of color, which were specifically targeted by the superintendent's 30-day report.
Kaba, the former Forest Park High School student, is a part of the Virginia Student Power Network, a grassroots network of organizers from Virginia universities. She also does direct organizing with people in Richmond.
Youngkin's politics are only palatable to a select group of Virginians, she said. To combat his platform, she thinks organizers need to be bolder and blunter.
"We can't really hide in the shadows," she said. "Because that is what has allowed somebody like Youngkin to come to power."
Siona Peterous contributed to this story.