RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrats in the Virginia Senate rejected two bills backed by the Youngkin administration that would have banned “inherently divisive concepts” from being taught in public schools and given the state authority to expand charter schools.
Both proposals are part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education agenda, which the Republican said would aim to give parents “school choice” and more power to decide curriculum.
The first measure to be voted down by the Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday was introduced by state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) on behalf of the Youngkin administration. The bill would have prohibited “inherently divisive” teaching concepts in public schools.
The bill had similar language to the first executive order Youngkin signed after taking office, which directed the state’s top education officials “to end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, and to raise academic standards.”
Critical race theory, an academic framework based on the idea that racism is systemic and is perpetuated in society, was one of the main issues during the heated election cycle. Despite concerns from parents and Youngkin’s order to try to block it, the Virginia Department of Education has said repeatedly that critical race theory is not part of the commonwealth’s K-12 curriculum.
When the legislation was heard in subcommittee, Kiggans stressed to the three-senator panel that specific language targeting Critical Race Theory was not in the bill.
But when asked for examples of “inherently divisive” teaching concepts in schools by the two Democratic state senators on the subcommittee, Kiggans mentioned a report about a class in a Fairfax County high school playing “privilege bingo” that Youngkin had linked to Critical Race Theory.
“These are the fundamental tenets that critical race theory has embedded in our school system and I think it’s laughable when people say there is not a critical race theory course in the class. Well, of course they’re not,” Youngkin said on The John Fredericks Show on Jan. 24. “These are the tenets that have made their way into the classroom and when you see a privilege bingo being used in high school, all you can do is shake your head and say this is exactly what we’re talking about and why I signed that executive order.”
According to reports, students were asked to identify their privilege on a bingo board and the school system apologized “for any offense it may have unintentionally caused.”
State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), who chairs the panel that initially heard the bill, presented the bill to the full committee Thursday with the subcommittee’s recommendation to vote down the legislation.
“It was not clear in the discussion exactly what would constitute an inherently divisive concept,” Sen. Hashmi said about the subcommittee meeting. “The term is not really defined within the bill, according to what some of the committee members were questioning.”
All of the Democrats on the Senate education committee voted to kill the bill on a 9-4 vote. Two Republicans did not vote on the motion.
Virginia Senate panel votes down charter school bill
The next Youngkin-backed bill rejected by the panel would have allowed the state to have more authority over the creation of charter schools. Expanding these types of schools, which need local approval and use public funding, was one of the governor’s top priorities during the campaign.
The legislation, filed by state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) for the administration, would have given the Virginia Board of Education the authority to establish “regional charter school divisions.” The districts would consist of at least two but not more than three existing school divisions in Virginia that have at least 3,000 students enrolled.
Sen. Obenshain said the districts would need to meet certain criteria before a charter school could be built in the locality, including requirements to be in the bottom quarter of the state in testing for English and math. He added that no family or child would be forced to attend a charter school.
“This is a creation of charter school districts that will be able to drop a lifeline to children and families in these areas where children are, frankly in some school divisions, just being ruined by inadequate education,” Obenshain said Thursday.
He added that the legislation would allow for divisions to retain the funding for every student they have in its schools, allowing local funding to stay within an existing school district. Obenshain said the state’s per capita funding going to charter schools would follow the students who opt to attend.
The measure initially called for the creation of school boards with eight members appointed by the state Board of Education and a single member picked by the localities of each underlying district. Democrats on the panel pointed out that localities would be at a disadvantage with fewer appointed members.
Aimee Rogstad Guidera, Youngkin’s secretary-designee of education, called the legislation “critical” to ensure excellence and opportunity for Virginia students. She said the state would require input from stakeholders, plans from charter schools on how they would meet the needs of students who remain in “failing schools now.”
“These are actually schools that are designed to meet the needs of the kids that we have not met their needs before and we’re going to hold these schools accountable in ways that we have not been able to hold accountable the schools that they are now in today,” Guidera said.
Democrats on the committee shared concerns over the existing schools in Virginia that are struggling with funding, infrastructure and test scores.
“I kept hearing the phrase failing schools and that children will be drawn from failing schools,” state Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) said during Thursday’s committee hearing. “As these kids are being drawn from these failing schools, what happens to that ‘failing school'” the senator asked while making air quotes around the word.” Will that school be allowed to continue to fail?”
Guidera said the administration was not giving up on any school, but said Virginia “can’t lose another generation” and wait to have every issue in schools at the same time. Senate Democrats didn’t seem swayed and continued to press Obenshain on the state’s authority to move forward and about the potential burden and issues local school districts could face.
State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) asked Obenshain about previous legal rulings and a section in the Virginia Constitution that authorize local school boards to supervise schools in a division. The legal challenges to Youngkin’s mask-optional order also cite this part of the constitution.
“I want to be flexible here but help me get past this,” Petersen said.
“This is a school division that complies with the Constitution of Virginia. It is not a division of a division. It’s not a consolidation. It is the establishment of a charter school division. The state Board of Education has no role in running that,” Obenshain responded.
While an amendment was approved to reduce the number of appointees for the Board of Education from eight to five, the Republican bill was defeated on a party-line vote. Other Youngkin-backed charter school measures are still alive for the 2022 session, and should pass the GOP-controlled House.
They would have to go through the Senate, where Democrats control the committees and still have a 21-19 majority.