RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For more than a year, the Virginia Board of Education has struggled through multiple revisions of its new history curriculum. Now, the first version crafted entirely by Youngkin’s Department of Education is set to be publicly introduced.
The process of writing the new standards began under the administration of Democrat Ralph Northam, before being delayed and moved in a new direction under the incoming Replublican administration of Glenn Youngkin.
But the changes his department made were met by harsh criticism, leading the board of education to request extensive re-writes of the standards presented by the department of education last November.
Now, the board is ready to consider a revamped draft spearheaded by State Superintendent Jilian Balow at their meeting on Thursday, Feb. 2.
Though public comment on the draft didn’t open until the business meeting, at a work session on Wednesday, board members acknowledged that the draft was already a source of political controversy.
One history professor criticized the standards for removing references to fascism from the curriculum covering World War II, which still includes information about the Holocaust and specific events and historical figures of the period.
Board member Andy Rotherham requested that the department add language explicitly tying the Axis powers to fascism, but said the standards clearly already included information on the subject, even if it didn’t explicitly use the term fascism.
“I don’t think you can possibly read our section on World War II and somehow think that anyone doesn’t think we should teach about fascism,” he said. “I don’t think you can read that and think that anyone on this board or in the department or the governor’s office is somehow sympathetic to fascism.”
The document does explicitly single out “socialism or communist political systems” as “incompatible with democracy and individual freedoms” in a section of overarching principles at the beginning of the standards document. Those principles do not speak to other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism.
Board member Anne Holton, the daughter of former Republican Governor Linwood Holton, criticized the sections on Virginia history for dropping a section about Governor Harry Byrd. Byrd was a conservative Democrat who fought to maintain Jim Crow segregation in the state, especially in the public school system.
Linwood Holton, who was elected in the ’60s, was the one who ended many of the commonwealth’s explicitly racist laws, and famously sent his children — including Anne Holton — to integrated schools in Richmond.
“In 1965 the total vote participation in Virginia was 500,000 individuals. In 1969 the total vote participation was 900,000 individuals,” Anne Holton said. “That was not because Virginia grew from 1965 to 1969. It was because it wasn’t until the 1960’s that we lifted restrictions on African-American and low-income white people voting.”
While the board will have to vote on implementing changes at Thursday’s meeting and over the next few months of public hearings, Rotherham said criticism of the draft’s politics — and the involvement of the conservative Fordham Institute’s in crafting them — was overblown.
“The words conservative and progressive in education are meaningless, and so the Fordham Institute — I don’t think any of the senior leadership there has voted Republican in the first part of this century,” he said. “I think they’re good at what they do and they don’t bring a hard ideological lens to it.”
That was a stance echoed by the Fordham Institute itself, which put out a statement calling accusations of political bias “completely false.”
While the institute described in their press release the areas they claimed to have offered feedback in, the Virginia Department of Education has reportedly refused to release records of their communication with outside groups to journalists.
The institute also publicly aligns with many of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s policy priorities, including a push to pour public funds into private schools. That policy was a centerpiece of Youngkin’s policy agenda, but was shot down in the Democrat-controlled senate.
But ultimately, Board President Daniel Gecker, a Nrotham appointee, said that any changes made to the curriculum were unlikely to stall a long-term decline in social science test scores.
“We have systematically starved the school divisions of resources since the ’08 recession. We have not restored to pre-recession funding levels,” he said. “And to have us not talk about that at the same time we talk about other things that might have an impact I think is a mistake, because it provides the political class with an easy solution — and I say the political class meaning both parties — because it doesn’t require additional resources to fix. All it says is, ‘we need to change a couple of words on these papers and all of the sudden we’re gonna see things happen differently.’ But we know that that’s not right.”
The board will accept public comment on the revised standards at a series of regional meetings that will be announced soon, and viewers can see the new draft here and the older draft here. You can watch public comment on the draft live on Feb. 2 on the department’s YouTube channel.