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Youngkin’s education secretary says her goal is preparing students for jobs

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Steve Helber/AP
Virginia Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera gestures during an event at the Capitol in January. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia’s top education official says the state is “resting on our laurels” when it comes to educating public school students.

In a forum hosted by a conservative think tank last month, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said her top goal is preparing students for the job market.

“We are reorienting everything to how is education geared towards preparing people for the jobs of today and of tomorrow,” she said.

Guidera has kept a low profile since Gov. Glenn Youngkin named her to be Virginia’s education secretary in December. But in a forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Guidera laid out her plans in more detail.

The former CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, an education reform group, pushed back on claims the administration was attempting to censor history. She said her team would push past “culture wars,” which Youngkin’s critics say were fermented by the governor.

Instead, she said she plans on focusing on meeting three “benchmarks”: creating students that are ready for “family-supporting jobs” and who are civically engaged, recruiting and retaining employers attracted by the commonwealth’s talent pool and growing the state economy.

AEI has been an influential force in the administration. Guidera noted she recently awoke to a text message from Youngkin after he read a piece on the group’s website. Emails obtained by VPM via public records request show members of AEI staff arranged a call and an in-person meeting with the Superintendent of Public Schools, Jillian Balow, and shared Tweets from a conservative reporter and activist with Dicky Shanor, her chief of staff. (DOE withheld 14 other emails, citing a public records exemption designed to shield the governor’s “working papers” from public scrutiny.)

VPM News requested an interview with Guidera, but a spokesperson for Youngkin declined. Here are a few takeaways from her remarks to AEI:

A new ‘north star’

Guidera says the state needs to focus more on preparing students for employment and the “21st-century knowledge economy.” That means changes in who has a seat at the table in updating curriculum to include “customers” of the education system like “employers, military and higher education to ensure that there's alignment with interest requirements,” Guidera said.

“We will also include national content experts, commonwealth professors and our directors of education at our cultural and historical treasures, who possess expertise in subject matter,” Guidera said. She identified math and history as two immediate points of focus.

The secretary said she hoped to prioritize internships and apprenticeships and expand lab schools – K-12 schools linked to colleges and universities. Budget negotiators are currently hashing out whether to increase funding for college internships, and Youngkin’s proposed $150 million in funding for lab schools.

Guidera said her team is reviewing the state’s teacher licensure processes to “facilitate content experts to switch careers more easily and join the teaching profession where we have so many shortages, and help folks that want to transition from the military or other fields to go into this noble profession of teaching.”

The administration invited representatives from a number of corporations to join a lab school workgroup meeting in February, including Amazon, Altria, General Dynamics Mission Systems, Microsoft, Micron and Newport News Shipbuilding, according to an email VPM News obtained via a public records request.

Chad Stewart, a policy analyst with the Virginia Education Association, a union that advocates on behalf of teachers, said he agreed employers could make good partners by providing internships and workforce training, but he questioned whether job readiness should be the primary goal for a student’s education.

“Education goes beyond just career readiness,” Stewart said, citing benefits to health, civic life and relationships. “I think we have a bit more of an expansive view of education and also stakeholders who should be at the table.”

Ignoring the culture wars?

Youngkin campaigned heavily on the notion that school systems had gone too far in teachings and training designed to address the legacies of racism. His inaccurate claims surrounding critical race theory – and later executive order and unsuccessful legislative push to ban “divisive content” from classrooms – led critics to warn of a far-reaching effort to censor and discourage the teaching of dark chapters of U.S. and Virginia history.

Guidera sought to reassure those skeptics in her comments to AEI, saying the standards she hoped to create would be a benchmark for the rest of the country.

“My goal is that we're going to have the best history standards that are inclusive, they tell all of Virginia’s stories and all of our, all of the American story,” Guidera said. “So just watch what we do.”

Later in her comments, in a discussion about improving math and literacy metrics, Guidera appeared to nod to the topic again: “We're not going to be distracted by getting caught up in the culture wars,” she said.

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, made a similar point in an email. “He will continue to prioritize delivering educational opportunities for Virginia's students over culture wars,” Porter said, pointing to the governor’s recent signing of the bipartisan Virginia Literacy Act.

Stewart, with VEA, said that last claim rang hollow given Youngkin’s campaign rhetoric, creation of a “tip line” designed to report “divisive content” and removal of equity resources from DOE’s website.

“It seems like that ship has really sailed on this issue,” Stewart said. “Youngkin might be one of the most well recognized politicians nationally for using these tactics.”

A focus on metrics.

Guidera’s background at a data-driven nonprofit features heavily in her approach to the job. She contends lawmakers, the media and teacher groups fail to recognize the gravity of Virginia’s inequities.

“We're resting on our laurels and being deluded by averages that mask the stark disparities in the quality of education and the results that we're getting across the commonwealth,” Guidera said. “Every single one of our trends is going down with student achievement.”

Federal data from 2019 shows Virginia students score among the highest in the country on standardized tests for 4th and 8th graders, and scores have largely improved over the last two decades. But Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, pointed out scores dropped from 2017 to 2019 in several categories. He also noted the state’s Standards of Learning scores in math and reading fell from 2019 to 2021,  in line with national trends.

Guidera said if schools couldn’t hit certain testing benchmarks, parents should be allowed to move them to better-performing ones. She stopped short of promoting school vouchers that would allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools, saying advocates needed to do more to lay the groundwork for that shift by noting the problems in the current system.

“Virginia has a lot that it has to work out right now in a lot of mistrust of choices and of decisions that were made during Massive Resistance,” she said, referring to the period where white politicians and families resisted integration.

Stewart, with VEA, acknowledged the school systems had problems with disparate outcomes for students but said Guidera was ignoring clear evidence of success in the school systems. And he assigned different solutions for the problems that do exist: “adequately resourcing a lot of schools and communities in Virginia [that] have been under-resourced forever, really, and even had periods of deliberate disinvestment.”

Additional reporting by Megan Pauly.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.