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Youngkin’s superintendent of schools asks for another delay in updating history standards

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, at a podium
Steve Helber/AP
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow discusses a Department of Education report in May. (File photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Jillian Balow, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s superintendent of public instruction, wants another delay in approving new history and social science standards for K-12 students in Virginia.

In a Monday memo, Balow said Youngkin’s new majority on the Board of Education has raised “important concerns and questions” about the proposed standards. Balow said her team was also reaching out to unspecified “individuals and entities” for more feedback and asked the board to vote to delay the standards update when they meet Thursday.

If Balow’s proposal is adopted by the nine-member board, they would take a final vote on the proposal in February, rather than January, after a period of public comment. The final standards will be used by schools as baseline criteria for curricula and to prepare students for state standardized tests.

This marks the second time Balow has requested a delay on the standards.

In August, the board delayed beginning a public comment process after Balow noted what she described as “glaring deficiencies” in the more than 400-page document. For example, a reference to George Washington as the “Father of our Country” and James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution” were mistakenly removed.

Critics of the delay argued the fixes were easy to make without holding up the entire process.

James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, which advocates on behalf of teachers, argued that the administration already had enough time to clean up a “handful of grammatical errors.”

“Delaying the standards further will cause real harm: If they are not released until late summer, educators will not have sufficient time to review them and create quality lessons and learning materials for a new school year,” Fedderman said in a statement. “VEA members call for partisan politics to be put aside on our history standards and to return the process to Virginians to offer final input.” 

At a board meeting last month, Department of Education staff said they didn’t anticipate major changes to the content in the document. But one of Youngkin’s appointees, Suparna Dutta, said she had major concerns.

“These themes and concepts talk about questionable concepts like conflict and power relationships and highlighting colonialism, imperialism, servitude, enslavement, nationalism, racism, cultural expressionism over basic economic principles,” Dutta said.

In her latest memo, Balow laid out a series of goals for the revised draft, including that it be “succinct and concise,” “neutral in content and approach” and “inclusive of more voices.”

“This work is paramount, and we must not settle on a standards product that falls short of our best because of strict adherence to a timeline,” Balow wrote.

A spokesperson for the department did not immediately respond to a series of questions sent Wednesday afternoon.

The Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank, has already provided some feedback on the proposed documents.

Emails obtained by VPM News show Edwin Feulner — the former president of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation whom Youngkin appointed to chair the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments — wrote to Secretary of Education Amy Guidera on behalf of a nonprofit called Victims of Communism. Feulner forwarded an email from a representative of the group who wanted to require education on the history of communism based on model legislation passed in Florida. The legislation was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group.

“How do we incorporate [this] into our history standards agenda?” Guidera wrote to Balow in July.  

The history and social science standards were drafted mostly under Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam, with a focus on creating more inclusive content. The process took more than two years and involved feedback from historians, teachers and thousands of comments submitted online.

Youngkin campaigned on the claim that K-12 students were being “indoctrinated” in critical race theory and as governor pushed to ban “divisive content” from the classroom. CRT doesn’t appear in state curricula, but Youngkin pointed to several teacher trainings focused on equity as proof of CRT’s influence in the classroom.

Youngkin’s critics say his rhetoric is part of a broader pattern of downplaying the influence of systemic racism.

The standards are updated at least every seven years. The latest batch will begin appearing in classrooms during the 2023-2024 school year and will become the new standards the following year.

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