PolitiFact VA: Slavery wasn't 'erased' from proposed Virginia history standards
Speaker: Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee
Statement: “The Virginia GOP education agenda [would] erase slavery from VA history.”
Date: Dec. 4, 2022
This article was last updated on Dec. 13, 2022.
Setting new standards for teaching history in Virginia public schools has opened raw wounds along political and racial lines.
Benchmarks proposed last month by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration were heavily criticized for containing historical inaccuracies and shortchanging the contributions and views of minorities. The standards were rejected by the state Board of Education, which has a majority of Youngkin-appointed members.
Among the issues was the teaching of slavery. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national organization trying to elect Democrats to state legislatures, tweeted a list of complaints on Dec. 4. One item particularly caught our eye: “The Virginia GOP education agenda [would] erase slavery from VA history.”
We fact-checked the claim and found it to be an overstatement of complaints by educators and Democratic legislators that the Youngkin standards stripped context from slavery curriculum.
The way history is taught has been a major issue for Youngkin, who criticized Virginia schools throughout his 2021 campaign with dubious claims that schools statewide were teaching critical race theory — a concept that racial bias is embedded in U.S. systems. In his first act as governor, Youngkins signed an executive order to root out the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts, like critical race theory and its progeny [that] instruct students to only view life through the lens of race.”
Youngkin took a big step toward accomplishing his goal in July, when he appointed five members to the nine-person state board of education. One of the board’s first major tasks was to consider the new history standards that had been proposed by former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, in compliance with a state law requiring the curriculum for all K-12 subjects to be reviewed at least every seven years.
Work on the new history standards began two years ago during the Democratic Northam administration. The result was a 402-page proposal crafted with input from experts, educators, parents and others, and received more than 5,000 public comments. The new board — at the urging of Jillian Balow, Youngkin’s handpicked state superintendent of public instruction — voted in August to delay consideration of these standards.
In November, Balow unveiled a redrafted set of history standards that critics said minimized the roles of minorities. For example, the standards omitted Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth from holiday sections in elementary education, did not mention former President Barack Obama and referred to Native Americans as “America’s first immigrants.”
Amid an uproar, the board rejected those redrafted standards on an 8-to-0 vote. It ordered the department to fix errors and create a new standards draft early next year drawing from the work of both the Northam and Youngkin administrations.
Was slavery erased?
Contrary to the DLCC’s claim, Youngkin’s standards called for lessons on Virginia slavery in fourth and eleventh grades.
Fourth graders would have been taught about the origins of slavery in the U.S., a 1705 Virginia law that made it legal to own people and property, and the connection of tobacco plantations in Virginia to the growth of slavery. Students would also learn about Nat Turner’s rebellion and its impact on slavery in the state.
Eleventh graders would have studied the “slave trade in the U.S., Virginia, and Richmond.”
Beyond Virginia, fifth graders would have studied the mid-19th century national debates over slavery and its expansion in the U.S. Eleventh graders would learn about the transporting of slaves to the U.S., the economic impact of slavery, and “the cultures of enslaved Africans and … various ways they persisted towards freedom.” Students in second, third and ninth grade would have been taught about slavery in ancient civilizations.
The Youngkin standards were widely criticized for not identifying slavery as the root cause of the Civil War, as specified in Northam’s plan. Instead, Youngkin’s proposal said 11th graders should be able to apply their classroom lessons in “evaluating the role of slavery in the conflicts that led to the Civil War.”
Northam’s standards would have also required students to “make connections across time and place by exploring the social, political, and economic impact of enslavement and its ongoing legacy.” Youngkin’s plan removed that standard.
The DLCC stands by its claim that the Youngkin standards would “erase slavery” from Virginia history because it did not connect slavery to current racial issues in the nation.
The organization noted that its tweet links to a Nov. 30 guest column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch by House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. Scott, in a criticism of Youngkin on many fronts, wrote that the governor’s proposed history standards “erased any mention of the legacy of slavery.”*
“It’s not possible to teach about slavery if racism is removed from history,” said Christina Polizzi, communications director for the DLCC. She added, “If you’re taking out the role of slavery in the Civil War, you’re erasing it from Virginia history.”
The DLCC tweeted, “The Virginia GOP education agenda [would] erase slavery from VA history.”
The unqualified statement, presented as a fact, is wrong. Youngkin’s learning standards called for studies on slavery in Virginia and the U.S. in 4th and 11th grade, and lessons on slavery in the U.S. and in ancient times at five other grade levels. Most people reading the DLCC’s statement would conclude that slavery in Virginia would have been entirely stricken from school curriculum.
The DLCC and many other critics of Youngkin’s plan said it failed to connect the role of slavery to current U.S. racial issues. Without that tie, they say the “legacy” of slavery has been erased. But the DLCC’s tweet does not make that distinction.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
*Editor's note: This is an updated version of a fact check that first ran on Dec. 12. At the DLCC’s request, we’ve added that its tweet was linked to a Nov. 30 op-ed by House Minority Leader Don Scott, R-Portsmouth, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The additional information does not change our rating.
Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, tweet, Dec. 4, 2022
Email from Christina Polizzi, DLCC communications director, Dec. 6, 2022
Interview with Polizzi, Dec. 7, 2022
Del. Don Scott, “ Where Does the Buck Stop? Not with Youngkin,” Dec. 4, 2022
Interview with Don Scott, Dec. 7, 2022
Written comments by Cassandra Newby-Alexander, professor of Virginia history and culture, Norfolk State University, November 2022
The Washington Post, “ Virginia is changing the way it teaches history, social studies. Here’s how.” Nov. 16, 2022
Virginia Department of Education, proposed SOL standards, Nov. 16, 2022
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “ State head of public instruction wants more time for draft of history standards,” Aug. 17, 2022
Glenn Youngkin, Executive Order Number One, Jan. 15, 2022
PolitiFact Virginia, “ Youngkin offers little proof critical race theory is in 'all’ Virginia schools,” Aug. 10, 2021
Virginia Board of Education, draft of “History and Social Science Standards of Learning,” Aug. 4, 2022
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “ Board of Education rejects Youngkin's proposed revisions to K-12 history standards,” Nov. 17, 2022
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “ New draft history standards reorient framing of race relations,” Nov. 16, 2022
VPM, “ New history standards draft planned for January or February,” Nov. 18, 2022
VPM, “ Experts raise questions over latest draft of history standards,” Nov. 16, 2022