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Virginia history standards set for vote after months of debate

State board of education semi-circle dais
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
The Virginia Board of Education is meeting this week at the James Monroe Building in Richmond, Virginia.

Every seven years Virginia's history curriculum gets a review. The latest rewrite up for consideration teaches less about slavery, racism and labor unions.

The scene in the school auditorium in Farmville, Virginia, last month, has all the trappings of U.S.-style civics in action: Rows of folding chairs in a school auditorium, a podium and a timer that gives speakers three minutes.

It’s a fitting backdrop for the topic of debate: how Virginia history should be taught.

In 1951, Black students led by Barbara Johns walked out of what was then–Morton High School to protest the school’s conditions. A lawsuit from the NAACP followed and was folded into the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, overturning legally-sanctioned segregation.

Johns and that chapter of history are mentioned several times in proposed history and social science standards developed under Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The proposal embraces a vision of the U.S. as a flawed, but exceptional country. There’s more focus on the founding fathers, patriotism and Ronald Reagan.

The state board of education, where Youngkin appointees hold a two-seat majority, is slated to consider those standards Thursday.

LaTonya Francis, a Chesterfield County parent and member of the equity advocacy group National Coalition of 100 Black Women, argued in Farmville that they told an incomplete story.

“The Declaration of Independence that you talk about on Page 4 of the standards was originally published July 4, 1776,” Francis told board member Grace Creasey, who sat alongside a state education staffer on a small stage. “Those words did not apply to me or to people who look like me.”

By law, the standards have to be updated every seven years. The process started under former Gov. Ralph Northam. The Democrat’s staff sought to make history lessons more inclusive and less focused on rote memorization, soliciting feedback from parents, historians and cultural groups in a process that lasted 18 months.

But some people, like Christel Gorman, say those standards would’ve focused too much on systemic racism and conflict.

“They would be taught to hate our country, the best that this world can ever imagine, warts and all,” said Gorman, a member of the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty who said she traveled from Campbell County — hours away.

Last fall, the Youngkin administration hired a consultant to rewrite the original standards, with input from right-leaning voices like Hillsdale College and Civics Alliance, a consortium of conservatives that was started in 2021.

In an interview, Civics Alliance executive director David Randall said Virginia isn’t the only state grappling with how history is taught. He connected the first iteration to what he described rising left-wing influence in the classroom across the country.

“The George Floyd riots seem to have triggered a nationwide radicalization which has been affecting both the university, the K-12 sphere and the republic in general,” he said.

The Youngkin draft removed what the group viewed as progressive vocabulary, including words like “imperialism” and “racism.”

But critics argued the resulting document was riddled with mistakes and bad framing, like referring to Native Americans as the first immigrants to the U.S. The board of education decided to hit pause and ordered state officials back to the drawing board for a third draft.

Youngkin defended this latest version at a CNN education town hall last month.

“We in fact enhanced the discussion of slavery, and made sure that everyone understood for the first time in Virginia history standards that the cause of the Civil War was slavery,” Youngkin said.

Backers of the new standards are quick to note it also adds content on Reconstruction, the KKK and Japanese internment camps.

Critics argue it downplays the contributions of organized labor by asking students to consider the “pros and cons of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal” and no mention of the National Labor Relations Act.

And historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander — who gave input on the first draft –- argues the latest version treats slavery and racism as anomalies.

“While the document talks about … our racial history, it really does it in a very minor way,” said Newby-Alexander. “It makes it almost as an aside, that was quickly resolved.”

Newby-Alexander said history isn’t just a bunch of facts: It needs to connect the dots into a fuller — sometimes unflattering — picture.

If the board of education approves Virginia’s new history standards on Thursday, they’ll likely be in place for the next seven years.

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