December 2, 2023

The Virginia Department of Education has rescinded a wide range of policies, memos and programs established to further diversity, equity and inclusion in schools in obedience to an executive order from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

Jillian Balow, the Virginia superintendent of public instruction, announced the end of the initiatives in a letter sent to Youngkin and Education Secretary Aimee Guidera on Friday. Balow wrote that she was acting due to Youngkin’s Executive Order One, issued on his first day in office last month and which forbids the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” including “critical race theory and its progeny.”

The programs Balow has rescinded or is working to rescind were established under Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam. They include a framework called “EdEquityVA” that aimed to eliminate racial and socioeconomic disparities in academic and disciplinary outcomes for students. They also include a website devoted to “culturally responsive” teaching, and a memo that ex-state superintendent James Lane published in 2019 urging teachers to “facilitate meaningful dialogue on racism and bigotry.” Nixed as well is a web seminar series called “Teaching 9/11.”

Balow wrote in the letter that her cancellations of the programs are only the first step in a wholesale overhaul of how the state education department operates.

“Discriminatory and divisive concepts … have become widespread in the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and in Virginia school divisions,” she wrote. “We will need to proactively review policies, practices and pedagogies around the state.”

Youngkin said in a statement Friday that, although much work remains to be done, he is “encouraged” by Balow’s preliminary actions.

“Our Virginia students should not be taught to discriminate on the basis of sex, skin color, or religion and VDOE policies should certainly not recommend such concepts,” he said.

Education became a primary focus for Youngkin in the late weeks of his campaign, reflecting a burgeoning national debate over how and what schools should teach about race, racism and American history. The right has found a politically potent rallying cry in the drive to ban critical race theory, a college-level academic theory that analyzes how systemic racism shapes American society — but which conservatives wield as a catchall encompassing a wide variety of school programs meant to boost diversity, equity and inclusion.

Balow’s actions Friday come as no surprise: She is directly following Youngkin’s requests as laid out in his Executive Order One. In that document, he specifically asked her to end or curtail several of the programs she rescinded, including the EdEquityVA program and the Virginia Math Pathways Initiative. The latter program proposed rejiggering eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade math courses and increasing students’ exposure to data analytics, but it drew heavy criticism from some who alleged it would eliminate advanced high school math classes.

The EdEquityVA program was adopted by the Northam administration as a means to close well-documented racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps between students, as well as to increase teachers’ knowledge about students’ different cultures. It included annual conferences, monthly webinars, a monthly newsletter, an African American Superintendent’s Advisory Council and an “equity audit tool” supposed to make it easier for school districts to adopt their own equity initiatives.

In her letter to the governor, Balow wrote that “numerous resources within EdEquityVA employ the concept that current discrimination is needed to address past discrimination” — a reference, she wrote, to proposals that teachers handle interactions with students differently based on their skin color and background.

She also criticized the EdEquityVA initiative for publishing suggested reading lists that included works by prominent Black authors Ibram X. Kendi and Gloria Ladson-Billings, whom Balow asserted “are critical race theorists who have moved [critical race theory] into education.”

Overall, she wrote, EdEquityVA “shifts school culture from excellence and opportunity to equitable outcomes for all students.”

Balow lambasted the Northam administration’s “Culturally Responsive Website” for similar reasons. The website offered books, videos, webinars and podcasts that educators could peruse to learn how to “see cultural differences as assets” and “validate the inequities impacting students’ lives.”

But Balow wrote that the website pushes “divisive concepts,” forces teachers to treat their students differently based on race and improperly establishes “equity of outcomes,” rather than “equity of opportunity,” as the preeminent pedagogical goal.

Shortly after Youngkin issued Executive Order One, several parent and teacher associations in Virginia — including the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia Parent Teacher Association — signed a statement denouncing the order, and calling on Youngkin to rescind it.

“Recognizing difficult moments in our nation’s past is not, in itself, divisive,” they wrote. “Restricting age-appropriate and factually accurate discussion led by well-trained teachers is divisive.”

On Friday, the state education association called Balow’s moves to rescind educational materials pure political maneuvering.

“VEA is quite frankly outraged and appalled by the steps taken by Governor Youngkin to take work rooted in educational excellence and throw it out by the wayside for blatantly political motivations,” VEA President James J. Fedderman said.

Fedderman said Balow’s actions undermine the work of already short-staffed and stretched-thin teachers by implying that they are working to indoctrinate students.

Other education advocacy groups, though, were celebrating — including Fight For Schools, a parent activist organization in Loudoun County founded by former Trump administration official Ian Prior. Fight For Schools has been prominent in the conservative battle against critical race theory and is leading a campaign to recall members of the Loudoun school board.

Prior said in a text Friday that Balow’s actions mark “an excellent step in … returning Virginia’s education system to one that increases opportunities for all students, without eliminating meritocracy and competition.”