Governor Glenn Youngkin signed nine executive orders and two executive directives on Saturday shortly after the inauguration. Three of the orders focus specifically on school policy, banning the use of “divisive concepts,” allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask policies, and requesting Attorney General Jason Miyares to investigate the Loudoun County Public Schools.
Youngkin won the election on a wave of parental frustration over education issues including school closures, a mathematics pathways proposal that reshaped advanced math, transgender policies, and especially Critical Race Theory (CRT). Although Virginia education officials said CRT was a higher-ed concept that isn’t taught in public schools, opponents were concerned by equity programs. Youngkin promised to ban CRT during the campaign, and his Executive Order Number One is one of his first steps to fulfill that promise.
“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims,” EO One states.
The order defines “inherently divisive concepts” at length, but a key phrase lists concepts including that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously[.]”
The order continues, “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad. From the horrors of American slavery and segregation, and our country’s treatment of Native Americans, to the triumph of America’s Greatest Generation against the Nazi Empire, the heroic efforts of Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, and our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with the facts and context necessary to understand these important events.”
Youngkin came under fire from some conservatives for nominating Aimee Guidera to be Secretary of Education; Guidera is respected in education data fields, but doesn’t seem like an anti-CRT leader. The Daily Wire criticized Guidera for her role as founder of the Data Quality Campaign, which argues on its site that minority students have faced unequal treatment and opportunities to learn.
On Thursday, Youngkin announced his pick of Jillian Balow for Superintendent of Public Instruction and Elizabeth Schultz as Assistant Superintendent. Both picks reassured conservatives. In 2021, Balow was Superintendent of Public Instruction in Wyoming, where she supported anti-CRT legislation, according to The Oil City News. Schultz is a former Fairfax County School Board member and founded activist organization Parents Defending Education.
EO One orders the superintendent to review all the “EdEquity VA” program, all changes to Virginia’s curriculum within the last two years, Department of Education policies, guidelines, websites, and other materials, and remove or end “inherently divisive concepts” and concepts or ideas related to CRT. He orders a report within 30 days.
The order also specifically names Superintendent’s Memo #050–19, a February 2019 memo from outgoing Superintendent James Lane that came in the wake of the previous administration’s two blackface scandals.
Lane’s memo said, “We encourage division superintendents to work with your faculty and school leaders to ensure that lessons are designed with racial sensitivity and cultural competence in mind. Finally, when students or staff engage in inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, we encourage your teams to take appropriate action to make it clear that racism will not be tolerated in our public schools and know that we will support your efforts.”
The memo includes a list of reading recommendations for staff, including books by Robin DiAngelo and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The list also recommends Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education.
“The emergence of Critical Race Theory (CRT) marked an important point in the history of racial politics in the legal academy and the broader conversation about race and racism in the United States. More recently, CRT has proven an important analytic tool in the field of education, offering critical perspectives on race, and the causes, consequences and manifestations of race, racism, inequity, and the dynamics of power and privilege in schooling,” Lane wrote in the memo.
Youngkin’s EO One states, “The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall review and revise or rescind Superintendent’s Memo #050-19 to remove reference to any inherently divisive concepts.”
In the order, Youngkin also orders the superintendent to end the Virginia Math Pathways Initiative. He tells the superintendent to raise standards in K-12 education in part through improved performance measures, rigorous proficiency standards, and more Governor’s schools.
Parents Rights and School Masks
Executive Order Number Two and Order of Public Health Emergency One rescinds former Governor Ralph Northam’s EO 79 and the 2021 Order of Public Health Emergency Order Ten.
After Youngkin was elected, there was some concern that Youngkin might end the state mask mandate, but allow local school officials to institute their own mandates. Youngkin’s order allows parents to opt their children out of any mask mandate without providing a reason.
“There is no greater priority than the health and welfare of Virginia’s children. Under Virginia law, parents, not the government, have the fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care of their children,” EO Two states. “At the same time that a universal masking requirement in schools has provided inconsistent health benefits, the universal requirement has also inflicted notable harm and proven to be impracticable.”
Youngkin’s order cites inconsistent health authority guidance, inconclusive mask effectiveness data, and parents’ rights as key reasons to end the mandate.
EO two states, “In light of the variety of circumstances confronted by students in the Commonwealth, parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks for the duration of the school day.”
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