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Youngkin administration sees ‘downward trendlines’ in public education

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin at a 2021 campaign event in Richmond's Southside. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Update: This story was updated May 19 at 7:22 p.m. to include additional reporting.

A new report from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office is filled with statistics that state education officials say paint a “sobering picture” about public education in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Education report was ordered by Youngkin’s first executive order.

Four out of 10 children are not ready for kindergarten; More than half of Black and Hispanic students were below the second-grade reading benchmark; and about three-quarters of Black high school students did not meet the College Board’s college-ready benchmark for math.

These are just a few of the numbers in the report that Aimee Guidera, Virginia secretary of education, said represent “startling downward trendlines and eroding parent confidence in the Commonwealth’s public schools” during a press conference in Richmond Thursday.

State officials largely blame these statistics on what they say are low education standards in Virginia. This perspective was a key part of Youngkin’s campaign messaging. A January statement from Youngkin that Virginia’s “education standards for math and reading are now the lowest in the nation” was determined to be "Half True" by a VPM News PolitiFact.

Politifact found that “Youngkin’s claim, without elaboration, wrongly suggests that Virginia students are being taught less than their colleagues across the county.”

Guidera said past state leaders “lowered expectations, and they reduced the importance of proficiency in determining school quality and accreditation. And they often did this in the name of equity. President Bush used to refer to this as the soft bigotry of low expectations. I call it plain wrong.”

The report specifically called out changes made to school accreditation in 2017 by the state board of education. Those changes allowed schools that demonstrated growth to earn accreditation. That also echoes Youngkin’s campaign rhetoric. In August 2021, he said, “we watched Terry McAuliffe, when he was governor, lower the standards in our schools so that schools that weren’t being accredited could now be accredited.” Another VPM News PolitiFact found that statement “Mostly True.”

Dan Gecker, president of the Virginia Board of Education, told VPM News that the accreditation system in place before 2017 was just based on a specific percentage of students passing state Standards of Learning, without incentivizing a focus on those students not passing.

“Once you pass that percentage, frankly, there was no incentive to get those [other] kids to school … We believed that what we ought to put in place was a system that actually provided an incentive to create growth in every student in the system and reward that growth,” Gecker said.

Gecker says the theory of the old accreditation system – which he thinks was a good theory – “was that if we measure where we are, and we see where we're failing, the politicians will drive resources to those areas…and help fix the problem.

“But as we've seen over the years, although we have identified where we are falling behind, we have not really driven resources to help alleviate those issues. And so you sort of have a system that basically says, ‘all you folks [students, teachers, school leaders] aren't doing what you need to do. But hey, we're not going to help you get out of it.’ It’s not a system that accomplishes the goal.”

Rachael Deane, director of legal and state policy support for the Education Law Center, is concerned about the heightened focus on raising standardized test scores, especially without fully funding resources – outlined in Virginia’s Standards of Quality – that the state board of education has said are necessary to ensure the high-quality education of every child.

“What we should really be ashamed about as a state is our national ranking in terms of school funding, and the state resources we put into the public education system,” Deane said.

She points to the most recent Making the Grade report that found that not only did Virginia receive a D for education funding level last year, but also funding effort.

“Meaning: Virginia is a wealthy state, we have a large GDP and the percentage of the GDP that we're spending on public education is lower than that of other states, even now that we have a surplus,” Deane said. “So I think if we're worried about national rankings, we need to be looking at the whole picture and looking at the overall investments we're making in public education as well.”

Virginia lawmakers still haven’t approved a state budget for the next two years.

In a statement, Virginia Education Association president James Fedderman said the report “does little to advance its stated goal, but goes to great lengths to disrespect and belittle the amazing work Virginia educators have done, and continue to do, under incredibly difficult circumstances” and “only serves to further the Governor’s political agenda while failing to address any of the real needs in the Commonwealth’s classrooms.”

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a VCU professor who studies school segregation, also worries that increased attention to schools with low test scores – devoid of context – will fuel segregation.

“The test scores fuel a rating, a really simplistic rating that often gets posted on the real estate websites. And some researchers have called this educational redlining because it creates whole swaths and school zones and communities that families with means avoid because of the low test scores associated with the school without any kind of context,” Siegel-Hawley said.

Studies of high-stakes standardized testing have consistently shown that it worsens both racial and income-based school segregation.

“Segregation operates on the basis of stigma. You make something separate and then unequal, and then it becomes a reinforcing cycle of segregation,” Siegel-Hawley said.

When asked by VPM News how the state plans to ensure its recommendations don’t exacerbate existing racial segregation in Virginia public schools, Youngkin said, “I don’t agree with your initial premise. I think what we have, of course, are schools that have consistently underperformed, that in fact, have not been supported in a way to address the underperformance. Throwing money at a problem does not solve a problem.”

Youngkin said he wants to incentivize and reward “the best teachers to go to the schools that need them the most.”

Rosa Atkins, VDOE’s acting Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer, said Thursday: “Equity is giving the learners who need the most help access to the best teachers and rewarding that great teaching.”

Siegel-Hawley also sees parallels between this new report from the Youngkin administration and a 1983 report called “A Nation at Risk” that she says sounded a panicked alarm about a crisis of student achievement. She, and other critics, say that report was largely manufactured and divorced from context like intergenerational racial discrimination and income inequality.

“It [Youngkin’s proposal] looks and sounds like a robust recommitment to what has often been a really punitive educational accountability regime. And one that's defined education policy at the national level and across our states for decades,” Siegel-Hawley said.