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Youngkin’s superintendent says Black history won’t be censored

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, at a podium
Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow discusses a Department of Education report in May. Balow said on Wednesday that a review of state history education standards won't lead to the erasure of Black history. (File photo: Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said Wednesday that she will not use an update to the state’s history standards to dilute the teaching of Black history, addressing concerns over Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s attempt to ban “divisive content” from classrooms.

She said a delay in reviewing the standards is not connected to Youngkin’s campaign pledge to ban the teaching of critical race theory, a graduate-level framework focused on including systemic racism in discussions of history.

“We don't want to conflate concepts like African American History and CRT,” Balow told reporters on Wednesday. “Those are different conversations entirely.”

She added: “We have not had discussions about watering down or eliminating any of the African American history.”

The State Board of Education delayed beginning its formal review of new history and social science standards for K-12 students on Wednesday. The board has five new members, all appointed by Youngkin; some said they needed more time to familiarize themselves with the standards. 

Balow also told her staff at the Department of Education, who have spent more than 18 months gathering input and preparing the standards, it needed to correct what she said were mistakes and omissions in the document. 

The standards are used by schools as baseline criteria for curricula and to prepare students for state standardized tests. They are updated at least every seven years. The latest batch will begin appearing in classrooms during the 2023-2024 school year and will become the new standards the following year.

In an appearance at the meeting, Youngkin told board members he wanted to teach “all of history — the good and the bad.” 

Youngkin got some of his loudest applause during his campaign when he pledged to ban critical race theory, accusing public schools of trying to “indoctrinate our kids.” But CRT does not appear in Virginia school curricula, and critics said Youngkin used it as a racially charged dog whistle.

On his first day in office, Youngkin signed an executive order seeking to ban “divisive content” from the classroom and in March, his administration rescinded several initiatives related to equity in K-12 education. Against that backdrop, some members of the board appointed by Democrats and public commenters were skeptical of the explanation for the delay.

Mary Anne Burke, who described herself as a Virginia parent during the open comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, connected the delay to Youngkin’s executive order.

“We maintain that all evidence-based history is not divisive if it is true,” Burke said. 

Board president Daniel Gecker, who was appointed by Democratic governors, said new board members have plenty of time to suggest changes to the document before a final vote, which Balow said will now happen in January.

“There has been a push to move toward a resolution of this in 2022, long before this became what appeared to be a political issue for unknown reasons to me,” Gecker said.

Atif Qarni, secretary of education under former Gov. Ralph Northam, said in a tweet on Thursday that “Youngkin wants to suppress black and brown voices.”

The latest draft standards include an increased emphasis on historically marginalized groups, though the document is subject to change prior to the board’s final vote.