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New history standards draft planned for January or February

People stand outside with signs as they protest draft history standards.
There was pushback — inside and outside of the Virginia Board of Education — Thursday over the most recent draft of the state's proposed history standards. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

After hours of discussion among themselves and with an outside contractor hired to put together the new draft, the Virginia Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday night to delay a vote on the new history standards draft.

“The spirit of my motion is that we continue to move forward. But we don't go out to the public yet,” said boardmember Andy Rotherham, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Rotherham called for the administration to go back to the drawing board to incorporate elements of an August draft — and correct all errors — before bringing a new document to the board in January for a special meeting. If the new document isn’t done by early January, it will be taken up at the board’s next regularly-scheduled meeting in February, President Dan Gecker told the board.

During board discussion before the vote, Rotherham said he was surprised not to see information about landmark LGBTQ+ court cases incorporated into the new standards document. He and other board members said they wanted to see what information had been taken out of the August draft and what had been added.

Rotherham’s motion also instructed Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow to provide the board with a separate document before the special meeting comparing the August and November 2022, and January 2023 drafts.

Public outcry over proposed standards

The vote came after hours of public comment from a diverse group of Virginians, who shared concerns about significant omissions of Indigenous, African American, Asian American and Sikh history, as well as information about the Holocaust and more.

Courtney Wynn, an enrolled citizen of the Chickahominy Tribe, shared outrage about the standards document, because it “egregiously mislabeled Native Americans as first immigrants, asserting that Native Americans emigrated from Asia,” Wynn said. “This is a harmful misrepresentation and revision that will contribute to a further erasure of the existence of not only Virginia's Indigenous peoples, but Indigenous peoples on the North American continent at large.”

Ting-yi Oei, education director of the 1882 Foundation, told the board that the August standards draft included “considerable context” about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was removed from the latest version. There’s now just a vague reference, saying that students will “explain the contributions of new immigrants and [evaluate] the challenges they faced, including anti-immigration legislation.”

Multiple members of the local Sikh community spoke about the importance of their history being included in the standards, noting that teaching students about Sikhism can reduce ignorance about their community. For example, Sikhs wear turbans to symbolize the equality of all people — as only royalty have historically worn turbans in South Asia.  

Yashnoor Kaur Sandhu, a college student at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the board that the single reference to Sikhism in the 10th grade world history and geography standard “is not enough.”

“Just as the Sikh community would like inclusion, so too would many other groups and communities that have been historically ignored and marginalized. Their experiences and stories matter and deserve to be told,” Sandhu said.

Monica Hutchinson, vice president of the Henrico County NAACP, asked the board to reject the new “revisionist, whitewashed” version and go back to the August standards. She said they were “inclusive, diverse and while not perfect, were much more accurate and complete.

“Teaching a true and inclusive history is a must,” Hutchinson said. “As a mother of three Black children … do I not matter? Do my children not matter? These new proposed standards are disrespectful and harmful to many families that look like mine.”

University of Richmond President Emeritus Ed Ayers, who helped write the August draft, urged the board to adopt the earlier version as well. He added that the American Historical Association — made up of 12,000 historians “of every political persuasion, experts in every moment of American history, in every era and region of world history” — praised the August draft as a “point of pride for the board … and the hundreds of other Virginians who contributed” to it.

"The open, inclusive process that created that document embodies the democratic participation that the standards rightly celebrated,” Ayers said.

Pushback from board members

Board president Gecker said multiple times during the meeting that he thought it would be in poor public faith to move the draft standards document forward as is.

Tammy Mann, board vice president, said the "public trust is at stake," and asked superintendent Balow to make public — not just to board members — a list of names of all of the "fresh eyes" that helped review and craft the new document.

Anne Holton followed up on Mann’s question later, and eventually Sheila Byrd Carmichael — a consultant who was paid to review and revise the August standards — named several organizations and people, though she said it was not a comprehensive list: The Core Knowledge Foundation, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the National Association of Scholars, Susan Wise Bauer, the University of Virginia, and American and Princeton universities. Carmichael has since apologized to Bauer for naming her as a contributor; Bauer told DCist she had "no substantive part of the standards review process." 

As Axios reported, the National Association of Scholars developed a civics curriculum to counter what it sees as a rise of progressive activism in schools.

Carmichael said there "weren't as many voices included in the process as I would have liked,” citing a lack of time. Her contract with VDOE, obtained by VPM News, noted $15,000 for 15 days of work and was supposed to include collaboration with the writers of the August draft standards.

She urged the board to move forward with her draft, but the public outcry — including hundreds of letters sent to board members, as well as the testimony Thursday — was enough to convince them to take a pause.

Holton said the overwhelming majority of parents that the panel heard from are "not on board with the draft you're asking us to move forward with."

But it wasn’t just the three remaining Northam appointees who voiced concern: Alan Seibert, a Youngkin appointee, said repeatedly that he liked the idea of incorporating the “best of both documents,” and Bill Hansen agreed with him. 

Seibert added that he expected the curriculum framework document to be ready for review on a similar timeline as the standards — “two trains, running on two tracks, primarily at the same rate of speed.” 

The curriculum framework – an expanded, more detailed guide that’s supposed to inform how to teach the standards – was presented along with the August standards document. But Balow’s office “decoupled” the two documents, leaving questions about what the new framework would contain.

Balow didn’t commit to having the full curriculum framework draft to the board until next August. But she said Thursday she “wants to find a better way to depict all of the great content … that lives in the frameworks … . I want to find a way to bring that front and center going forward, so that it's a little bit of a mantelpiece.”

This story has been updated to clarify Susan Wise Bauer’s role in the new standards review.