Youngkin leveraged public education to beat the Democrats once. Will they let it start again?
Sometimes in public policy debates, it’s worth slowing down, thinking for a minute, and asking if the other guy might be right.
When Governor Glenn Youngkin released his report earlier this month that the status quo in Virginia’s public education has not held up against achievement rankings in other states and that new approaches to schooling are justified, the Legislative Democrats emphatically rejected it.
His findings, they insisted before the report’s ink dried, are just another way for the Republican governor to push forward alternatives to the state’s inherited public education system, like charter schools. .
Is the report a political document? Well it’s not not a political act. His team designed it to position the Governor’s program in its best light. He does this in part by tacitly noting the decline in student performance measures during the terms of two Democratic governors. This is how political communications work.
But that doesn’t completely invalidate it either. The 34 page report draws on data from respected national sources, particularly the past five years since the State Board of Education reduced the importance of math and reading skills to allow more schools to meet the requirements of accreditation.
The report compares Commonwealth Learning Standards test results with benchmarks from the National Education Progress Assessment, which prepares the ‘National Report Card’.
The governor’s report features sobering findings that, distilled into their essence, show that Virginia is slipping from the upper echelons of states with the most accomplished and valued public schools, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at the local school assessments.
For example, three-quarters of fourth-grade students in the state were found to be proficient in reading on the state’s 2019 SOL tests, but only 38% showed they were reading at the fourth-grade level in the state. NAEP survey, according to Youngkin’s report. . The document refers to the 37 percentage point difference between state and national numbers for fourth-grade literacy as the “Honesty Gap,” a dig that involves deception and certainly does nothing to win over Democrats.
There are some disconcerting findings in the report that convincingly stand up to protestations of partisan authorship.
In 2015, for example, Virginia ranked third nationally in the percentage of high school graduates whose Advanced College Placement Test, or AP, scores qualified them for college credit. Last year, Virginia had dropped to ninth place.
He notes that parents in Virginia are venting their frustrations with public schools by transferring their children to private schools or homeschooling them. The pandemic-scarred 2020-21 academic year has been particularly bad.
The number of home-schooled students in Virginia was 59,638 in the first full year of the pandemic, up from 38,282 in the 2019-20 school year, an increase of 55.7%. For the school year now ending, with students mostly back in class, the number of home-schooled students has only decreased by 6%.
Across cultural boundaries, homeschooling has exploded since the hit of COVID-19
Another 3,748 public school students transferred to private schools in the state for the 2020-21 year, according to the report.
The report says the learning loss among children who remained in public schools and took distance education for much of the past two years was significant for Virginia students, especially children of color. In a study of results in mathematics and English out of 11 states for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Virginia had the steepest declines of any state surveyed — 34.1 percentage points in math and 10.1 percentage points in language.
For African-American students, the report notes, the toll of the pandemic and online classes has been harsh. Forty-five percent of third-grade black students passed their SOL reading assessment for 2021, up from 61% in 2017. For third-grade Hispanic students, that figure has risen from 66% five years ago to 43% Last year.
The state’s teacher advocacy organization, the Virginia Education Association, understandably took umbrage. He accused the administration of misleading data and demeaning teachers. A VEA spokesperson said Friday that the organization expects to have a more detailed response ready later this week.
Last week, Senate Democrats published a rebuttal it convincingly repudiates the suggestion that they sat idly by for years while in full control of both the General Assembly and the governor’s office. There is an exhaustive menu of public education laws written by Democrats, proposed and signed into law in recent years.
Initially, Democrats called the report an “outright lie,” a “joke,” “nonsense,” and “conversational whistles.” A ad hominem Senator Louise Lucas’s harangue accused Youngkin of trying to revive Jim Crow and dismissed her report as an “outright attack from the far right, riling up racist constituencies with lies and deceit”.
That’s a lot to unpack, and it goes back to last year’s election.
Youngkin’s use of public education as a problem was arguably his decisive tactical move to defeat former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. Of course, he used education as a kind of Trojan horse stuffed with conservative culture wars grievances dear to his base. In his campaign, Youngkin thundered against the alleged (and widely disputed) indoctrination of students in “critical race theory,“Mandatory masking of students in classrooms and reading assignments for books that address issues of race and sexuality, saying parents should have a veto over these issues. That resonated with some suburban voters in northern Virginia and the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas who had secured years of primacy for Democrats in statewide politics.
When Youngkin troubled McAuliffe during the campaign’s televised final debate to the point where the former governor blurted out that parents should have no say in determining what their students learn was a turning point for some affluent, educated suburban moms and dads who select their neighborhoods based on school district rankings. McAuliffe still won populated suburbs, but his margins were insufficient to withstand record turnouts in rural locales voting for the GOP.
Then, as now, Democrats lifted the bloody shirt of bigotry and redoubled their efforts to equate Youngkin with former President Donald Trump whose toxicity in Virginia poisoned a Republican candidate across the board. state after state from 2016 to 2020. It didn’t work last November. Absent details to challenge the governor’s data and the report’s findings, it won’t work now.
That’s not to say Democrats should buy into the governor’s education agenda for the next 3½ years. On the contrary, they have a duty to check and challenge its educational goals and affirm better ideas if they have any. Youngkin’s charter school proposals have already been defeated by a Senate that Democrats will lead until at least next year. But it’s also deaf of Democrats to fail to acknowledge that the state’s once-sterling public schools have racked up far more rust than Virginians would willingly tolerate and to summarily dismiss viable analyzes from credible national sources.
Youngkin has already cloaked himself in the mantle of public education to his advantage and the Democrats’ detriment once. His deft political weaponization has been elevated by the GOP nationally as a “best practice” for midterm congressional and gubernatorial races in many states.
It will take more than denial, outrage and invective to checkmate an apprentice politician who is far wiser than his detractors are willing to admit.