A Seat at the Table — State and Local Advisory Boards in Virginia Need Ideological Balance

Willow Woycke, president of the Transgender Education Association

by James C. Sherlock

One of the opportunities offered by investigative journalism that is denied to the average citizen is to observe appointed government advisory boards in action.

It has been enlightening, but almost always disappointing. The way the members of appointed boards are generally selected in Virginia is an artifact of a political spoils system.

Take education. Action boards such as the state Board of Education and local school boards have tended to appoint one-sided advisory panels and, unsurprisingly, get one-sided advice as a single option for public policy.

Minority ideas seldom make their way into the draft policies that advisory boards prepare. That in turn results in bad public policy. We need as a matter of some urgency to do better.

I urge the Youngkin administration to take the lead and change this tradition in state government.

I have picked education as my example because it has been the home of highly partisan panels at the state and local levels for years.

I gave the example yesterday of the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Family Life Education Curriculum Advisory Committee. If you open the link you will see first that the committee is enormous, and therefore unwieldy.

Out of that committee came the recommendation to the school board that 4th graders get mixed-gender FLE instruction.

The record that tells the tale is the minutes of the Family Life Education Curriculum Advisory Committee Meeting of October 13, 2021. Please open it.

That committee met for two hours. Six options were listed for discussion. Option 1 – no change in current policies for Human Growth and Development (HGD) – had no support among 15 voting members.

The only options under active consideration were changes from single gender to gender combined at various levels. The option selected was the most expansive change on the list.

Recommend that FCPS adopt gender combined instruction for the Human Growth and Development unit for grades 4-8.

That recommendation passed unanimously. So what did we learn?

If you pack an advisory panel with voices from one side of a cultural and educational issue they will give you what you wanted when you chose its representatives. Unanimously in the case of Fairfax County.

I watched and reported on the same process that dominated advisory panels to the State Board of Education for the past two administrations.

That is where I learned the names and resumes of the members of these panels. I grew to recognize the usual suspects, especially from the schools of education at UVa and VCU, and the “experts” that they invited to inform them. Each was more progressive than the other. Some were proudly radical.

My suggestion to Governor Youngkin’s appointees to the Board of Education and similar panels is that they resist the urge to repay in kind. Appointing one-sided advisory panels is not the way to serve the people of Virginia.

I firmly believe that both Virginia and our municipalities will make better decisions with more balanced advice.

It will if nothing else help the decision-making bodies understand the potential minefields in prospective policy. And they might, through reviewing the ideas of people not committed to their side, learn how to avoid some of the pitfalls through compromises that do not violate core beliefs.

The only way to do that is to appoint relatively balanced advisory boards and invite minority reports on key issues.

I recommend that the governor mandate that approach by executive order to his departments.

The Fairfax County School Board has no minority voices on the advisory panel described above.

So it does not have to bother itself with minority views.