More Money for Schools, More Parent Protections. Where Are the Higher Expectations?

by James A. Bacon

The Youngkin administration has been relatively quiet on the subject of K-12 education since May when it released a blistering report on the perilous condition of Virginia’s public schools. Then Friday, a week before the scheduled release of the latest Standards of Learning test scores, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera provided an update on the administration’s view of things with an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Guidera reiterated that the performance of Virginia’s public school system is unacceptable: “A culture of high expectations for every one of our students would not tolerate the fact that 42 percent of our second-graders are not on track to read independently, that our reading scores on our Standards of Learning statewide tests have declined every year since 2017, and that only 33 percent of our eighth-graders are proficient in reading.”

Then, answering critics who respond that Virginia has one of the better public school systems in the country, she wrote, “Our reputation and overall high-average performance mask widening achievement gaps among student demographic groups and a recent slip in comparison with other states on a range of academic achievement measures.”

It will be interesting to find out if Guidera’s concern about widening achievement gaps is reflected in the soon-to-be-released SOL scores from the 2021-22 school year. After the disastrous performance the previous year, educators had hoped that students would catch up. But abundant evidence suggests that some districts continue to struggle.

Regarding the administration’s strategy for getting schools back on track, Guidera made two main points. First, the commonwealth’s new budget will pump millions of additional dollars into Virginia’s public schools. And second, the Governor has made good on his promise to buttress parental rights. She didn’t have much to say about the higher expectations.

Building on the budget submitted by his predecessor, Governor Ralph Northam, Youngkin boasts of “historic investments” in K-12 education, including a 10% two-year pay increase and a $1,000 bonus for every teacher; fully funding the Virginia Literacy Act to improve reading; $1.25 billion through grants and loans for school safety and new construction; and $100 million to launch “innovation lab” schools in collaboration with higher-ed institutions. Furthermore, Guidera notes, the Governor protected the state’s tax-credit scholarship program for private schools from being cut by half.

On the parental rights front, Youngkin reaffirmed the right of parents to make their own decisions about their children’s mask-wearing in schools, and “continues to be responsive to parent concerns” regarding “inherently divisive concepts” and the use of sexually explicit materials in schools.

In news broken since the op-ed was published, Superintendent of Public Education Jillian Balow has recommended that the Virginia Board of Education delay discussing proposed new history and social science standards on the grounds that they contain “serious errors and omissions.” The re-write initiated by the Northam administration put greater attention on racism and equity issues. Among the more visible changes, the proposed standards would remove references to George Washington as the “Father of our Country” and James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Guidera’s observations are fine as far as they go. Public policy is taking a big step forward by simply halting the implementation of Northam-era policies that were actively estranging parents and running schools into the ground. Plus, showering hundreds of millions of additional dollars upon the public schools may help on the margins. Sadly, schools do need more safety officers, teachers do need pay raises, and students could benefit from more reading specialists. But old school buildings are not the problem. And innovation labs, while potentially useful, won’t do anything to reverse the meltdown of existing schools. 

The Youngkin administration has a lot more work to do, and I haven’t seen much evidence that it is tackling root causes. That’s not to say important work isn’t occurring behind the scenes, but it’s just not evident from the administration’s public pronouncements.

The most obvious challenge is the teacher resignation crisis. The Governor has framed this as primarily a fiscal issue that can be addressed with pay raises, bonuses, and extra dollars for recruitment. I have not seen him acknowledge that the teacher exodus is also driven by widespread dissatisfaction with working conditions. Increasingly, teachers are demoralized by parental disrespect, student apathy and defiance, disruptive classrooms, fear of physical violence, a sense that administrators don’t “have their back,” and bureaucratic compulsion to address problems by inundating them with paperwork. There are no easy fixes to these problems. They are deeply rooted in official policies (social-emotional learning, culturally relevant learning) and unofficial policies (social promotion of children who fall further behind and become increasingly alienated each year).

Perhaps it has taken time for Superintendent Balow, who comes to Virginia from Wyoming, to discover just how deep the rot runs. Perhaps Team Youngkin is fine-tuning yet-to-be-unveiled plans for raising expectations. One can always hope.

Update: Regarding the teacher resignation crisis, the Youngkin administration is working to make it easier for “career switchers” to become teachers before completing their licensure requirements, reports WTKR. Says a VDOE spokesman: “If someone wants to be a teacher and has the qualifications and has the drive and wants to be part of this great profession, we want to open doors for people like that.”