Qarni’s Agenda for Virginia Schools

Atif Qarni. Photo credit: Free Lance-Star

Governor Ralph Northam may have run as a political moderate, but his Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, embraces the proposition that America is profoundly racist and supports policies that would transform Virginia’s educational system accordingly.

Speaking at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County yesterday, Qarni called for schools to move away from standardized testing and focus on deeper learning. He wants to expand access to preschool in the Commonwealth. He wants to pay teachers more. He wants to hire more resource officers, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. And he wants to pay experienced teachers as much as 15% to 20% as incentive to teach in “high needs” schools.

Who would pay for all this? Virginia has concentrations of great affluence as well as great need, he said. State government should play a role in helping to ensure students all across the state have equal access to quality education, he added, as reported by the Free Lance-Star“It’s very, very critical to look through an equity lens.”

Underlying these sentiments is a view that America is systemically racist. Here’s what Qarni, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan with his family at the age of 10, wrote last month in Blue Virginia:

We have a long way to go to address systemic racism, Islamophobia, and other forms of biases and hate that exist here at home. The root cause of this is power inequality. People in power have the ability to shape policies that impact certain communities of color or marginalized groups from seeking power. …

For 8 years, our country had a black President—arguably in the most powerful position in the world. The image of a black man representing the face of America was a threat to the very power structure that kept people who looked like him from reaching such a height.

Today, black and brown people are mobilizing and reclaiming the power that was stolen from them or systematically denied to them. Every group deserves to have a voice and fair representation in society—that’s what Democratic societies believe but what we practice doesn’t reflect this belief. This idea of shared power is most radical ONLY because it threatens the status quo. During transitions of power, someone is always losing while the other is gaining. There will always be individuals or groups opposed to that level of inclusion, but we must continue to struggle until the status quo is a fair representation of our society.

Qarni was an 8th grade civics teacher in Prince William County before Northam selected him as education secretary. He had gained prominence in Democratic Party circles when he ran run unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 2013 and the Virginia Senate in 2015.  Speaking yesterday, he said his work as a middle-school teacher prepared him for a role in government. “If you can teach eighth grade, you can essentially do anything,” he quipped. 

He called Virginia’s standardized testing model “toxic.” “In some situations, standardized testing is necessary, but we need a better way to understand what kids are learning,” he said. “End-of-year assessments have handcuffed us to some degree.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Qarni formula for Virginia schools in summary: (1) Increase inputs (more money for teachers, staff and school systems); (2) modify, in ways not made clear, the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests that measure outputs and hold schools accountable; and (3) redistribute the wealth, in ways not made clear, to pay for it all.