The Empire Strikes Back

by James A. Bacon

That didn’t take long. Yesterday the Youngkin administration issued its report detailing the perilous condition of Virginia’s public schools. Today the
progressive educational establishment struck back, thoroughly rejecting the administration’s claims that educational performance is heading in the wrong direction.

The most forceful denunciations are found in The Washington Post, which not only quoted numerous critics of the report, but joined in the fray with its own “analysis” suggesting that Team Youngkin’s “use of data is misleading.”

According to the Post (quoting verbatim):

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said in a statement: “To accuse Virginia’s education system of failure is an outright lie, supported by cherry-picked data and warped perspective.”

The Virginia Education Association, a teachers union, called the report “biased” and designed to “get the public to want school choice measures like vouchers.” The association shared a video of [Secretary of Education Aimee] Guidera speaking at an April panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, in which she promised to publish data on students’ poor academic performance to “hopefully … have those conversations about expanding choices outside the public system.”

The superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, Gregory C. Hutchings Jr., said the report inspired him to navigate to the NAEP website, where he discovered that Virginia students had consistently scored above the national average. “So I’m not really understanding the whole premise of this report,” he said, which “was around us performing so much lower than everyone else.”

The Virginia Mercury (in a more balanced account than the Post) also quoted the Virginia Association of School Superintendents as accusing Youngkin of presenting an “inaccurate assessment of Virginia’s public education system currently and historically.” “Again, by most measures, Virginia ranks near the top and surpasses most states throughout the country,” the superintendents’ organization wrote in the March 10 letter. On Thursday, the VASS said it was in the process of reviewing Youngkin’s new report.

If you’re looking for serious vituperation, turn to Blue Virginia, mouthpiece for the unrestrained Democratic Party id, which found the report to be “disgusting and dishonest as usual from the Youngkin administration, which continues to wage war on public education in Virginia.”

Blue Virginia also quotes state Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth: “This misguided effort based on fake news and debunked theories is an outright attack from the far right, riling up racist constituencies with lies and deceit. This report shows once again that Governor Youngkin wants to take us back to the days of Jim Crow.”

Ah, the old back-to-Jim-Crow gambit.

Most of the criticisms consist of substance-free hyperbole: a spewing of pejorative adjectives. The few factual arguments are easily refuted. (One criticism might have some validity: the Post’s allegation that the Youngkin administration misused data to paint a picture of a wide “honesty gap” between state and federal assessments of student proficiency. But the issues are complex. I’m digging into them and will report back when I can get firm answers.) 

The report did not accuse Virginia’s public schools of “failure,” as Saslaw alleges. He accuses the Youngkin administration of lying — but he’s the one who’s spewing falsehoods. The word “failure” appears only once in the entire report, and it refers not to the public school system as a whole, but in a totally unrelated context of kindergartners at risk of reading failure.

To the contrary, the report acknowledges that Virginia’s public schools have a tradition of excellence. The concern is that educational outcomes are heading in the wrong direction. From the report:

Virginia’s public schools have been long regarded as among the best in the nation. The Commonwealth is home to schools and school divisions with national reputations for excellence. But this has been changing in recent years.

The VEA doesn’t attack the substance of the report, rather it attacks Youngkin’s motives for publishing it: Youngkin’s hidden agenda supposedly is to drum up support for vouchers. And VEA had to quote Guidera out of context even to make that claim. Here’s what she said (my bold):

Right now, our priority is going to be getting the data out there, focusing on our standards and accountability systems as a foundation, and hopefully then working together with our state board and our legislature, we can have those conversations about expanding choices outside the public system. But right now our focus is on innovation within the system and making sure people understand where we are with learning loss.

It is not exactly clear from the quote what Secretary Guidera meant by about “expanding choices outside the public system.” But Youngkin has not advocated vouchers. Rather he is pushing for a form of charter schools — “lab” schools — in partnership with higher-ed and other non-traditional K-12 institutions.

VASS notes that Virginia students score among the highest in the country in the national NAEP tests. That is true… and irrelevant. The report doesn’t suggest otherwise. Again, Youngkin’s concern is Virginia’s decline in the standings to a less lofty perch: “Our reputation and overall high average performance masks … a recent downward slide in comparison with other states on a range of academic achievement measures.”

While the VEA and VASS promise to come back with more analysis of their own, it is notable that they have yet to contest the factual claims made by the Youngkin administration of sliding educational performance. (The only possible misuse of data concerns the “honesty gap.” Even if those criticisms are well founded, those statistics represent only a small portion of the data presented in the report.)

While adamantly denying that “critical race theory” plays any role in Virginia education, the critics share the conviction that the educational under-achievement of minorities is due to systemic racism, and that the system must be restructured to eliminate any traces of racism. Youngkin contests that formulation. While making it a priority to correct racial disparities in educational outcomes, he maintains that a schema that divides the world between White oppressors and Black victims is divisive and counter-productive. Therefore, educational “progressives” — and that includes the state teachers’ union, the association of school superintendents, leading Democratic legislators, and The Washington Post — will oppose him at every step.

And if today’s reaction is any indication, they will say anything to derail him.