Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin asked me to serve on the Virginia Board of Education, and I accepted the honor. Public service and trying to leave things better than you found them is why I do this work. I think the governor and his team, which includes seasoned and proven education professionals like Aimee Guidera, Jillian Balow, and McKenzie Snow, can improve outcomes for students in our commonwealth — as ample evidence indicates we urgently need to do.
I’m grateful for the governor’s confidence in me to help lead positive policy changes, particularly around accountability and transparency. Our commonwealth is blessed with hardworking educators, caring parents, and enthusiastic students. At the same time, we allow substantial gaps in achievement between various groups of students and overall performance that is not what Virginians expect, or what students, parents, and educators deserve.
My decision might seem surprising. I’ve previously worked for or been appointed by Democratic elected officials in a few capacities, including previous service on Virginia’s Board of Education. My values are deep, but reflexive partisan politics is not one of them. In this line of work, you can do partisan politics or you can do reform, improvement, and policy, but you can’t do both if your goal is helping young people have lives filled with choice, opportunity, and dignity. Substantively, to the extent we’ve created Democratic and Republican approaches to education, it has not rebounded to the advantage of kids.
I also come from an understanding of America as a place where you listen to various perspectives, agree to disagree on some things, and work together on others — that’s the only way to have progress in a pluralistic society. The imperative to do that seems more important now than ever. And given the catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic for a lot of kids, the better question, it seems to me, is why isn’t everyone figuring out how to better work together at the local, state, and national levels to address these problems? I’m not naive about politics and partisanship; I just think we can, and must, do better. Things like the literacy bill that Virginia’s legislature recently passed show what’s possible and what we can aspire to.
Parents don’t care about Democrat or Republican — they want us to pick the side of what matters for their kids. In a poll this month, 82% of parents said they’d cross party lines to vote for a candidate who was aligned with them on education. Virginia parents did that in 2021. My view about what state boards of education should do and the side they should be on in all this is not a secret.
The Honesty Gap report the governor released in May was an important moment for Virginia. People are quibbling about how NAEP proficiency relates to grade level and other issues that miss the forest for the trees and ignore the main thrust of the report: Virginia has devastating achievement gaps and is preparing too few students for lives of opportunity, with little transparency about those issues. These gaps in perception and achievement are not just on the NAEP. They show up on Virginia’s tests, various measures of college and career readiness, diplomas, and other outcome measures. We’re not being transparent with Virginians, and especially with parents, about this.
Whatever your politics, if you care about a more inclusive and equitable Virginia, the status quo is unacceptable. Virginia can, and must, do better, and we have an opportunity to come together to do that. And it’s essential to note that achievement and transparency were issues before the pandemic and that this disproportionately affects students from traditionally underserved backgrounds — low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, and students with special needs. Addressing this is a project we should all be invested in. So, from where I sit, when a governor says he wants to set a national standard for transparency for students and families, and thoughtful accountability for results, the only answer is, “Great — how can I help?”
I frequently point out the complexity and nuance in many education questions today and reject the partisanship and ideology that increasingly pervades the education sector. If the governor of my state asks me to serve on this issue and I choose not to because I don’t agree with him on some other issues or because it will upset some people, that’s inauthentic. Governor Youngkin deserves a lot of credit for trying to bring people together on this issue.
When I asked my daughters, who are 16 and public school students in Virginia, if they thought I should take this role, they didn’t hesitate to say, “If you can help, then of course.” (They did tell me, though, that if I become party to any effort to ban cellphones in schools, they’d move out.)
Finally, across the board, Virginia voters made clear they want change in education. Across the commonwealth, enrollment is down about 4%, substantially more in some places. Parents are giving grace, given the challenges of the pandemic, but their patience is not limitless. The pandemic’s effect on learning is catastrophic. Teachers, too, are frustrated. Mid-year departures jumped this school year. We should respond to the understandable wishes of voters that schools become more accountable, transparent, and responsive, or else we can’t expect Virginia parents to support them with their tax dollars and, more important, their children.
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln said, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
The same is true of our public schools. In other words, we hear a lot of rhetoric about vouchers or undermining public schools. It’s mostly backward. If we can’t come together, especially now, to address these challenges, then why should we expect parents to have any confidence?
I benefited from Virginia’s public schools and universities from grade school through graduate school. My daughters have benefited as well. It’s an honor to be able to give back, and I look forward to doing my part, getting to work, and serving with my colleagues on the board.