Where “Equity” Means Failing Equally

Louise Lucas, Chair, Senate Education and Health Committee photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

by James A. Bacon

State Senator Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, doesn’t just take issue with the Youngkin administration’s interpretation of the data regarding the deteriorating quality of education in Virginia public schools, she finds Governor Glenn Youngkin’s position to be morally reprehensible. Here’s what she said in response to the release of his report, “Our Commitment to Virginians”:

We all know Governor Youngkin’s end goal – to erase Black history and any mention of equity from Virginia’s curricula. 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 – and I would know, having lived through it. His backwards thinking will throw Virginia’s progress in reverse, harming the next generation and hindering the Commonwealth’s future.

This incoherent jumble of leftist rhetoric is unplugged from reality. Youngkin doesn’t want to “erase Black history.” His report is not based on “fake news,” but state government data. He’s not riling up “racist constituencies” with his calls to strengthen educational standards and close the racial achievement gap. And he certainly doesn’t want to “take us back to the days of Jim Crow,” if by that is meant the re-segregation of public schools.

If Lucas were a blogger, one might dismiss her bile as coming from the lunatic fringe. But as Chair of the Senate Education & Health Committee, she is in a position to thwart Youngkin’s educational reforms. And she’s far from alone. Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, though less intemperate in her language, comes from the same place. She described Youngkin’s principles for reforming education as “dog-whistle talking points,” “tomfoolery,” and “platitudes and promises based on lies.”

In deconstructing Lucas’ rhetoric, one might wonder what “progress” she believes has taken place in Virginia schools. From the perspective of a left-wing ideologue, Virginia schools have indeed made great “progress” — in revamping teacher training, overhauling curricula, shutting down the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, and embracing the idea that the academic under-performance of Black students is the fault of a racist system designed by White people for the benefit of White people.

But if the criterion is educational outcomes — and remember, according to the leftist canon, disparity in outcomes is proof of racism —  it’s not clear what “progress” Lucas might be talking about, especially if one looks to the City of Portsmouth, her home town. Portsmouth schools, long-time laggards in educational performance, experienced a meltdown during the COVID-19 pandemic that exceeded the statewide catastrophe. Only 29% of Black students passed their math Standards of Learning exams and 53% passed their English SOLs. With such pervasive illiteracy and innumeracy, the motto of the Portsmouth school system might well be, “Building Tomorrow’s Underclass Today.”

The following charts show the SOL pass rates for reading and math in City of Portsmouth public schools since the 2015-16 school year. (Due to COVID, no tests were given in the 2019-20 school year.)

Whatever one might say about the statewide school system, it’s hard to pin charges of systemic racism on Portsmouth public schools. All nine members of the School Board are African-American. The superintendent is African-American. Six of the seven city councilpersons, including the mayor, are African-American.

It is true that Portsmouth spends somewhat less per pupil than the state average — $13,587 in fiscal year 2020-21 compared to $14,206, according to the latest Superintendent’s Annual Report for Virginia. But that is entirely due to the low local contribution approved by local elected officials — $3,756 per pupil as compared to $6,669 per pupil for all school districts. The state contributes more to Portsmouth schools than the statewide average — $6,179 per pupil compared to $4,858. Likewise, the federal government chips in $1,750 per pupil to Portsmouth compared to the $1,352 average for all Virginia jurisdictions.

A comparison of Portsmouth SOL English reading and math pass rates shows that all racial/ethnic groups have consistently under-performed state averages over the past several years. Portsmouth’s response to the COVID epidemic made matters worse. SOL pass rates collapsed harder and faster in Portsmouth than the state overall.

Percentage point decline in English reading SOL pass rates (from 2018-19 to 2020-21):

Virginia decline — 4.1 percentage points (from an 89.0% pass rate to 84.9%)
Portsmouth decline — 26.6 percentage points (from a 88.7% pass rate to 62.1%)

Virginia decline — 10.8 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 12.6 percentage points

Virginia decline — 11.5 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 24.0 percentage points

Virginia decline — 7.3 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 12.2 percentage points

Percentage point decline in math SOL pass rates (from 2018-19 to 2020-21):

Virginia decline — 15.0 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 49.0 percentage points

Virginia decline — 36.2 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 41.9 percentage points

Virginia decline — 34.6 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 42.8 percentage points

Virginia decline — 21.9 percentage points
Portsmouth decline — 38.7 percentage points

While it is true that Portsmouth students performed worse across the board, there is one silver lining. The school system did achieve “equity,” or equal outcomes, in one way — math outcomes for Asians, Blacks, Hispanics and Whites all collapsed at roughly the same rate! But this model of achieving “equity” is one that few Virginians would share.