RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- The State Board of Education is meeting for the first time on Wednesday morning since Governor Glenn Youngkin chose new members.
The panel is expected to address how history should be taught and how new public school alternatives should be funded.
Youngkin’s five appointees now outnumber four members chosen by past Democratic governors.
Rich Meagher, a political analyst, said Youngkin gained a majority faster than expected after House Republicans blocked some of former Governor Ralph Northam’s picks earlier this year in the General Assembly. The move was considered retribution after Senate Democrats refused to confirm Youngkin’s controversial cabinet pick, Andrew Wheeler.
That could have consequences, according to Meagher.
“Youngkin made education the centerpiece of his campaign. He wanted to get a bunch of new bills passed in the General Assembly and he didn’t. So some people worry that he might use these appointees, a couple of them very strongly political and ideological, to get policy making done through other means,” Meagher said.
During their meeting on Wednesday, the board is expected to review extensive revisions to Virginia’s history standards.
Former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, who served under Northam, said the effort has been underway for more than two years, including extensive feedback from historians and thousands of public comments.
Qarni said hundreds of pages of changes focus more on big picture themes, rather than chronology. He said the edits tell more complete stories, especially when it comes to the challenges and contributions of historically oppressed groups.
“We’re teaching a whole 360 prescriptive of what real American history is,” Qarni said in an interview on Tuesday. “My fear is they will just water everything down and undo all of the work.”
That fear follows a failed legislative effort from Youngkin to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools.
Qarni said the revisions don’t address critical race theory. However, he is concerned that the changes will be taken out of context and politicized.
“Anytime you talk about uplifting untold stories of marginalized groups, they are going to twist it,” Qarni said.
None of Youngkin’s appointees agreed to an interview on Wednesday and the administration didn’t make anyone available to answer questions.
Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for State Superintendent Jillian Balow, wouldn’t comment on Qarni’s concerns directly but he said she is planning to request a pause in the regulatory process.
“The superintendent believes, given all the problems with the current draft that have been identified, rather than continuing with the current schedule, it makes more sense to pause the process to allow for a thorough, thoughtful review of the draft,” Pyle said during a phone call on Tuesday.
Pyle said those issues range from spelling mistakes to significant omissions, like 9/11 not being included in high school history standards.
The board will also play a key role in the how funding for planning and kick starting new lab schools will be distributed. Using $100 million approved by state lawmakers, certain institutions of higher education will be able to partner with local school divisions to set up innovative programs.
It comes after a Youngkin-backed bill that sought to give the Board of Education the power to approve new charter schools failed in the General Assembly.
“It doesn’t seem like there is a way that the state board could unilaterally change charter schools without going through the General Assembly but we don’t really know for sure how much the state board could explore their power,” Meagher said.
The board does have the power to change standards of quality that impact recommended staffing ratios for positions like school counselors and reading specialists.
Youngkin’s majority may also have an opportunity to alter accreditation standards for schools.
Youngkin promised to “restore excellence in education” after accusing the old board of lowering standards. Opponents argued he cherry-picked data to fit a false narrative.
Meagher said, if the board does take these steps, they won’t happen overnight.
“I think we’re going to hear a lot from this board, much more than we used to. Whether that actually translates to dramatic changes for people’s schools, their classrooms, their kids, I think that’s a long way out,” Meagher said.
Governor Youngkin sent the following statement ahead of Wednesday’s meeting:
“I have asked the State Board of Education to bring their expertise as parents, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers to ensure our classrooms and our campuses prepare students for success in life. This includes providing equal access to educational opportunities regardless of background or zip code, protecting and promoting free speech, restoring the ability to have civil discourse, keeping tuition affordable, and ensuring that all Virginians have access to in-demand career pathways. Together, we will make Virginia the best place to learn across a lifetime.”Governor Glenn Youngkin