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School superintendents chide Youngkin administration's audit of 'divisiveness' in schools

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Clarification: A letter from a group representing the state's school superintendents that criticized efforts by Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration to target "divisive concepts" and equity initiatives was crafted by the group's board and does not necessarily reflect a consensus of the 133 superintendents, according to its executive director.

School superintendents across Virginia on Thursday criticized recent efforts by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration to target “divisive concepts” and equity initiatives in the state’s schools, saying the administration’s work could “set public education in Virginia back many years.”

In a blunt letter representing the views of state superintendents, the school leaders challenged a recent report by Youngkin education officials that criticized ongoing efforts to address racial and socioeconomic disparities in education as “discriminatory,” and that sought to downplay the role of systemic racism in fostering those disparities.

They also protested not being consulted before the administration moved to remove nearly every diversity and equity-focused resource on the education department’s website.

“Division superintendents disagree with your assumption that discriminatory and divisive concepts have become widespread in Virginia school divisions without your having involved educators in formulating that position or without having provided evidence to support that position,” reads the letter, which the Virginia Association of School Superintendents sent Thursday morning to state Superintendent Jillian Balow.

(The letter says it was written "on behalf of the 133 public school division superintendents," but the group's executive director later said the group's board crafted it and that the letter does not necessarily reflect a consensus of the 133 superintendents.)

Balow said in a statement: “The letter fails to reflect the good faith efforts of which the Secretary and I joined the conversation,” a reference to Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera. “The specific requests listed in the letter are actions that the Secretary and I offered to the superintendents as a way to keep open productive channels of communication that could lead to partnership and ensure we are serving all students in Virginia.”

The letter illustrates a rift between the state’s school division leaders and the new Youngkin administration. Superintendents said they were not consulted or offered an early look before the state released the report or scrapped the resources. Moving forward, they asked for “mutual respect” from the administration.

The letter comes two weeks after the Youngkin administration published an interim report on signs of “inherently divisive concepts” and “Critical Race Theory” in the state’s initiatives and resources. Youngkin, who campaigned heavily on reforming the way schools teach students about race, directed the audit in the first executive order he signed on Jan. 15, the day he was inaugurated.

The memo describes affirmative action policies in schools as discriminatory, suggests that historic discrimination in education might not be to blame for disparate outcomes among students of color, and rejects the idea that white people may unwittingly benefit from systemic racism and discrimination.

The report made the case that schools have unduly emphasized “equitable outcomes” over “equal opportunity.”

The memo defended the scrapping of “EdEquityVA,” a state initiative that promoted equity and diversity through resources for school districts. That included an entire website dedicated to increasing cultural competency among Virginia teachers, and a “suggested readings” list that includes historian and MacArthur Fellow Ibram X. Kendi.

In the Thursday letter, school leaders said the work that Youngkin officials scrapped involved “many quality educators over a number of years” and was meant to “provide support for the success of children in underserved communities and in select population groups.”

The school leaders also took issue with the emphasis on “equal opportunity” over “equitable outcomes.” They said focusing on “equal opportunities” without considering the factors that could impact student achievement among students of color or those in low-income families could “set public education in Virginia back many years.”

“Division superintendents disagree with your using ‘equitable outcomes’ as the basis for determining what divisive concepts are and unilaterally suggesting that this approach is discriminatory,” the letter reads.

“Quality education in Virginia has to be more than providing opportunities and hoping for the best. Virginia’s accountability system relies heavily on student outcomes, not opportunities.”

The superintendents also said, “A tip line for parents to report divisive content to the Governor impedes positive relationships; therefore, the tip line needs to be terminated.”

Ben Kiser, the executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said the association’s members are hoping for a constructive relationship with the administration, but are generally dissatisfied with how the administration has derided Virginia schools.

Youngkin rode into office on promises to “restore excellence” to education in Virginia.

“We take issue with that perspective and generalization,” said Kiser, arguing that Virginia schools generally enjoy high rankings among other states. U.S. News and World Report, for example, ranks Virginia as 10th in the nation, a ranking based on standardized test scores, graduation rates and preschool enrollment.

Kiser said he spoke to Balow on Thursday about the letter, and that she seemed receptive.

“I suggested that we use this point in time as a reset and start working collaboratively,” Kiser said.

In six weeks, Balow is scheduled to release a final report on “divisive concepts,” per Youngkin’s executive order. In the letter, the school leaders urged Balow to quickly establish a work group including a diverse group of superintendents from across the state, including superintendents of color.

They said the agenda for the work group “must include clarity on the administration’s understanding of equity, opportunity, and access.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

Staff writer Michael Martz contributed to this report.

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