In September of 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order seeking to prevent government agencies, grantees and federal contractors from providing diversity, equity and inclusivity training. Trump’s so-called “equity gag order” called such professional development “divisive” and “un-American.” Trump’s targeting of these trainings spawned similar copycat orders at the state level and seeped its way into our political discourse, including Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race.
A novice political candidate with deep pockets burst onto the Virginia political scene in the spring of 2021 using the same dog whistle messaging as Trump. At first, Glenn Youngkin’s campaign focused on the closing of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and the frustration of parents over virtual learning and mask mandates. These issues thrust “parental rights” in K-12 education onto the national stage. By summer 2021, handmade signs started appearing at Youngkin rallies stating, “Teachers Do Not Indoctrinate Our Students.” In the closing months of the campaign, Youngkin singularly focused on the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusivity in schools, with the flashpoint being a ban on critical race theory, a graduate-level academic theory highlighting the roles race and racism play in our institutions.
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After his win, Youngkin’s campaign manager acknowledged, “We had to find a place to play offense on education.” That offense was creating division in the Virginia electorate over the sensitive issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity in our increasingly pluralistic society.
Virginia’s K-12 student population has grown more diverse over the past 10 to 15 years. In 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 52% of Virginia’s students were white, 24% were Black, 11% were Latinx and 6% were Asian. More than a decade later, that number has shifted dramatically. Now at 46%, whites are no longer the majority in K-12 schools. While Black students have remained steady at 22%, the Latinx and Asian student populations have increased to 18% and 7.4%, respectively. A good chunk of that demographic change has occurred in suburban school districts. Suburbia, once enclaves of white flight in the post-World War II era, are now the most racially and culturally diverse jurisdictions in the state. Due to these changes, Virginia’s suburbs have become the new political battleground, ripe for catchall soundbites that use demographic changes as political wedge issues with “us” and “them” rhetoric.
On Jan. 15 of this year, Youngkin’s first act as governor was to issue an executive order seeking to “end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory,” and to raise academic standards in public education. Around the same time, he also rolled out a tip line and asked Virginians to spy on their teachers in public schools and, as he put it, report “any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated.”
A group of lawyers, advocates and academics, of which I was a part, recently analyzed that executive order and the subsequent 30- and 90-day reports issued by the state superintendent of public instruction. The guide, “What Virginia’s Anti-Equity Executive Order 1 and Reports Mean for K-12 Schools and Students,” was published with the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA). The guide not only challenges the veracity of many of the points in the executive order and the subsequent 30- and 90-day reports, but provides a blueprint for how leaders in our public schools can combat the confusion that the Youngkin administration created among schools and educators. The guide suggests that K-12 leaders should resist attempts to inaccurately frame educational equity and inclusivity as “divisive.”
Specifically, the guide rebuts the many distortions laid out in the executive order and subsequent reports about discrimination in public schools, and how school leaders should address educational inequity. Unfortunately, Executive Order 1 seeks to propose an educational approach that undermines existing student rights or protections that are extended under federal and state anti-discrimination laws. The guide repudiates this thinking and discusses how local school divisions are not only encouraged, but required to comply with and, if necessary, enforce state and federal anti-discrimination policies under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Let’s be clear: Youngkin’s executive order does not constitute a change in any state laws, and local school divisions do not need to follow any of the directives in policy or practice. However, like Trump’s “equity gag order,” Youngkin’s executive order was never intended as a policy change or a reasonable piece of state government guidance. It and the other measures like it have one main goal — a chilling impact on school leaders, teachers, staff and advocates who want to engage in the practice and pedagogy of diversity, equity and inclusion. These “orders” are ways of censoring and sowing confusion, and the ripple effect of retribution can negatively impact students who are experiencing current and historic inequities.
Sadly, we are seeing this censorship happening in real time. This past fall, the Youngkin administration has proposed to categorically change the way Virginia students learn about history and social science by altering the drafts of the Standards of Learning in these areas. It has sought to eliminate key concepts about race and racism at multiple grade levels, and glossed over historical and contemporary racial inequities. Using the guidance in “What Virginia’s Anti-Equity Executive Order 1 and Reports Mean for K-12 Schools and Students,” public school leaders and faculty in Virginia should protect their teachers and students, and encourage accurate and truthful lessons that prepare students for the world.
Now is not a time for silence or inaction on these issues. We realize that resisting can be scary and takes energy and action at a time when our school leaders and teachers are stretched far too thin. But, within each local school division, Virginia’s school leaders must not be deterred from staying focused on ensuring every Virginia public school student is getting what they need, including equitable access to enriching learning opportunities, diverse, equitable and inclusive schools and classes, educators who provide culturally affirming and responsive practices and experiences, and resources to address physical and mental well-being of students and staff.
Tom Shields is associate dean for academic and student affairs, chair of graduate education and associate professor of education and leadership studies in the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Richmond. He can be reached at email@example.com.