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A recent survey by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University identified education as the dominant issue in the minds of Virginians.
When Governor Glenn Youngkin begins his term of office, several controversial educational issues will be brought up for debate by the General Assembly.
Recovering from the Pandemic – The educational fallout from the pandemic remains an agonizing reality. The learning gaps and ongoing physical and mental health problems caused by the pandemic require sensible solutions that are not politically motivated.
The proper role of government here should be to support school departments with sound professional guidance on good research-based health and education practices. State education authorities must also ensure that state and federal pandemic funds are spent on schools in a manner consistent with sound teaching and public health practices.
Critical race theory – Critical race theory was a major controversy during the gubernatorial campaign. Youngkin has signed an executive order banning critical race theory in Virginia public schools. However, he wasn’t particularly specific about what he means by this hot-button label.
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Any critical race theory prohibition must include a specific definition of what exactly is prohibited so that educators can understand the rules. Otherwise, they will be subject to random personal and professional attacks for simply trying in good faith to teach the full breadth of our country’s complicated history.
Justice – Legitimate educational justice needs to be a reality in Virginia, rather than a topic of deadbeat talk. In this political environment, the concept of educational equity has been cynically distorted to mean lower standards and artificial quotas.
True equity in education is not about lowering standards or imposing quotas. Rather, it is about giving students the tools they need to succeed through their own perseverance and hard work.
Educational equity means that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have fairly similar educational and enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. In practice, this would include expanded pre-K programs, greater after-school and summer learning opportunities, additional tutoring services, and broader access to arts, field trips, shadowing, and internship experiences.
True equity in education would improve Virginia’s attractiveness for economic development and also help reduce poverty, reduce crime and improve our quality of life.
Higher Standards – Youngkin has spoken a lot about higher standards. But what does that mean? It certainly means more than raising average scores on standardized tests or maintaining gifted programs, advanced internship courses, and advanced diplomas.
Government education leaders must work with educators, business leaders, and other experts to define what higher standards look like for all students, not just those who are most academically inclined.
Higher standards must reflect a strong emphasis on applying knowledge and skills to complex problem-solving situations. The challenges our young people will face in the future will not be met by the skills required to pass a multiple choice test.
Educator Recruitment and Retention – Educators are leaving the profession in droves. Unfortunately, politicians think compensation is the main cause. While compensation is undoubtedly a significant factor, it is not the only factor.
Educators are tired of having little or no say in the decisions that affect their work. They are tired of being scapegoats for the increasing societal ills affecting schools. They are tired of unproductive paperwork and not enough time to get their work done. They are tired of being treated like assembly line workers and reducing their students to faceless data points.
For a change, governance needs to listen to educators about what drives them, and use that information to implement effective long-term recruitment and retention strategies.
Choice – Youngkin has continually advocated for more school choice through more charter schools. Hopefully this means an actual choice for families versus a taxpayer-subsidized choice for charter schools to select the students they want and exclude the students they’d rather leave for regular public schools.
Youngkin must advocate for accessible school choices. This would mean that publicly funded charter schools must have fully open or blind lottery-based accreditation to serve non-English speaking students and students with special needs, offer free transportation, and meet the same standards of due process and accountability as regular public schools.
Stakeholder Engagement – State leaders should resist the urge to pursue top-down “we know best in Richmond” solutions and actively engage diverse stakeholders from students, educators, families and communities to find real answers to our educational challenges to develop.
(Morgan is a retired educator who worked in public school districts in Virginia and South Carolina for 43 years, including 16 years as a superintendent.)
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