Virginia education board punts new history standards after harsh criticism

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After hours of public comment over proposed changes to state history standards on Thursday, the Virginia Board of Education decided not to move forward with a new draft that drew harsh criticism.

The state board didn’t advance revisions released by Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration last week or a different draft crafted under former Governor Ralph Northam’s administration that was considered in August.

Instead, the board directed Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow to draft standards that incorporate elements of both documents ahead of a special meeting planned for January.

“Does the word ‘punt’ mean anything to anybody?” Board of Education President Daniel Gecker said after the unanimous vote Thursday.

During more than three hours of public comment on Thursday morning, only one person spoke in support of the changes proposed by the Youngkin administration. Dozens of speakers said the process lacked transparency and disregarded extensive public comment that preceded the old draft.

Several speakers expressed outrage over kindergarten standards that described Indigenous people as America’s first “immigrants” from Asia.

“This is our home. We are not immigrants,” said Aaron Winston, a board member for the Virginia Tribal Education Consortium. “No one is trying to say the English didn’t come from England or the Chinese didn’t come from China. Why are you telling us that now we come from somewhere else?”

Superintendent Balow later apologized in an interview.

“It was wrong to label them as immigrants in the standards document and we will make sure that is corrected,” Balow said.

Others accused the Youngkin administration of presenting a politically biased and narrow version of history. Speakers said the revisions diluted lessons on racism and the lingering effects of discrimination.

“The erasure of Black Americans in these new proposed changes is disrespectful and harmful. Teaching history in a truthful way does not make our children victims, but shows them how far we have come and also how far we have to go,” said Monica Hutchinson with Henrico’s NAACP chapter.

Megan Ferenczy, director of education for the Virginia Holocaust Museum, said the draft standards didn’t adequately address antisemitism and left out important critical thinking exercises.

“How can we learn from the event and the complexities of the Holocaust when the standards are vague, incomplete and severely lacking,” Ferenczy said.

Several speakers raised concerns about the under-representation of Asian Americans and their contributions to history. Zowee Aquino with the Hamkae Center teared up while describing the absence of stories like her Filipino American grandfather’s, who recently passed away.

“The superintendent does not think that people like this are important enough to be core standards in our state,” Aquino said. “Honestly, if you approve this document, he has died twice to me.”

The American Historical Association sent a letter to the Board of Education echoing concerns and endorsing the old draft crafted under the Northam administration, which was created using input from hundreds of experts and thousands of public comments over two years. The AHA said substantially revising that document risks “doing significant harm” to students.

Superintendent Balow asked for more time to make edits in August after arguing the old draft was flawed, but several mistakes have already been identified in the new document.

Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for VDOE, said Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth were inadvertently left out of the elementary standards in the draft document that was posted on the VDOE website last week. He said these omissions have since been corrected.

Asked to respond to concerns that the new draft “whitewashes” history, Balow said, “We want everyone to see themselves and feel themselves in our standards document and our curriculum framework.”

Balow also emphasized that content has not been removed. She said the draft standards presented by the Youngkin administration are “broad learning goals” that were separated from a more detailed curriculum framework that is still in the works. She said the Northam administration draft combined the standards and curriculum framework, breaking from common practice.

“I think that there is a lot of room, not only to keep the voices that have already been heard in this process in the curriculum frameworks but to build on those,” Balow said.

Moving forward, the board is asking the Virginia Department of Education to prepare a “crosswalk document” that shows the changes that were made between drafts.

Balow said there will ultimately be statewide public input sessions before the history standards are finalized.  She also committed to reaching out to speakers who raised concerns on Thursday.

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