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Glenn Youngkin’s biggest legacy in Virginia could be his impact on education

Governor Glenn Youngkin addresses the Board of Education Wednesday.
Va. Dept. of Education livestream
Governor Glenn Youngkin addresses the Board of Education.

With a new sports arena dead in the water and a legislature controlled by political opponents, Governor Glenn Youngkin’s largest impact on the state after he leaves office could be in the education space.

Youngkin was clear about his education priorities on the campaign trail back in 2021.

“We watched parents all over the commonwealth stand up and try to defend their children, get our schools open, make sure materials are appropriate in the classroom,” then-candidate Youngkin said on the campaign trial.

Now, two and a half years later, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said the governor has delivered on those promises.

“The greatest thing we can do is have high expectations of our students, of our teachers and our schools and we know they’ll reach them when we provide the supports to do that,” Guidera said in an interview with Radio IQ.

The bulk of that work happened in his first two years of office. He oversaw the reopening of schools, signed bills that require more information for parents about materials in classrooms, and passed efforts that gave school boards more control over the material in schools and libraries.

“As the governor and I are out and about, I hear constantly from parents about how important the work is to be involved in their child’s education,” Guidera said.

And efforts like his lab school program hope to see 20 such schools created to build bridges between graduating high schoolers and the workforce.

“By the time they walk across the graduation stage they have not only a high school diploma, but a leg up with credentials that matter,” the Secretary of Education said.

But the optimism from Youngkin’s administration is marred by political and testing realities.

After empowering school boards to remove books from their shelves, a handful of boards in traditionally red school divisions flipped blue for the first time in memory, undoing book bans those boards once celebrated. And the slim Republican majority he had in the House of Delegates the first two years also flipped to Democrats. This puts any more conservative reforms he’d hoped to see pass out of legislative reach.

Democratic state Senator Ghazala Hashmi views those two years where Youngkin got much of what he wanted as a time to which the state does not want to return.

“He instituted McCarthyism into our public education system,” Hashmi, a former college professor and chair of the Senate's education committee, said. “He undermined public confidence in our public education system.”

The senator was referencing Youngkin’s since-shuttered teacher tip line and book bans that saw the works of Judy Blume and the original novel for the Wizard of Oz prequel Wicked removed from shelves. Then there was also the controversial rewrite of K-12 history standards which originally saw mentions of Martin Luther King Jr. among other historical figures removed. It took three rounds of revisions before the standards were adopted and references to the civil rights leader returned.

There was also his ban on teaching critical race theory, a day one executive order, which reaffirmed the ability of students to sue for civil rights violations. Radio IQ was unable to confirm a case under the order being filed since it was put into place.

But as the legislature and school boards flipped, so did Youngkin’s efforts to influence education. Just like governors before him, he’ll end his term with majorities on the state’s powerful Board of Education, as well as on the Board of Visitors for every public university in the state.

His majority on the state’s Board of Education is already showing its influence. In April, a slate of his lab schools was approved with only Anne Holton, the only board member he didn’t appoint, expressing concern for procedural changes that will speed up the approval process. The program will see the $100 million pushed out the door, perhaps before Democrats, who removed funding for the program in their 2024 budget, have time to claw it back.

His Boards of Visitors are already pushing their influence in state colleges as well. According to Guidera, recent requests by Youngkin to review student-influenced courses on Virginia’s history with race at George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth Universities came from BOV members.

“That there were going to be mandates that students had to take these classes that were raising concerns with their titles,” Guidera explained. “We asked to better understand ‘what are these?’

Governor Doug Wilder, the nation’s first Black governor, experienced Virginia’s segregation firsthand in the 1950's.

“Some places had back windows to get a sandwich to take out, so life was totally segregated… Housing, you couldn’t live in certain areas,” Wilder said.

The former governor was brought on as part of the new governor’s transition team at the start of his term. But he’s since soured on Youngkin in the wake of his decisions to intervene in courses at what he noted are the most diverse colleges in the state.

“I don’t know of any governor in modern times who’s requested information like that,” Wilder said.

Among the students impacted by the Governor’s review is Anesia Lawson. She’s a poli-sci major at VCU who took part in the process to develop the courses Youngkin’s office is now reviewing.

Perhaps ironically, she didn’t get involved with social activism until she started to learn about systemic oppression in college. But Lawson said it didn’t lead her to the same conclusions that those concerned about “progressive left groupthink” feared it would.

“Me learning this didn't make me hate white people, it made me realize the system we’re living in is flawed, our racial background, built on slavery, certain groups are being objectified or oppressed more so than other groups,” Lawson said in an interview. “Knowing that you can allow it to happen or try and make a change.”

But what complicates Youngkin’s education legacy the most might be the impact it's had on students themselves. The governor has decried learning-loss caused by the covid-era closure of schools. But now, with two academic years of SOL results under his belt, test scores remain lower than pre-pandemic by double digits.

A screen grab of SOL scores from the state's Department of Education website.
Virginia Department of Education
A screen grab of SOL scores from the state's Department of Education website.

On the teacher vacancy front, Virginia’s current 4% matches the average studied in 2022. Radio IQ was unable to find more recent comparisons, but a study from Brown University found Virginia among the top 15 schools with vacant full-time teaching positions.

Youngkin has since spent over $400 million on different programs to address that learning loss, address truancy, and rebuild the teacher workforce.

Democratic Senator Schuyler VanValkenburg is a teacher in Henrico County. He said cost of living, “cynical” political attacks, now since faded, and long-term structural issues like underfunded teacher salaries are all impacting open teaching jobs.

“We spent decades not investing in our teacher workforce and you can’t expect to catch up to that in a couple years when you’ve got decades of rot you’ve got to fix,” he said.

But he also said morale among teachers appears to be improving, and salary increases approved by Youngkin and his Democratic predecessors are to thank for that.

As for testing scores, the VanValkenburg has long been an advocate for reforms. He admitted changes made under previous Democratic administrations which allowed for less testing may now be contributing to lower scores.

“The only kids who are taking the SOLs in social studies and science after their freshman year are kids who couldn’t pass it the first time,” he said, suggesting they were originally altered with the idea of updates in the future.

Still VanValkenburg is hopeful Youngkin can have a more positive impact on schools before he leaves office.

“We still have a year and a half where maybe we can work on lab schools, we can work on testing reform, maybe we can move the ball forward that in theory can have bipartisanship,” he said.

In an emailed statement sent after her interview, Guidera said the decrease in test scores was a reflection of the administration's increase in standards.

"It may take time to see these results, but we must continue to hold ourselves accountable for ensuring all students and schools are meeting high expectations," she wrote.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.