Gov.-elect Ralph Northam tapped Dale City middle school teacher Atif Qarni to be his new secretary of education Thursday, marking the first time in recent memory that a cabinet member overseeing Virginia’s public schools has been plucked directly from the classroom.
Northam traveled to Beville Middle School Dec. 21, the last day before Prince William schools recessed for holiday break, to personally announce Qarni’s appointment before a crowd that included Qarni’s wife, Fatima, and their two sons, Zane and Saber, as well as members of Qarni’s extended family, local dignitaries and several of Qarni’s eighth-grade civics students.
The incoming governor told the crowd gathered in the school library he chose Qarni, 39, because he wanted an education secretary “who understands K-through-12 education” at the ground level.
“I want a person, a secretary of education, who is in the classroom, who knows the current status of K- through-12 education and who also has a vision of where we need to take our K-through-12 [schools] in the upcoming years,” Northam said.
Noting Qarni’s unique background as a Pakistani immigrant, a Muslim-American and former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Reserves, Northam also called Qarni “an example of the American dream.”
“It is stories like Atif Qarni’s that make this country great, that make the Commonwealth of Virginia great,” Northam said.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, also used the ceremony to touch on his goals for the state’s public education system when he takes office in January. Northam talked about the need to raise teacher pay, expand access to early-childhood education and improve programs for children with disabilities.
Northam said equitable access to pre-K programs reduces achievement gaps between “the haves and the have-nots” and said children with disabilities deserve a high-quality education “in the least-restrictive environment.”
Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, Qarni said he was just offered the job Wednesday night but had been interviewing with members of Northam’s transition team over the last several weeks. Qarni said he’s ready to “roll up his sleeves” to get to work on the many challenges facing Virginia’s public schools but said leaving the classroom will be bittersweet.
Qarni has taught math, civics and U.S. history at Beville Middle for about 10 years. Prior to that, he taught GED classes to adult learners.
“I have mixed feelings because I’m really going to miss the kids. I told the kids today and they were happy but also sad at the same time,” Qarni said.
Qarni listed boosting teacher pay, reducing class sizes and working with technology firms to bring broadband internet service to schools in rural areas among his top goals.
Qarni said he’d also work to address the specific issues Prince William County teachers prioritized for local state lawmakers in a recent educators’ townhall. They included hiring more school counselors to reduce the ratio of counselors-to-students from 1 to 400 to 1 to 250; cutting standardized tests to the federal minimum; and mandating at least 30 minutes of recess a day for elementary school students. In Prince William schools, students typically get 15 minutes of daily recess.
A group of Prince William parents has been advocating for more recess for more than a year. Qarni said the solution lies in counting recess as “instructional time” so school divisions don’t have to lengthen the school days to include more time for outdoor free play.
Qarni said the recess issue is “important” but said all of Virginia’s education issues are “connected” to the overall goal of improving student learning.
“It’s healthy for [students] to engage in recess,” Qarni added. “A lot of folks think it’s a waste of time but it’s not a waste of time. It’s part of learning. It’s healthy for [students] to get out there and move around and get time to decompress and then re-engage with learning, so I’m a big believer in that.”
Qarni is no stranger to politics on the local and state level. In 2013, he ran unsuccessfully against Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th, and in 2015 to replace retiring state Sen. Charles Colgan, a contest he lost to current state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-29th, in the primary. In 2013, Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed Qarni to his small business commission. Qarni holds bachelor’s degrees in sociology and history from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from George Mason University.
Still, Northam’s appointment is unique in that education secretaries rarely emerge directly from the public-school classroom. The last teacher appointed secretary of education in Virginia was Javaid Siddiqi, of Chesterfield County. But he was a school administrator by the time former Gov. Bob McDonnell tapped him for deputy secretary of education in 2011. Other recent education secretaries have been attorneys or college administrators.
Jeffrey Amaniampong, one of Qarni’s eighth-grade civics students, said watching the new governor appoint his teacher to a new job was emotional. He and other students said they felt confident Mr. Qarni would remember what’s important to students. Amaniampong said Qarni was “like a father figure,” others said he was “like our friend.”
“He’s a very good man. He’s honest, and I feel with him in a political position, he can actually do something,” Amaniampong said. “He knows what we’re going through here at school. He knows how we feel and how we are learning.”
Local elected officials said they were excited that one of Prince William County’s own teachers would have a top job in Northam’s new administration. Del.-Elect Danica Roem, D-13th, said Qarni’s perspective as a teacher and parent would be “a huge asset” both to Prince William County and the state’s education department.
“He’s on the frontlines and sees the actual effects of public-education policy inside the classroom, where it absolutely matters the most. And he gets to see what happens when the kids come home and he looks at their homework or he sees test scores or whatever,” Roem said. “He’ll be able to evaluate [issues] on a personal level and also on an objective level as a teacher.”
School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers (At Large) said the looks on Qarni’s students’ faces summed up the excitement of the day. Sawyers called it “a proud moment for county that is proud of its diversity” and said Qarni would bring a teacher’s perspective to state leadership, “which is what we need.”
“We need someone who knows the problems on a micro-level, not just a macro-level,” Sawyers said. “Atif’s going to know what it takes to get through to different kinds of children. … He’s going to know all the struggles of a middle school that has to make use of every penny and every resource they have and he’ll know how to spread that across the state.”
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com