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Youngkin taps critical race theory opponents to lead public education in Virginia

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a campaign rally in Warrenton in October 2021. While campaigning, Youngkin made education a main focus of his campaign message.

Courtesy of Virginia Mercury

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has named two women with track records of opposing “critical race theory” — a once obscure collegiate field that’s become a conservative catch-all term for racial equity and diversity initiatives in public schools — to top posts at the Virginia Department of Education.

Jillian Balow, formerly Wyoming’s elected superintendent of public instruction, will take on the same job in Virginia, Youngkin announced in a news release Thursday.

Before stepping down to join Youngkin’s administration, Balow supported a proposed Wyoming bill that would require K-12 schools to publish lists of instructional materials, among other provisions. According to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Balow endorsed the bill alongside its patrons, one of whom described the legislation as an effort to prevent “the indoctrination found in the critical race theory curriculum that has been pushed by the far-left and has found its way into some classrooms.”

The draft bill would modify the state’s civics education, mandating that the history of slavery and race-based discrimination also include the end of slavery and “efforts to end discrimination in accordance with the founding principles of the United States.” Schools would also be required to teach that “it is wrong to be unfair to anyone or treat anyone differently due to their race or ethnicity,” according to the language of the bill.

Balow has also publicly opposed a proposed program from the administration of President Joe Biden that would offer grants to teachers who include “racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives” in history and civics education. The administration included The 1619 Project from the New York Times — a longform collection of stories and essays that focus on the long-running impacts slavery has had on American society — as an example of diverse material that could be taught in schools.

“This is an alarming move toward federal overreach into district curriculum and should be rebuked across party lines,” Balow wrote in a statement. “The draft rule is an attempt to normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America’s history.” 

Many conservative politicians and writers, among others, have been adamantly opposed to the 1619 Project since its publication, describing it as “agitprop” and “garbage history” according to one column in The Washington Post. The collection has also stirred debate among some historians, who have disputed portions of the project’s accuracy.

Balow will be joined by Elizabeth Schultz, a former Fairfax School Board member who Youngkin appointed as Virginia’s assistant superintendent of public instruction. According to the release, Schultz served as a senior fellow for Parents Defending Education, a national organization formed to “reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.” Multiple members of its leadership team were founding members of the Coalition for TJ, a group fighting admissions changes at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. 

Before those changes, which included removing standardized test requirements, roughly 3% of incoming freshmen at the prestigious Northern Virginia governor’s school were Hispanic and fewer than 10 of those students were Black. Roughly 73% of incoming freshmen were of Asian heritage, according to the Washington Post.  

“Jillian and Elizabeth are going to be crucial in helping Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera restore excellence in education,” Youngkin said in a statement. “Under my direction, they will get to work on ensuring our schools remain safely open, ban critical race theory and political agendas from our classrooms, and rebuild our crumbling schools.”

While the success of Youngkin’s campaign was heavily boosted by his promise to “ban” critical race theory in Virginia classrooms, by some accounts, it’s still unclear exactly how he’ll accomplish that goal. The state’s superintendent is heavily involved in communication with local school administrators, but much of state education policy is decided by the Virginia Board of Education, whose members serve four-year terms. While the superintendent of public instruction serves as secretary to the board, the superintendent is not a voting member, according to state code.

Youngkin’s first chance to make replacements to the board won’t come until June of 2022, when the terms for two members are set to expire. Three additional terms will end a year later, giving him his first chance at appointing a majority. 

While current members have supported a range of equity efforts largely focused on educator training, Youngkin’s team has cited little evidence that professional development and other informational materials have informed what students in Virginia are being taught. One of the “clear examples of critical race theory in Virginia” cited by the incoming administration included a reading list, sent by former state superintendent James Lane, that recommended the book “White Fragility” by author Robin DiAngelo. Another was an email from a Chesterfield County principal discussing the school’s next steps to “promote a culture of inclusion.”

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