July has been an eventful month for education in Virginia, although if you get your news from the mainstream media, you might have missed it.
First, and most importantly, the Republican nominee for governor, Glenn Youngkin, issued a remarkable plan to re-emphasize students, restore decision rights to parents, and re-establish academic excellence in the commonwealth.
Choosing a clear side in the long war between those who believe government education exists to perpetuate the state and those who believe that education exists for the good of children, Mr. Youngkin said simply and directly: “[T]here is nothing more critical to Virginia’s future than education. Education has the power to lift people up, to lift people out, to provide opportunities … when I’m governor; we will all be about giving every child a chance, to learn, to grow, to succeed, to believe.”
In short, he placed himself squarely on the side of the students rather than the system.
Mr. Youngkin also said he would sign an executive order returning schools to pre-McAuliffe standards. In response to some local school districts’ attempts to restrict advanced courses, especially in math, he plans to direct the Virginia Department of Education to protect advanced math classes and advanced diplomas.
Most encouragingly, Mr. Youngkin preaches the old-time religion of focusing on the fundamentals of reading, writing and math rather than the latest pointless distraction. He is clear-eyed about the recent past as well: “Here’s a simple fact: when he was governor, Terry McAuliffe and his political appointees lowered standards, and he dragged our children’s performance down with those diminished expectations.”
His plans are, as one might expect from a former CEO, direct and measurable. They include:
- Putting power back in the hands of parents;
- Improving school measurement metrics so everyone can see how our schools are doing;
- Teaching kids how to think, not what to think, and encouraging critical thinking instead of critical race theory;
- Removing politics from the classroom and teach all U.S. history — the good and the bad.
- Increasing the number of Governor’s Schools, like the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology;
- Ensuring schools are never again closed unnecessarily for extended periods of time;
- Ensuring all children can read, write and understand math at grade level by third grade;
- Ensuring students with disabilities receive all of the services, support and procedural protections they are entitled to.
Mr. Youngkin’s plan – emphasizing students, rigorous curricula, parental decision rights, and sidelining critical race theory and other fads – is a welcome and timely change.
The second, and no doubt related event in the commonwealth, is the Thomas Jefferson High School’s Parent Teacher Student Association takeover by the state PTA.
Thomas Jefferson is one of the best public high schools in the nation, especially concerning math and science. Unfortunately, the Fairfax County School Board, concerned that there are too many Asian-Americans at TJ (the school is about 73% Asian-American), abolished the entrance exam.
In response, the school’s PTSA elected a board that would advocate for the interests of their high-performing children.
Immediately after that, the state-run PTA demanded that the school’s principal (who, of course, opposes merit-based admissions) be able to vote as part of the board, which changed the vote just enough to stall action indefinitely. Some parents were shocked and rude enough to say so. “The fact that a White woman (at the state PTA) is actively working to install another White woman (the principal at TJ) into a position of additional authority over the will of a majority of minority parents is shocking and disturbing and a reflection once more of the unwelcome and hostile environment in FCPS against minority parents who dare to speak up,” Asra Nomani, a previous member of the elected executive committee, wrote. Ms. Nomani wasn’t done. “The Virginia PTA likes its Asian and minority parents when we are submissive and compliant, but when we question FCPS policies or actions, you turn on the parents.”
In response to the complaints, the state PTA, naturally, disbanded the executive committee at TJ, which consisted of a Black father of a student and two Asian-American fathers of students, and reinstated the previous executive committee.
No telling how the story will turn out, but one thing is certain: Mr. Youngkin has picked the right terrain on which to fight. If the apparatchiks and stooges who run education in the commonwealth are willing to place politics over the promise and potential of the kids at TJ, they are willing to do the same thing at every local school.
The commonwealth needs to refocus its education system on education rather than the system. Mr. Youngkin sees that clearly. So should we all.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.