By Callie Hietala
The Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) is pushing back against the lack of discussion that occurred between state and school officials ahead of the creation of a 30-day report on critical race theory (CRT) and other divisive concepts in the classrooms.
The report, delivered to Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera by Superintendent for Public Instruction Jillian Balow, “rescinds certain policies, programs, and resources that promote discriminatory and divisive concepts as directed by Executive Order One.”
In a letter to Balow written “on behalf of 133 public school division superintendents,” Howard Kiser, the executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS), said that those superintendents “believe gross assumptions have been made, without evidentiary support, in the development of the 30-day report.”
“VASS just wants a seat at the table to discuss some of these thoughts with the new (state schools) superintendent. That’s it,” said Martinsville City Public Schools Superintendent and VASS board president Dr. Zebedee Talley.
“We were not consulted and so we felt it was important to write that letter … to express some of our thoughts,” Talley said of the letter that was written after the VASS executive board and its officers met with Balow after she issued the report. At that meeting, board members “talked about some important instructional issues.”
Balow reported that discriminatory and divisive concepts “have become widespread in the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and in Virginia school division,” and that the department “will need to proactively review policies, practices, and pedagogies around the state to uphold the Civil Rights Act and comport with Executive Order One.”
To that end, the report reflects that a number of resources related to educational equity have been removed or rescinded, specifically “all resources included on VDOE’s EdEquityVA website, including EdEquityVA resources and resource repository.” The report stated that “numerous resources within EdEquityVA employ the concept that current discrimination is needed to address past discrimination.”
VDOE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Audit Tool, “a main resource for EdEquityVA,” was rescinded on Feb. 9, according to the report. “The guiding mission statement for the tool is, ‘Education Equity is achieved when we eliminate the predictability of student outcomes based on gender, zip code, ability, socioeconomic status or language spoken at home,’” the report stated.
The report stated that Balow’s office rescinded “all resources included on VDOE’s culturally responsive website” which, according to the site, is geared toward “increasing the cultural proficiency of Virginia’s educator workforce” under the premise that “culture strongly influences the attitudes, values, and behaviors that students and teachers bring to the instructional process, making culturally responsive educators necessary for the equitable achievement of today’s increasingly diverse student population.”
Also rescinded was a VDOE web series providing guidance for educators on a culturally responsive and inclusive commemoration of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The report stated the video was “rescinded 9/2/22 in response to public criticism.” The video timestamp noted in the report marks a point in which the presenter said, “We are not going to reproduce a false assumption of Muslim responsibility for 9-11” and “we’re also not going to use this space to reproduce anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Other parts of the video discuss the impact of 9-11 commemorations on Muslim students who, according to the video, experience heightened anti-Muslim racism, threats, and bullying around those commemorations.
In his letter, Kiser asserted that “division superintendents and other stakeholder groups should have been consulted prior to the development of the 30-day report,” and that superintendents “disagree with your having rescinded much of the Ed Equity work done” by VDOE which was intended “to provide support for the success of children in underserved communities and in select population groups.”
Further, he wrote that superintendents “disagree with your assumption that discriminatory and divisive concepts have become widespread in Virginia school divisions” without involving educators “in formulating that position or without having provided evidence to support that position.”
The letter included several suggestions moving forward, including establishing a working group “which includes superintendent representatives from throughout Virginia and superintendents of color, to discuss the process, objectives, and data” that will be reflected in an upcoming 90-day report and “sharing draft VDOE positions/documents with division superintendents, when possible, prior to making those documents public” to build trust.
The letter also calls for the elimination of the tip line set up to allow parents to report divisive content to the Governor’s office, saying that such a line “impedes positive relationships” between parents and educators.
The EdEquity materials rescinded by Balow “have been in place for years,” Talley said. “School divisions have spent years, and we’ve worked with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) for years spending time on this equity work to make sure all students get an opportunity to have a quality education. This was not done in silos. This was done throughout the state, all across the country in fact.”
Talley said that work on equity in schools even reached back beyond former Gov. Northam’s administration, though he added that “we’ve made good strides the past few years” when it became more of a focal point under Northam.
“Wouldn’t you think that the superintendents who are in charge of implementing policy would be involved in this conversation” about rescinding materials, he asked. “We want to be part of the conversation.”
Talley said that, while not all 133 of the state’s superintendents were directly consulted on the drafting of the letter, “came from the VASS board,” which is elected by and therefore represents those administrators.
Patrick County Schools Superintendent Jason Wood said that he did not receive a draft copy of the letter until the day before it was sent, but he noted “I’m not on that mailing list yet because I’m a new superintendent.”
Wood received the letter from Henry County Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer at a meeting of the region’s superintendents because “during that meeting, I did not know what they were referring to” during discussions.
Wood said that, while he “cannot deny the truth in that letter – that we need more communication and collaboration in everything we do,” he supported and “really believed strongly about” some of the provisions of Executive Order 1, particularly since “in Patrick County we feel we do not teach divisive concepts.”
One such provision is “key language” calling for a review of curriculum, more transparency for parents, and things like that so they can know exactly what is being taught.”
Another key point from the order Wood supports is “increasing adequate cultural competency training for staff so we can take out our own beliefs and teach students to be thinking for themselves. That’s what we strive to do anyway. We differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of our learners and try to always strive to be equitable in all our decisions that we make because every student’s different and needs different things.”
Wood said that his division did not utilize the EdEquity materials provided by VDOE that have now been rescinded. Rather, “we provide that through a separate professional development program” and “a lot of internal trainings for our staff.”
He noted “our school division’s different than the next, and what we need is also different. We modeled our approach on what our students need in our specific locality.”
In addition to supporting more communication and collaboration between superintendents, educators, and state officials in discussions about instructional policy, Wood also urged greater communication between superintendents in the creation of the letter itself.
He said since beginning in his current post, he has attended three meetings of the region’s superintendents, which are typically attended by a VASS representative. Wood said he was not aware of the letter being discussed or input solicited at any of those meetings. The meeting at which he was sent the letter by Strayer was the first time he heard about it.
Strayer said that VASS leadership “shared the letter with division superintendents just before sending it to the state superintendent,” which is not a change in the way information of that sort had been communicated previously.
She said that some of her staff contributed to the work that was reflected in the now-rescinded EdEquity materials and noted that, even with those resources gone, equity continues to be a priority for her division. “In Henry County we strive to ensure that all learners are presented the opportunity to achieve success through differentiated and tiered supports,” she said.
She said the division has spent decades focusing on differentiation and equity, dating back to 2001, when the division began a differentiation initiative. “Equity has been a huge part of that for us” in terms of expanding opportunities for students.
“I always say it’s about the opportunities and experience students have while they’re our students, and providing those meaningful educational experiences help prepare them to be successful learners and to impact our community and their world,” a philosophy which she said is at the heart of her school division’s strategic plan.
Strayer noted that school policy dictates political neutrality in subjects taught in the division. “We don’t teach one side or the other and are very neutral with our delivery.”
She supports the letter’s call for a strong line of communication between VDOE and superintendents. “As an educator and as a citizen, I think communication and collaboration are the two essential components of success,” she said. “We teach our children, and the workforce want our children to be efficient in communication and collaboration so as adults we need to model that.”
Before the pandemic, Strayer said superintendent memos were distributed to keep superintendents abreast of statewide issues. Those memos became Zoom meetings during the pandemic. Balow, she said, had a meeting with the superintendents via Zoom, which is the only such meeting Strayer is aware of. “I think VASS may have met with the state superintendent more, but this is an opportunity for us all to change what works for all of us” and to open up more opportunities for communication.
In an email, Kiser said that Balow called him “shortly after receiving the letter on March 10. She also spoke briefly about the letter with her superintendent advisory council on March 11,” a meeting he said he attended. “I also spoke with Secretary Guidera on March 14. The governor’s office reached out to me on March 14 seeking clarification on the membership referenced in the letter.”
Kiser said that he provided this statement in response to that inquiry:
“While we did not poll all 133 superintendents who are part of our organization, we believe the letter represents the views of our membership as openness, transparency, and partnership are long-standing beliefs of our organization and key to ensuring every child in Virginia receives a great education.”
He said both Guidera and Balow “have expressed a willingness to collaborate,” but as of Monday he had “not received a plan as to how the communication with education stakeholders will proceed.”
Kiser added that “Virginia superintendents have conversations in their regional meetings monthly on issues related to their work and issues of importance to the new state administration. The letter was written on behalf of the VASS membership, even though 133 division superintendents were not polled.”
However, he said, “I have received only positive feedback from the VASS membership and from many other educator stakeholders outside of VASS.”