By Sam P.K. Collins
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) recently proposed changes to the state’s history curriculum that erases mention of slavery, institutional racism and prominent figures of color, and further centers white conservative ideology and Greco-Roman history as foundational elements of American culture.
In response to the public outcry against the proposed changes, Virginia’s board of education voted in November to delay the curriculum update so that community input and elements of an earlier version could be incorporated.
While Youngkin’s latest move sparked disgust and anger from young people and education advocates, at least one teacher said she couldn’t feign surprise, given Youngkin’s attempts and others, to counter a growing fervor for racial equity.
“This has been seen on the national level, but with the election of Gov. Youngkin, it’s hitting closer to home,” said Andrea Weiskopf, a Northern Virginia resident and teacher of 15 years in the Loudoun County public school system.
“The groups who are pushing Youngkin’s agenda have discovered that the local school board drives local public schools,” Weiskopf said.
Weiskopf, a sixth-grade Latin and English teacher, certified to teach social studies, describes herself as an instructor who affirms every student. She said her outlook recently earned her a spot on an enemy list compiled by Youngkin’s supporters.
Over the last few months, Weiskopf has clashed with a small group of parents at local school board meetings who’ve railed against creating a more culturally inclusive academic environment. Since Nov. 17, when Youngkin released the 53-page proposal, Weiskopf has expressed plans to continue her civic engagement and counter the governor’s ideals.
“Whether it’s Youngkin’s ‘snitch line’ or the attack on transgender students or this so-called policy on sexually explicit material, it’s all designed as an attack on the public school system to shape America in ‘their’ image,” Weiskopf said.
A Battle to Shape History
State law requires an update of Virginia’s public school curriculum every seven years. In 2015, then Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) unsuccessfully proposed the inclusion of gender equity and renewable energy in the curriculum.
In August, Virginia’s board of education described a proposal by former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration as convoluted and in need of a revamp by Youngkin.
The current governor’s proposal, brought before the board of education on Nov. 17, counts as part of a pledge he made upon entering office to fight against what has been described as critical race theory. He also set his sights on limiting transgender student protections, which triggered a student-led walkout at more than 100 schools in September.
If approved, Youngkin’s proposed history curriculum updates would remove mention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Juneteenth and LGBTQ+ history from K-5 standards. It would also delay instruction about lynching until the 6th grade and Christopher Columbus’ role in the slave trade by the 11th grade. By kindergarten, students would learn to equate citizenship to following rules.
The history curriculum also refers to indigenous people as immigrants, while emphasizing that only citizens 18 and older participate in elections.
Regarding Africa, the proposal features a Europeanized Egypt while only mentioning Mali and Ghana in the context of the slave trade. Another element of the proposed curriculum introduces Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius as a prominent ancient figure to third graders. It also frames aspects of the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era in favor of the Confederacy.
Youngkin’s Critics Respond
Youngkin touted his proposal as an effort to restore excellence and spur curiosity around teaching and learning history. Critics, however, point to his ban of critical race theory upon entering office and his support of a constituent who wanted Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” removed from her son’s advanced placement English class.
Immediately after the release of Youngkin’s proposal, the Virginia Education Association released a statement denouncing it. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) also weighed in, calling Youngkin an agent who’s advancing a movement that has gained traction over the last few years.
“While revisionist history being turned into curriculum is not new, this latest example shows how quickly extremist rhetoric can morph into real policy that hurts our kids and communities,” said Fedrick Ingram, AFT’s secretary-treasurer. “Yes, our country’s story is troubled and bloody ― from the harried immigrants arriving on the shore, to the decimation of Indigenous people and their native lands, and to those brought by force through the barbarism of the transatlantic slave trade,” Ingram added.
“But our story is also inspirational ― because through it all, we still believe in chasing the dream of a more perfect union that brings freedom and unity for everyone. The proposed changes by Youngkin’s hand-picked board seem hellbent on negating that experience in favor of one where race and ethnicity play almost no role.”