It should surprise no one. After the ill-conceived March 2020 closing of Virginia’s public schools by former Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam, it should have been evident that children would suffer academically.
We now know the extent of that damage to fourth and eighth grade students. Virginia’s secretary of education, Aimee Rogstad Guidera, put it aptly. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, she said, offer a “clear and heart-wrenching” statement on the “catastrophic decline” and a “predictable outcome of the decade-long systemic dismantling of a foundational commitment to excellence in education.” It didn’t have to be. What followed was a complete failure in virtual education. In the process, children fell victim to the self-absorbed politics of teacher unions and a complete disregard of the medical evidence from European countries that school-aged children were not at increased threat to contract COVID-19.
Moreover, the teacher unions saw the COVID-19 closing as an opportunity to keep schools shuttered while they lobbied for more pay and fatter school budgets once the pandemic crisis passed. A cynical assessment? Yes. But even when high schoolers in my county of Prince William returned to classrooms in 2021, teachers remained out, preferring to instruct kids virtually even as their students sat in segmented classroom space watching their teacher on a computer screen. It was farcical ,and Virginia’s parents knew it.
Enter Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, who correctly characterized parental outrage in Virginia, not only for the elongated closure of public schools, but also for the “woke pandemic” spread by liberal school boards bent on indoctrinating children to be social justice warriors. Of almost no concern to these latter-day commissars was the performance of our kids and grandkids in reading, math, genuine history, and critical thinking skills. Mr. Youngkin listened to parents. In turn, they elected Mr. Youngkin because he pledged to realign educational priorities to those of parents, not woke administrators.
The governor is rightly indignant over the recent NAEP results and has committed to ensuring that Virginia children “have the tools and support structure to get back on track.” Tutors, particularly in math and reading, are needed for our fourth graders. Reading scores for this segment were dismal, tumbling from seventh to 33rd place among all states. In math, fourth grade students barely reached the national average.
Tutors are needed now to help these kids catch up so they will not be condemned to years of academic struggling. Mr. Youngkin’s tutor concept is a splendid approach and will close what should be termed “the Northam learning gap.” Indeed, there are thousands of retired military veterans in Virginia who would be ideal tutors. Hopefully, school boards across Virginia will eagerly embrace the governor’s initiative. But if these boards resist tutors like they have opposed school choice options, which compete with the one-size-fits-all public one, we will not see necessary progress.
The governor’s focus on hiring 600 reading specialists in schools across the commonwealth to “train teachers to deliver evidence-based instruction” is also correct. So are his teacher recruitment and retention efforts. But here’s the challenge. Many new teachers are quickly overwhelmed by the classroom environment, byzantine bureaucracy and highly litigious atmosphere that makes them worry that they will face legal action for the least infraction of woke pronoun rules.
As such, many new teachers leave the profession they chose to pursue other job opportunities. In that regard, it is time to leverage the experience of professional retired teachers to return to the classroom as mentors — emeritus teachers — to coach new teachers as they enter the workforce. We should allow these seasoned teachers to continue to draw their retired pay and supplement it for mentoring young protégées on successful classroom strategies and techniques.
Finally, it is time to reevaluate the wisdom of electing school boards in Virginia. Once, county supervisors and city councils appointed school board members to provide oversight of education. And because school boards were appointed, elected leaders were directly accountable for the members they chose. With the transition to elected school boards, constant campaigning and accompanying political correctness have become persistent distractions to the necessary concentration on educational excellence.
Behold the colossal mess that the elected Loudoun County School Board has created with politically charged nonsense. Moreover, it’s the elected supervisors and councils that hold the public school purse strings, not the school boards. Maybe it’s time to depoliticize school boards and make elected supervisors and council members responsible for their selection. Then political leaders who fund schools will be held accountable for the behavior of the people they appoint to administer them. That accountability and oversight is overdue.
Indeed, it’s time for innovation to close the “Northam learning gap,” and Mr. Youngkin is on that case. But it’s also time for significant educational reform, including school board accountability that is also failing.
Former Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired Army colonel and the author of “Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War” (University Press of Kentucky). He served in the Virginia General Assembly from 2002 to 2018 on the House Education Committee.