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With new standards draft, critics say Virginia's Youngkin wants to rewrite history

Gov. Glenn Youngkin against a big blue sky with a few gray clouds.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin at a campaign rally in Smithfield, Va., on Oct. 27. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A number of cultural groups, historians and Virginia residents are sounding the alarm about historical inaccuracies and oversights in the latest draft of history standards for K-12 education in the state proposed last week by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Chief among their frustrations is the draft’s omission of teaching about the ongoing legacy of slavery and the Civil War in Virginia today, as well as LGBTQ history. Critics believe this shows that the governor is using his political power to rewrite history and downplay unsavory episodes in American history.

“The Youngkin administration is proposing revised standards that are racist and factually incorrect,” James J. Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers' union, told Yahoo News. “This attack on these standards continues to be a divisive approach to put parents against teachers and to put teachers against parents.”

Last week’s draft, which has since been slightly revised, removed mention of Martin Luther King Jr. Day from the K-5 standards and made no mention of Juneteenth. Both have since been restored to the draft.

A line of schoolchildren from behind, showing an array of backpacks.
Students line up to enter their classrooms for kindergarten orientation at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria, Va., on Aug. 19. (Craig Hudson for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the omissions were unintentional.

“The August draft included the broad standards and much more granular curriculum frameworks for each grade level and course,” Pyle told Yahoo News in an email. “Much of the recent public comment has centered on content that is still in the draft curriculum frameworks.”

The latest draft put forth by the Virginia DOE contains a bevy of changes from a draft it released in July, written largely by the Democratic administration of then-Gov. Ralph Northam. The Northam administration’s draft standard attempted to include a full breadth of history that included eras in which racism and slavery were widely accepted and antisemitism and homophobia were rampant in American society. Youngkin’s proposed rewrite seeks to downplay the role of bigotry in U.S. history.

Words like “Nazis” and “Final Solution,” which are essential to understanding the Holocaust, are omitted in the latest version. Inaccuracies include a statement saying that Virginia’s capital was relocated from Jamestown to Williamsburg during the Revolutionary War, when it was in fact relocated to Richmond.

A view of from above shows Jamestown, surrounded on all sides by a river and a larger body of water.
An aerial view of Jamestown, Va., from a 17th century painting. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The draft also states that the last U.S. president from Virginia was Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848, not Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912. Wilson was born and raised in Virginia, though he served as governor of New Jersey before becoming U.S. president.

In August, the Virginia Board of Education was originally scheduled to vote on the recommended guidelines, which would have been the standards put together by the Northam administration. The decision was delayed after state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow urged the board to give Youngkin’s five newly appointed board members additional time to review the documents.

Under Virginia law, history standards are required to be updated every seven years; the last time they were updated was 2015. They set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social sciences statewide, which are eventually assessed through various tests.

The sweeping changes in this latest draft come less than 60 days after the department announced that it did not anticipate “any major changes or deletions of content” to a previous draft under Northam.

The original document under Northam was developed over nearly two years of consultation with a team of historians, professors, parents, students and museums, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Fedderman said the original version went through more than 400 experts, who devoted thousands of hours of their time on the standards, and he lamented that their work is now being “discredited” and “thrown out.”

“Gov. Youngkin continues to say, ‘We want to hear from parents.’ Well, there are educators who are parents,” Fedderman said, adding that he did not know why there had been no collaboration with his union.

Glenn Youngkin at the microphone surrounded by supporters carrying banners bearing his name and saying Latinos for Youngkin.
Youngkin, then Virginia's Republican gubernatorial nominee, addresses a rally in Henrico, Va., on Oct. 23, 2021. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

“There's never been a decision that has been made that impacted children and public education, the teaching profession, without the Virginia Education Association being consulted,” he said. “Whether they took our advice or not, we were always consulted, there was always a discussion.”

The process that was followed for the latest document proposed by the Youngkin administration is unclear. The DOE did not provide answers to a direct question on the process posed by Yahoo News.

But Balow, the state superintendent, has publicly acknowledged seeking consultation with the Thomas Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, and Michigan’s Hillsdale College, which played an instrumental role in the drafting of the “1776 Report” on U.S. history commissioned by then-President Donald Trump. That report sought to promote a “patriotic education” about race and the birth of the nation, a direct counter to the New York Times’s "1619 Project," a Pulitzer Prize-winning report on the major role of slavery in the founding of the United States. The “1776 Report” was widely condemned by groups like the American Historical Association for being “written hastily in one month after two desultory and tendentious ‘hearings’” and “without any consultation with professional historians of the United States.”

Stacks of Nikole Hannah-Jones's book
Nikole Hannah-Jones's book, "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story," displayed in a bookstore in 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The new document also does not once mention the word “racism,” which James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, described as “a problem.”

“You can argue that the central concepts in American history are freedom or liberty or democracy, but you cannot teach American history without helping students to understand that racism has been a central theme,” Grossman told the Times-Dispatch. “You just can’t.”

Gail Flax, a retired Virginia educator, told the Virginia Mercury that learning accurate history is the best way to understand the world around us.

“You have to know what happened before and what happened afterward to be able to analyze and contextualize history,” she said.

In all, the revision was more than 300 pages shorter than its predecessor, mainly because it excluded a curriculum framework, a more detailed document that the Board of Education approves a year before its implementation.

Lindsey Lienau does a headcount of her small students.
Kindergarten teacher Lindsey Lienau does a headcount of her students at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy on Aug. 19. (Craig Hudson for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, an endowed professor of Virginia Black history and culture at Norfolk State University, told VPM, a Richmond-based NPR affiliate, that she is “disturbed and troubled” by the new draft.

“This is not an update. … This is an entirely different document,” she said. “I have never seen such a messy, incoherent and inaccurate document that is age-inappropriate for the content that is being taught.”

Fedderman objected that any revisions to date have not shown any “significant improvement.”

“I believe that this is another attempt to show that Virginia Public Schools are failing our students, because if they push these standards through in the middle of the year, and students are assessed on all of these new standards without preparation, it's going to show that they don't have the skill set to be successful,” he said. “And that's not the case. It's just that this administration continues to move the goalposts every day.”

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Cover thumbnail photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images