It shouldn’t surprise anyone. After the ill-conceived closure of Virginia’s public schools in March 2020 by former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, it should have been obvious that children would suffer academically.
We now know the extent of this damage for fourth and eighth graders. Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera put it well. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), she said, offer a “clear and heartbreaking” statement of the “catastrophic decline” and a “predictable outcome of decades of systemic degradation of a fundamental commitment to educational excellence.” It didn’t have to be. What followed was a complete failure in virtual education. In the process, children have been the victims of teachers’ unions’ selfish policies and a total disregard for medical evidence from European countries that school-age children were not at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
Additionally, teachers’ unions saw the COVID-19 shutdown as an opportunity to keep schools closed while campaigning for more pay and higher school budgets after the pandemic crisis passed. A cynical assessment? Yes. But even when high schoolers returned to classrooms in my county, Prince William, in 2021, teachers stayed outside, preferring to teach children virtually while their students sat in a segmented classroom and watched their teacher at a computer screen. It was a farce, and Virginia’s parents knew it.
Enter Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, who correctly characterized parental outrage in Virginia not only at the protracted public school closures, but also at the “pandemic awakened” being propagated by liberal school boards bent on shutting kids down indoctrinate to be social justice fighters. To these modern-day commissioners, the achievements of our children and grandchildren in reading, math, real history, and critical thinking were almost irrelevant. Mr. Youngkin listened to the parents. In turn, they chose Mr. Youngkin because he promised to align educational priorities with those of parents rather than bright administrators.
The governor is rightly outraged by the latest NAEP findings and has pledged to ensure Virginia’s children “have the tools and support structure to get back on track.” Our fourth graders need tutors, especially in math and reading. Reading results for this segment were dismal, falling from seventh to 33rd among all states. In mathematics, the fourth graders barely reached the national average.
Tutors are now needed to help these children catch up lest they be condemned to years of academic struggle. Mr Youngkin’s tutoring approach is an excellent approach and will fill what should be termed the ‘Northam learning gap’. In fact, there are thousands of retired military veterans in Virginia who would make ideal tutors. Hopefully, school boards across Virginia will eagerly embrace the governor’s initiative. But if these bodies resist tutors, as they have opposed school choices that compete with the unified public school, we will see no necessary progress.
The governor’s focus on recruiting 600 reading specialists in schools across the Commonwealth to “train teachers to deliver evidence-based instruction” is also correct. This also applies to its efforts to recruit and retain teachers. But here’s the challenge. Many new teachers are quickly overwhelmed by the classroom environment, Byzantine bureaucracy, and highly contentious atmosphere, leading them to fear they may face legal action for even the slightest violation of woke pronoun rules.
As a result, many new teachers leave the profession they have chosen to pursue other employment opportunities. In this regard, it is time to use the experience of retired professional teachers to return to the classroom as mentors – teachers emeritus – and to coach new teachers as they enter the labor market. We should allow these experienced teachers to continue to receive their retirement pay and top up for mentoring young protégés in successful teaching strategies and techniques.
Finally, it’s time to reevaluate the wisdom of Virginia school board elections. District supervisors and city councils once appointed school boards to oversee education. And since school boards were appointed, the elected leaders were directly accountable to the members they elected. With the transition to elected school boards, constant campaigning and attendant political correctness have become persistent distractions from the necessary focus on educational excellence.
Check out the colossal chaos the elected Loudoun County School Board has wreaked with politically charged nonsense. Furthermore, it is the elected governors and councils who hold the purse strings of the public schools, not the school boards. Perhaps it’s time to depoliticize school boards and hold elected supervisors and council members accountable for their selection. Then political leaders who fund schools are held accountable for the behavior of the people they appoint to run them. This accountability and oversight is overdue.
Indeed, it is time for innovation to close the ‘Northham Learning Gap’ and Mr Youngkin is involved in this case. But it’s also time for major education reform, including school board accountability, which 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). From 2002 to 2018 he was a member of the House Education Committee of the Virginia General Assembly.