To Dan Gecker, Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, would rather create problems for public schools than solve them – because it’s good politics.
“He seems to be saying Virginia schools are a victim of low expectations,” said Gecker, president of the Virginia Board of Education – and a Democrat from Chesterfield County, a Richmond suburb where Youngkin lived as a youngster, attending Robious Elementary School. “I hate to see it trashed because of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on in the system.”
That Gecker, who says there’s ample room for improvement in public education, is hitting back in a schoolyard brawl over performance and policy will likely be dismissed by Youngkin as partisan whining.
Youngkin, a prospective national candidate in 2024 who aims to restore total Republican control of the General Assembly in the 2023 elections, is pretty good at it himself.
The governor issued last month – through Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, imported by Youngkin from nearly lily white Wyoming – an indictment of Virginia schools as incubators for reading- and math-challenged students, particularly those of color, whose skills further eroded because classrooms were shuttered by the coronavirus.
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Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting of the state board – its first since the Balow-to-Youngkin slap-down and likely its last before he begins installing a new majority of right-leaning members – the superintendent posted online what reads like a pre-buttal of her report, ordered by Youngkin as a first step to rout alleged woke-ism from Virginia schools.
Balow’s statement cited favorable editorials in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, adding, “The report emphasizes the need for Virginia families, educators, and policymakers to have a sense of where students are performing in order to lay out an agenda that aggressively closes gaps that existed before March 2020 and were exacerbated by school closures.”
It was no surprise the report widened fissures over public education. That may have been Youngkin’s intentions. Divide-and-conquer is the preferred modus operandi of Republicans and Democrats. It keeps the base enthused by demonizing the opposition.
In this instance, the debate has as much to do with how Youngkin is making his case as with the case itself.
It’s about apples and oranges. The study, for instance, compares passing rates on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests on math and reading for fourth- and eighth-grade students in 2015, 2017 and 2019 with those for the same group over the same period on the National Assessment of Educational Performance, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. It is scored differently than the state exam.
The Balow report said lower grades on the NAEP – a test on which the performance of Wyoming students declined during her tenure there – show that student achievement is falling, even though students in Virginia, on average, are scoring significantly higher than those in other states.
In a memo to what remains of the state board – Republicans in the House of Delegates this winter refused to confirm three Democratic appointees, clearing the way for Youngkin to begin packing the panel with his people – Gecker does not dispute the decline. He says members are aware of it and have pressed for changes in curriculum to correct it.
Gecker faults Balow’s report for not fully considering the link between academic achievement and socioeconomic status in a state where more than four in 10 residents are non-White, or the effects of inflation on school funding. It has been limited, for example, for reading specialists because of caps set by lawmakers.
“We cannot expect to change outcomes (or maintain previous levels of achievement) while starving the system of resources,” Gecker wrote. “And we cannot expect to attract and retain a high-quality cadre of teachers if we continually underpay the profession relative to other college graduates.”
Citing a report by a left-of-center think-tank – and drawing a comparison between the two states where Balow has worked – Gecker continued, “In 2019, the Economic Policy Institute found that the ‘teacher wage penalty’ went from a low of 2% in Wyoming to a high of 32.7% in Virginia. In other words, teachers in Virginia are paid 67.3 cents for every dollar paid to their college educated peers.”
Gecker is a real estate developer who ran unsuccessfully for a Chesterfield-anchored seat the Virginia Senate in 2015 his party won four years later in an anti-Trump tsunami. Gecker was twice appointed by Democratic governors to the Virginia Board of Education, which with local boards and the legislature crafts and carries out policy. His second and final term ends next year.
Gecker’s had a hand in education at the local level, serving on Chesterfield’s governing board and planning commission. The former has the last word in funding; the latter has a say in selecting sites for schools – no small issue in a growing locality beset by racial, cultural and economic friction. Gecker and his wife have a mixed-race family of four daughters. Two were publicly educated; two attended private school.
Youngkin, who was finished at a prep school in Hampton Roads and has privately educated his four children, may not bring to this debate the bottom-to-top experience of a Dan Gecker. And the governor, because of constitutional limits rooted in the lingering aftershocks of Virginia’s defiance in the late 1950s to court-ordered desegregation of public schools, has only so much authority over policy.
But his appointive powers mean he dramatically reset the direction of education-oversight boards. That includes the Virginia Board of Education; the community college board, with which Youngkin has been quarreling over a new chancellor, and college and university governing boards, some of which have defied him by raising tuition.
Many of Youngkin’s selections could be announced in the next couple of weeks, meaning that for Gecker and other edu-centric -Democrats, June might be the cruelest month.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.