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Virginia Board of Education to vote on disputed changes to history curriculum

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When he was a candidate for Virginia governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin got a lot of attention for his promise to rid schools of critical race theory - or CRT. Now, CRT has never been part of the state curriculum. And critics accused him of dog whistle racism. But he won that race back in 2021. And now Governor Youngkin has pressed on with plans for big changes in the state's education system. As Ben Paviour with member station VPM tells us in this next report, that includes a rewrite of history standards that the state could adopt as soon as today.

(CROSSTALK)

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: The scene in the school auditorium in Farmville, Va., last month has all the trappings of American-style civics in action. There are rows of folding chairs in a school auditorium, a simple podium and a timer that gives speakers three minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

PAVIOUR: A state education staffer and Grace Creasey, with the board of education, are sitting alone on a stage. They're here to gather feedback on new proposed standards for teaching history. Creasey greets the crowd.

GRACE CREASEY: We are constantly thinking about what you all are telling us. And we appreciate it so much.

PAVIOUR: The proposed standards embrace a vision of the U.S. as a flawed but exceptional country. There's more focus on the Founding Fathers, patriotism and Ronald Reagan. But speakers like LaTonya Francis, who is Black, says it tells an incomplete story.

LATONYA FRANCIS: The Declaration of Independence that you talk about on Page 4 of the standards was originally published July 4, 1776. Those words did not apply to me or to people who look like me.

PAVIOUR: By law, the standards have to be updated every seven years. The process started under former Governor Ralph Northam. The Democrat staff sought to make history lessons more inclusive, soliciting feedback from parents, historians and cultural groups. But some people in Farmville, like Christel Gorman, say those standards would have focused students too much on systemic racism and conflict.

CHRISTEL GORMAN: They would be taught to hate our country, the best that this world can ever imagine, warts and all.

PAVIOUR: Last fall, the Youngkin administration hired a consultant to rewrite the original standards, with input from conservative voices like Hillsdale College. Critics argued the resulting document was riddled with mistakes and bad framing, like referring to Native Americans as the first immigrants to the U.S. The board of education decided to hit pause and ordered state officials back to the drawing board for a third draft. Youngkin defended the latest version at a CNN town hall last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN YOUNGKIN: We, in fact, enhanced the discussion of slavery and made sure that everyone understood for the first time in Virginia history standards that the cause of the Civil War was slavery.

PAVIOUR: The newest draft adds content on Reconstruction, the KKK and Japanese internment camps. But critics say it ignores the contributions of organized labor. And historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander, who gave input on the first draft, argues the latest version treats slavery and racism as anomalies.

CASSANDRA NEWBY-ALEXANDER: While the document talks about it's going to look at, you know, our racial history, it really does it in a very minor way. It makes it almost as an aside that was quickly resolved.

PAVIOUR: Newby-Alexander says history isn't just a bunch of facts. She argues it needs to connect the dots into a fuller, sometimes unflattering picture. If the board of education approves Virginia's new history standards today, they'll likely be in place for seven years.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTHER FALCON SONG, "TO MAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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