Virginia’s ban on teaching “inherently divisive concepts” about race in K-12 public schools is stirring debate about whether Black history can still be taught or a newly unified history for all Americans will dominate classrooms.
Executive Order #1, which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed immediately after his Jan. 15 inauguration, has drawn fire from educators who say the ban’s vagueness about the meaning of “divisive concepts” could punish good teachers for covering Black history.
Conservatives have pushed back, advocating a colorblind alternative to what they call an “identity history” that divides children against each other based on their skin color.
Virginia’s ban, which empowers the state’s superintendent of public instruction to remove divisive content through a regular curriculum reevaluation process, has not yet resulted in the removal of any Black history materials or lessons.
However, Republican efforts to copy the law met strong headwinds in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and New Hampshire.
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said professional historians feel unable to ignore identity-specific lessons about African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos in the classroom.
“There has been no time in our history where racial conflict and division has not been a central factor,” Mr. Grossman said in an email. “This is not ‘theory,’ it is not ‘identity history.’ It is simply fact.”
But Chris Talgo, a research fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute in Illinois, said “identity-specific” American history lessons have drifted in recent years from teaching facts to presenting the U.S. as systemically racist.
He cited books such as Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” a common text in public high school classrooms, for helping to “perpetuate the myth” that the nation was founded on racism.
“Fortunately, states like Virginia are showing that the movement toward an accurate, unified American history curriculum is gaining momentum,” Mr. Talgo said. “Focusing on divisive concepts, which underscores group victimization, does not represent the full arc of U.S. history.”
In Virginia, tensions flared in recent weeks as the Youngkin administration struggled to enforce the ban and set up a tip line to report teachers who violate it.
Gov. Youngkin’s office released an interim report on Feb. 25 that listed antiracism books, lessons and resources as examples of “divisive concepts” it will evaluate or remove. The Virginia Department of Education had posted many of the materials online under previous Democratic-led administrations.
At a March 29 rally with NAACP officials and other racial justice advocates, Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman blasted the report, saying it meant unionized teachers could be reported to “the snitch line” for teaching “culturally competent lessons” on race.
Also last month, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents criticized the Youngkin administration in a letter for excluding it from the process of screening the divisive materials.
Doubling down, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings wrote in an April 6 op-ed for Education Week that educators need to embrace the building of anti-racist schools and school systems.
What’s more, The Washington Post and a dozen other media outlets sued Gov. Youngkin on Wednesday for allegedly ignoring their public information requests to see messages sent to the tip line.
“Can we still teach Black history in states that have passed ‘divisive concepts’ laws? We don’t know,” Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an email. “And that reflects the fundamental problem with these measures, which are written so loosely and carelessly that nobody knows what they mean.”
Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Gov. Youngkin, defended the language of the state’s ban in an email to The Washington Times.
She noted that the executive order defines divisive concepts as “advancing any ideas” in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That includes any teaching that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith.”
Ms. Porter said that does not mean Black history will be banned from Virginia schools. He pointed out that the order “does not reference” any particular grade-level or course content, nor the content of an elective course in African American history that the Virginia Department of Education approved in 2020.
Conservatives are already preparing for a new way of teaching history that treats all Americans as one people working together to overcome racism.
Bill Bennett, who served as Secretary of Education in the 1980s, is releasing an online curriculum in Spanish and English this fall to help middle and high school teachers cover U.S. history without labeling white people as inherently racist.
The website, titled “The Story of America,” draws stories from Mr. Bennett’s bestselling books “America: The Last Best Hope” and “The Book of Virtues” to sharpen students’ critical reading and writing skills.
Other recent efforts to promote a more unified “American history” include Hillsdale College’s free K-12 curriculum and the programs of Colorado-based Summit Ministries, an evangelical Christian church that publishes teaching resources and hosts student conferences.
Kathy Koch, an educational psychologist who teaches online classes at Summit, said it’s important to remember that parents have driven the push to remove divisive concepts from the classroom.
“Parents are beginning to reassert themselves and the roles and responsibilities they play in their kid’s development,” Ms. Koch said.
Reporting by The Washington Times.