Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) directed state education officials today to include more historic black figures in courses for Virginia's Standards of Learning, saying SOL social studies fail to reflect the importance of famous African Americans.
Gilmore, who earlier this week acknowledged some growing pains in administering the SOL tests, expressed his concerns about racial equity in the testing program to Kirk T. Schroder, president of the state Board of Education.
In a letter to his board colleagues today, Schroder quoted Gilmore as saying he doubted "whether the historical figures currently being taught . . . accurately reflect history."
Schroder said Gilmore told him that historically significant figures such as Jackie Robinson, Colin Powell and Thurgood Marshall ought to be included with greats such as former governor L. Douglas Wilder, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others already in the curriculum.
Gilmore did not comment directly on his conversation with Schroder, but senior aide Dick Leggitt, his troubleshooter on the SOL program, did, saying Gilmore "saw an inequity and moved swiftly to fix it."
Gilmore's office issued a copy of Schroder's letter after a remarkable 10 days of racial discussion in Virginia, which began with Gilmore's surprise call for a separate state holiday honoring King and included the torching of a Robert E. Lee banner in Richmond this week and a gala marking the 10th anniversary of Wilder's inauguration as the nation's first elected black governor.
Like the King holiday proposal, Gilmore's newly expressed concern about the SOL program he has been administering for two years struck some black leaders and other lawmakers as commendable, if a little tardy.
Del. Jerrauld C. Jones (D-Norfolk), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, hailed Gilmore's message, but noted that it came more than a year after lawmakers first pressed for greater access and diversity in higher education, as part of the long learning path for young people who meet the SOL requirements and go on to college.
"This is the direction we've got to go if we're going to improve the pipeline," Jones said. "I am happy the governor is responding."
Jones, 45, the chairman of a special legislative commission on race issues in education, said Gilmore's call for greater diversity in the curriculum was but one piece of a larger puzzle to improve performance by poorer and minority students, who he said see too few African American teachers in Virginia's classrooms.
"It's not just out of the blue," Jones said. "The future depends on how a child starts on the first day of school."
Sen. Emily Couric (D-Charlottesville), vice chairman of the commission and a former chairman of her city's School Board, said of Gilmore: "I am glad he agrees with this commission, which has been toiling in the trenches. We have gotten on his radar screen."
Gilmore administration officials said there has been significant black achievement in the SOL tests, as African Americans have kept pace with significant gains statewide. Passing rates for black students have matched those of all other students in six of the SOL tests and exceeded those for all students statewide in 14 of the 27 SOL tests, the administration said.
Camille S. Cooper, a Charlottesville education lecturer and Schroder's fiancee, said today that her analysis of SOL curricula showed that 75 white males were discussed in social studies, while only eight black males, one black woman (Harriet Tubman) and four white women appeared in the courses.
"As a result of this exclusivity," Cooper told legislators recently, "children will not only disengage from the curriculum out of boredom, but will also grow up with an incomplete and inaccurate view of the majority of the population."
L. Victor Collins, an administrator at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who also advised the Jones-Couric commission, said Gilmore had taken "a very positive step."
"It will not, in and of itself, solve all the problems of SOLs that now are glaringly biased," Collins said.