The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin says superintendents back him but offers little evidence

The governor and his allies say a letter criticizing his education policies does not represent all the state’s superintendents. The Post asked them for their views.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks Feb. 16 on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond before signing a bill banning mask mandates in public schools. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other Virginia Republicans say recent criticism by a school superintendents group warning that the governor’s education policies could “set public education back many years” does not represent the views of all superintendents across the state.

Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) Executive Director Howard Kiser sent the letter Thursday to Jillian Balow, the state superintendent of public instruction. In the days since, Youngkin and his allies have alleged that many educators do not agree with the missive and have criticized press coverage of the controversy, including in The Washington Post. Youngkin campaigned heavily last year on charges that public schools are out of touch with parental concerns. Several superintendents have since come forward to say that they were not consulted before the letter went out.

But little evidence has emerged to support the administration’s claim that there is widespread dissatisfaction among superintendents with the content of the letter. The Post asked all of Virginia’s 133 superintendents for their views on the letter Tuesday. The vast majority declined to comment or did not respond. As of Wednesday afternoon, none said they disagreed with the overall message of the document.

In the letter, Kiser urged Youngkin to scrap a “tip line” he set up to allow parents to complain about teachers and principals. Kiser also asked Youngkin to end his campaign against the teaching of “divisive” content.

The letter came in response to a recent administration report, authored by Balow, that canceled many policies aimed at racial equity and diversity. The letter called the report misguided and said it was prepared without superintendents’ input.

Virginia Education Department rescinds diversity, equity programs in response to Youngkin’s order

Over the weekend, top state Republicans waged a campaign on social media to discredit the letter and initial news reports about it. Youngkin said in an interview with WJLA-TV on Monday that the letter was a “gross misrepresentation of what superintendents believe.” He added that the letter did not stem from a vote of the association’s membership and that the board “mischaracterized the support they had for that letter.”

Garren Shipley, a spokesman for Republican leadership in the Virginia House of Delegates, said he began hearing over the weekend from roughly a dozen superintendents who disagreed with the letter’s assertions. Shipley provided The Post a list of five superintendents who he said disagreed with the letter. None of the superintendents in the five school districts — in Campbell, Hanover, Scott, Shenandoah and Washington counties — responded to emails or calls for comment.

Meanwhile, the Arlington GOP tweeted that stories about the letter were “#FakeNews” and Virginia Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson posted that “the media pushed an indisputable falsehood.”

Kiser did not respond to a request for comment. In an email over the weekend, he wrote that the group’s 12-member board “crafted and adopted the letter on behalf of the membership, 133 superintendents.” He noted that eight of those members, called regional chairs, “represent all geographic areas of the state.” And he added that, as of Sunday, “I have not heard any dissent from superintendents.”

A staff member with the association, who was not authorized to communicate with the news media and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the group did not circulate the letter beforehand but emailed all superintendents a copy right after it was sent to Youngkin.

The Post contacted all 133 superintendents in Virginia on Tuesday, asking for their thoughts on the letter. Of the 20 who replied, 16 said they fully support the letter and four declined to comment. Only one superintendent, Robbie Mason of Charlotte County Public Schools, expressed discontent with the letter, saying: “I agree with some aspects of the letter, like the need for better communication. Other parts I do not agree with.”

Mason did not respond to a follow-up question asking which parts he disliked.

Superintendent Oskar Scheikl, who heads Rockingham County Public Schools, offered qualified support for the letter. He wrote in an email Tuesday that “although I agree with many of the points made in the letter, superintendents were only notified after it had been sent.”

He added: “The letter states that it was sent ‘on behalf of 133 superintendents’, and I believe that this has been interpreted by many as 133 superintendents having come together to approve or even write the letter. That was not the case. Given that one of the criticisms of state superintendent Balow was the lack of communication prior to the report, I wish I had been informed of the letter prior to it being sent as well. That doesn’t mean I disagree with the statements regarding the overly politicized tone of and problematic content in the 30-day report.”

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter on Tuesday arranged interviews with two Virginia superintendents whom she said disagreed with the letter. Both superintendents spoke on the condition of anonymity, the first because “there is a sensitivity to the topic” and the second because the superintendent’s local school board has not taken a position on the matters discussed in the letter.

Speaking with Porter on the line, both condemned the manner in which the letter debuted, lamenting that they were not consulted before it was sent to Youngkin.

The first anonymous superintendent expressed agreement with parts of the letter and disagreement with others but repeatedly refused to specify which parts of the letter were troubling.

Asked whether they agreed with Balow’s decision to rescind Virginia equity programs, the person declined to comment. Asked whether they agreed with the statement that “divisive concepts” are widespread in Virginia education, the first superintendent said, “I certainly can’t speak to the entire commonwealth, but I can speak to what happens in our school division, and we certainly do not have divisive concepts here.”

The second superintendent also complained that they received no prior notice that the letter was going out and learned of it by reading the newspaper. For the association to criticize the Virginia Department of Education for not following good procedure and then neglect to give every superintendent a chance to weigh in “was a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black, a little hypocritical,” the superintendent said.

Still, the superintendent declined to comment on whether they agreed with the letter’s complaints about the Youngkin administration. “I’m not going to opine on the positions of the letter,” the superintendent said, adding that “I’m sure there are things I would want to edit.” Pressed on whether they took issue with the Youngkin administration’s removal of racial equity policies from Virginia’s K-12 curriculum for being “divisive,” the superintendent again declined to comment.

Fourteen Virginia superintendents reached by email or on the phone Tuesday and Wednesday said they strongly support the letter sent to Youngkin.

Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Burnette — whose county went for Youngkin in the gubernatorial election, with 83 percent of voters’ support — wrote in an email that he agrees with the letter’s assertion that “superintendents across the state need to be involved in any kind of report that is generated on behalf of public education that affects our students or school policies.”

In Dickenson County, where 80 percent of the population voted for Youngkin, Superintendent Haydee Robinson said she also supports the letter. So did Superintendents Kevin Siers in Pulaski County, where 74 percent of the population voted for Youngkin, and David Jeck in Fauquier County, where Youngkin drew 65 percent of the vote.

“I agree with the tone and tenor of the letter,” Greg Mullins, superintendent of Wise County Public Schools, said in an interview. “Any time there is a change in leadership in Richmond there is a period of adjustment, no question — but what we had been accustomed to was being able to have conversations, interact, ask questions and be part of the process.

“And,” he added, “the general sense is that that has not happened, has not taken place,” with the Youngkin administration.

Eighty-four percent of Wise County residents cast their ballots for Youngkin in the gubernatorial election.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Bath County Public Schools Superintendent Sue Hirsh said she was aware of the letter but knew very little about it.

Hirsh said she would prefer not to comment on the letter’s contents. Seventy-nine percent of Bath County voted for Youngkin.

“I really haven’t given it much thought, to be honest,” Hirsh said of the letter. “I’ve got too many other things to think about. I’m focused on keeping school going every day.”