The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s pragmatic school board picks offer hope for reform

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Education was key to Republican Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for governor of Virginia, and it has figured prominently in his first months in office. Unfortunately, some of his moves — his first executive order forbidding the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts,” the establishment of a secretive tip line for people to snitch on teachers and his bid to oust the Loudoun school board — seemed to be outgrowths of the divisive ideology that drove his campaign. But his choice for education secretary — an expert in the use of data to drive education reform — offered some hope that Mr. Youngkin might be more interested in improving education than just weaponizing it. Now his first appointments to the state board of education offer further encouragement that Mr. Youngkin wants solutions for the issues that have long bedeviled education.

A standoff with the General Assembly over gubernatorial appointments gave Mr. Youngkin the unprecedented opportunity to name five members on the state’s nine-member Board of Education, which has broad authority over issues affecting public and private education in the commonwealth. His choices, announced last week and subject to legislative approval, promise to add people with a variety of interesting experiences and perspectives to the board.

Andrew Rotherham is a former Bill Clinton education adviser and member of the Virginia state school board who co-founded a research nonprofit focused on improving learning outcomes for marginalized students. Grace Turner Creasey, an expert in early-childhood education, is executive director of the Virginia Council for Private Education. William D. Hansen, deputy secretary of education under President George W. Bush, heads up a nonprofit dedicated to helping public charter schools build and finance facilities. Alan Seibert, former superintendent of Salem City Schools, is the constituent services and government relations officer for Roanoke City Public Schools. Suparna Dutta, a technology expert, is co-founder of the parent group Coalition for TJ (Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology).

The appointments predictably drew some criticism. Opponents of charter schools questioned Mr. Hansen’s appointment, and those who think Mr. Youngkin is out to destroy public schools pointed to Ms. Creasey’s selection. But Mr. Youngkin is right to establish a big education tent that is welcoming of new ideas. Charter schools, as their success in D.C. shows, can play a critical role in education; they offer choice to parents and are laboratories for innovation. Private and parochial schools, too, play a role and are affected by decisions of the board. Ms. Creasey would not be the first private school board member, and she taught for 10 years in public school systems. That Mr. Youngkin reached out to Mr. Rotherham, a Democrat whose nationally recognized work has been focused on underserved students, suggests the governor recognizes the need to address Virginia’s glaring racial, ethnic and income achievement gaps. We are less enthusiastic about Ms. Dutta’s selection. As a parent activist who supported Mr. Youngkin during the campaign, she helps him deliver on his commitment to parental engagement. But her work in the fraught debate over TJ — in which she opposed the school’s needed admission changes — are off-putting to those who worry about a retreat from diversity and equity.

Virginia education officials two months ago released a report that documented in devastating detail a years-long trend of declining student performance, made worse by the pandemic. Clearly, the board — fortified with its new members — has its work cut out for it.