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Opinion Youngkin should have stayed out of school gender identity policy

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to media after signing an executive order at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Va., on Sept. 1. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) ran on education — specifically, giving parents more say about what happens in and around the classroom. So it is no surprise, yet nonetheless disheartening, that his administration announced last week that it rewrote model school guidance for how educators should treat transgender students, eliciting a storm of controversy on a subject for which there are no easy answers — and that, therefore, requires less politicization, not more.

Mr. Youngkin was not the first to broach this difficult subject in a high-handed manner. The administration of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was able last year to issue its own model school policies on transgender students, bypassing the independent state board of education and its requirement for public hearings, because of rules established by the Democrat-led legislature. That enabled Mr. Youngkin’s education department to quickly tear them up and substitute its own guidance — one that better reflected the governor’s weaponization of parental rights as a wedge issue.

It’s troubling, for example, that the new model policies would allow school personnel to disrespect and belittle transgender students by refusing to use the name that conforms with their gender identities, even in some cases when parents have made an official request. Just as teachers are not allowed to teach creationism out of their personal or religious beliefs, so, too, must school employees be barred from hurting children placed in their care.

Far thornier is the question of what school officials should be required to tell parents about their children’s gender identity. Mr. Northam’s policy recommended that schools weigh sharing information with parents on a case-by-case basis, considering students’ health and safety. Critics argued that this led to schools actively concealing information and even misleading parents, for example by referring to a child by one name with parents and by another with the student.

Mr. Youngkin’s new policy states that schools may not “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.” This might make informants of teachers and counselors, causing transgender students — already at a greater risk of suicide and substance abuse — to avoid confiding in them and, as a result, not get needed support, such as counseling on how to tell their parents about their gender identity. There is also the risk that outing kids could endanger them if parents are unwilling to accept them.

The state has seemingly no way to enforce its model guidance on schools. Most of the state’s school divisions declined to implement Mr. Northam’s policy; the 13 districts that did, most in Northern Virginia, comprised about 44 percent of statewide enrollment.

Instead of issuing another guidance more likely to inflame than to strike a durable balance, Mr. Youngkin should have rescinded Mr. Northam’s policy and asked the state board of education to consult with his administration on how to craft a guidance that would help school districts, individual schools and administrators to navigate these fraught issues. Indeed, those closest to the students for which they are caring might prove better able to muster the right mixture of compassion and good sense these situations require than a governor in Richmond who made his political name riling up parents on school policy.

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