What Are Worthy Virginia History Standards?

In an opinion piece in the online newsletter Cardinal News (https://cardinalnews.org) on March 20, 2023, Dwayne Yancey  writes that “Youngkin wants to bring back the Readjusters. Good for him.” As I understand his column, Yancey had written a previous column about the struggles the Virginia Department of Education was having in revising previous history and social studies standards for the public schools. That column apparently caught the eye of the State Secretary of Education who invited him in a personal conversation to submit his recommendations as to what should be included in the revised standards. He sent her a list and to his surprise “the Youngkin administration is adding mention of the Readjuster Party to the state’s standards.”

I share his surprise, or more explicitly, I am aghast! Having studied and taught Virginia history at the high school and continuing education levels, I would say that I would not single out for inclusion in school standards what Encyclopedia Virginia describes as “the shortest-lived and most radical reforming political party in Virginia’s history.” For college or graduate school examination I would include the party for sure. The effort to “readjust” the Civil War debt by reneging on paying back some of it or at a lower rate hardly seems like a concept a Republican administration would endorse. The Party’s effort to be biracial is commendable until it becomes apparent that their motivation was to get enough Black votes to win the few elections where they were successful.

Even more puzzling is the decision to include the Readjuster Party in the standards considering the Governor’s first Executive Order in which he stated and has repeated many times that he was “taking the first step on Day One to end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory.” Someone will need to speak slowly to help me understand how the Readjuster movement can be explained without reference to political divisiveness in the state or to race as a critical part of the history of the Commonwealth at the time.

I have been a critic of the process of rewriting the standards since the new administration took over. They inherited a draft that was developed by Virginia-based institutions and experts and for which there was widespread support. Before there was even time to consider that draft, the new administration dismissed it because it did not fit with their message that Virginia schools were failing with low standards. They contracted with out-of-state conservative institutions and individuals to produce a document that can only be described as an embarrassment. Even the administration’s appointed Board of Education members would not accept it. The latest draft is being shopped around the state in a series of meetings held in small spaces overcrowded with people who get a couple of minutes each to speak on this topic that the administration has politicized. Being a newspaper columnist apparently gives one an edge to have something included in the standards.

The latest standards are improvements over the earlier versions, but from the testimony at the public hearings it is obvious that they need more work if they are to survive longer than the Readjuster Party did.