School Standards Town Hall Sparks Spirited Engagement In Roanoke

The O. Winston Link Museum, sandwiched between the Hotel Roanoke and the mainline railroad tracks in Downtown Roanoke, is usually known for its beloved collection of black and white photographs documenting our region’s steam train history.

However, on March 16 it was the site of a spirited town hall where participants could give feedback regarding proposed changes to the social studies Standards of Learning (SOLs) that will help determine what K-12 students in Virginia’s government schools will learn – and perhaps equally importantly won’t learn, regarding the crucial topics of history, geography, civics, economics, etc. in coming years.

The town hall-style meeting is one of several the Youngkin administration is hosting at various venues in each major region of the Commonwealth. The town hall series began appropriately enough at Jamestown, with later meetings at George Washington’s estate Mount Vernon and Charlottesville. The series will end next week with meetings in Abington and Farmville.

The meetings keep alive the spirit as embodied by Norman Rockwell’s iconic WWII-era “Four Freedoms” painting series including “Freedom of Speech.”

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “Freedom of Speech,” 1943. Oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″. Story illustration for “The Saturday Evening Post,” February 20, 1943. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN.

The Star City evening got off to a raucous start, however. The left leaning Virginia Education Association (VEA) teachers’ union, which is a major pillar of the Democrat Party, is having a convention in the Hotel Roanoke so they provided a number of people who teamed up with some members of local unions to hold a protest rally before the town hall was to start.

One observer described it this way: “a loud, angry protest group came up the street that had gathered a few blocks back. They had air horns and their sirens and were yelling–promoting unions, BLM and other stuff (….) The protest group was also chanting “Virginia is a trans state, trans, trans, trans!” [Roanoke City Councilmember] Luke Priddy was marching in there with his associates (….) But they settled down. Once they got outside [the museum] they didn’t keep screaming and yelling and many of them came inside and some decided to speak. There were a couple of state troopers there for security ….”

Considering these meetings are being held in different places across the state and involve stakeholders who have vastly different and passionate views (and many people wish to speak in a short period of time), the Roanoke session was well-organized from start to finish.

Those who wished to address the gathering were asked to arrive at 6:30 to register, and when the doors opened at that time, the crowd was so large it stretched across the museum’s parking lot and toward the street. The museum lobby was soon filled with people: those wishing to speak were asked to sign in and get a number. Thankfully, the acrimony from the protest rally had already dissipated and people were cordial.

Many have been reasonably concerned, if not aghast, at the two extremes plaguing much of American civic life nowadays. At one extreme is apathy while at the other end is violent intolerance and “canceling.” The Roanoke event was a refreshing reminder that reasonable people can still discuss, debate, listen, and respect each other.

In order to facilitate a free flow of information, printed copies of the old 2015 social studies SOLs were available. Those packets showed strikethroughs to show what had been later deleted and blue text showed what had been inserted. A second packet clearly marked DRAFT showed the proposed SOLs as of January 2023. Moreover, QR codes were posted on the walls at several places to let participants download e-files of the texts and also upload their comments to the Virginia Board of Education.

The meeting was held in a long, narrow auditorium in the museum’s basement. There were perhaps 150 chairs and each seat was occupied. At the front of the room, three state officials were seated behind a table on a raised platform. One was Charles Pyle, communications director for the State Education Department (VDOE). A second was Dr. H. Alan Seibert, the widely-regarded and recently-retired superintendent of Salem City Schools whom Gov. Youngkin appointed to the State Board of Education.

The third and main moderator was Roanoke-born Ms. Anne Holton, daughter of former Gov. Lynwood Holton (R) and wife of US Senator and failed vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (D-VA). (Holton recently created twin controversies for herself and the Board of Education. In one, she publicly claimed that, despite them being our founding documents, she was “uncomfortable” calling the “Declaration of Independence and Constitution as remarkable documents without also acknowledging that they contain fundamental flaws.” In the second, Holton allegedly used state Senate Democrats to block an immigrant woman of color, Suparna Dutta, from taking a seat on the influential Education Board even though Governor Youngkin had appointed her.)

Once everyone was seated, ground rules were explained and Holton gave a warm greeting. “We welcome the energetic engagement of the public.” Overall about 30-some participants spoke. Holton said that other meetings had been so crowded, each speaker was limited to two minutes, but the Roanoke crowd was more manageable so each speaker was given three minutes. Some vastly different perspectives were voiced but the crowd was friendly and respectful, a welcome respite from the rancor and even violence we have seen play out in recent years in other parts of the nation.

On a surface level, speakers who opposed the new SOL’s outnumbered supporters by roughly a two-and-a-half to one margin. However, a deeper analysis shows a somewhat more complex picture.

Among those in opposition, about a half-dozen or so stated the new revisions should be thrown out entirely and the standards as established during the Democrat McAuliffe and Northam administrations should be kept unchanged. One male speaker angrily claimed “the governor insulted all teachers” by claiming he wanted to “restore excellence” to the schools. That speaker implied the word “restore” indicated schools and teachers weren’t doing a superior job already. However, no reference was made that study after study have documented perilous declines in student learning, especially corresponding to the lockdowns as mandated by former Governor Ralph Northam. That speaker also agreed with Holton’s earlier claim that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are not “remarkable.”

Despite overwhelming evidence of student learning losses during the lockdowns and oft-documented ignorance of basic historic and geographic knowledge, newly-elected Roanoke City Council member Luke Priddy (D) claimed the main flaw of the SOLs was their lack of a focus on topics related to homosexuality and transgenderism. Priddy, who introduced himself with his pronouns and as a 2010 graduate of Hidden Valley High School, raised eyebrows recently when, after only two months on City Council, he suddenly announced he is now running for a higher office, that of state senate to replace the aging Sen. John Edwards (D).

Overall, most who spoke against the revised standards were not opposing them all per se, but that they took issue with specific standards being taught at what they thought were the wrong times or in the wrong sequence.

One second grade teacher, echoing a refrain almost all teachers have experienced, explained “lots of standards have been added on, but none have been removed. The suggested new content is ok, but it’s inappropriate for grade 2 students, who are only seven or eight years old.” One new requirement is for second graders to identify the eight birthplaces of presidents who were born in the Old Dominion.

A number of teachers voiced similar concerns. One, the new standards were reasonable, but might be more appropriate for older grade levels or with different pacing. Two, limited class time makes it hard to meet all the SOLs currently, so adding more demands without adding class time will make the bar higher to reach. A common plea was, “There’s not enough time to cover all the material.”

Perhaps the most common objection to the new SOLs was a perceived lack of attention to labor history. Not surprisingly, this concern was voiced most by speakers who identified themselves as labor union or VEA members. One powerful speaker claimed the new SOLS seek to “erase labor history from our learning standards.” To cheers from the audience, she claimed “Labor history is American history.” As evidence, she cited New York’s tragic Triangle Shirt Factory Fire of 1911 that took 146 lives, mostly women, two of whom were only 14 years old. To prevent theft or workers taking unauthorized breaks, the exits were locked and that caused most to burn to death or die jumping out windows. To shouts of “Amen,” she also cited examples of coal strikes that government forces violently crushed but are seldom taught or even talked about today.

Scott Barry, Vice President of Teamsters 171 in Salem, made the claim that unions have raised wages and working conditions for all Americans, union members or not, and created the comfortable middle class lifestyle that millions of us enjoy today. As specific examples, Barry cited paid leave, sick leave, mandatory pensions, the Social Security Act, OSHA, paid vacation, the eight-hour workday, weekends off, and lots more that most Americans today take for granted but seldom stop to ask where they came from.

Although it did not relate to social studies specifically, one irate father from August County expressed his outrage at sexually-explicit materials in schools, as reported here. He exclaimed, “Why is there male on male oral sex in our libraries? (…) Let kids be kids, and get the sex out of our school systems.”

One of the more unusual moments of the evening came when one speaker who said he had moved to Roanoke from New Jersey complained about each person being limited to three minutes. Right before the buzzer sounded for him to end he declared “Time is racist.”

About eight or nine speakers offered unabashed support for the new social studies standards. JoAnn Price, Chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, cogently made her case for America having a remarkable founding. “The first 12 years of my life were in segregation,” she told the hushed crowd, but she has since been free to go and make the most of her life and liberties. Citing the old advertising slogan from the Negro College Fund, Price quoted “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

President Biden inadvertently showed the need for historical knowledge when he made headlines during the 2020 campaign by mangling a reference to the Declaration of Independence by claiming: “All men and women are created equal by, go, you know, the thing!” In contrast to Biden’s gaffe, Price calmly explained her understanding that the Declaration cites God as the source of our liberties, and it is the job of government to protect those rights. Price continued: “I am supposed to be black, Cherokee, and white to accomplish the purpose for which God created me.” Price also explained her belief that God made her female for a reason, and that she embraces her body and womanhood as vehicles by which she seeks to fulfill the purpose for which God created her.

Melvin Adams, founder of the Bedford-based Noah Webster Educational Foundation, delivered impassioned remarks that “dumbing down education is a terrible mistake to make” and that parents are the ultimate authority in a child’s education.

Delegate Chris Head (R-Botetourt/Roanoke) quoted from the Virginia Code that the General Assembly is tasked with the responsibility to maintain a quality public education system and that he fully supports the revisions. With redistricting, the House district Head has represented for several years has been dissolved and he has declared his candidacy for the newly-created Third District in the state Senate. That new district will include the Vinton/Bonsack/Hollins/Hanging Rock areas of Roanoke County and goes as far north as around Waynesboro and Staunton.

Some mothers from both the Bedford and Montgomery Counties’ “Moms for Liberty” chapters were there. Montgomery Vice Chairwoman Ginny Perfater verbalized the concern that revising SOLs may be just a “tinkering around the edges” and that more fundamental reforms are needed. She exclaimed: “I have completely changed my position on public education, and I think you really need to move to a more inclusive model of everyone, which is, we need to have School Choice in Virginia, that’s what the bottom line is, to all of this. If we have School Choice, then parents can decide what they want to teach their children. (…) And the fact of the matter is, teachers are going, it’s not a ‘maybe,’ teachers are going to bring their morals and their opinions and their backgrounds and their life into the classroom. (…) So we have to stop ‘pretending’ that the classroom is a neutral zone. It is not.”

A number of speakers shared relevant, inspirational quotations. Diane Ribble, a career educator from Salem, decried the erasure of much of our history and cited black scientist and inventor George Washington Carver: “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” Other quotations cited include the following:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”  –Thomas Jefferson

“The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” — Abraham Lincoln

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The current VDOE framework standards for social studies can be viewed here. The Board of Education is still inviting public comments via this online portal until March 21; the public can also email feedback or comments to [email protected].

The state education officials claimed the final social studies SOLs will be made public in April.

Updated 3-18-23

–Scott Dreyer









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