How Schools Can Call a Truce in Education’s Ongoing Culture War

In April 2019, I stood with Virginia’s Governor, Secretary of Education, and State Superintendent to declare “Virginia is for Learners.” It was the crescendo of a multi-year education reform effort spanning two gubernatorial administrations, led by a host of state and local education leaders.

Since then, a growing group of nonpartisan education leaders have been working hard to deliver on that promise. This has included the establishment of the Commonwealth Learning Partnership, a coalition of more than 40 education groups and universities committed to modernizing Virginia’s public education system; the launch of EdEquityVA, the state’s roadmap to and trainings on education equity; and more recently, the formation of a statewide education foundation, Virginia Learns.

These education leaders have offered constant support to the education frontlines throughout the pandemic. Even so, extended crisis schooling gave rise to heated disagreements between parents and schools, put on full display at school board meetings and on social media. Virginia, like so many places, has culture wars dominating discourse about public education, which has taken attention away from school, educator, and student needs.

It’s no surprise that education ended up being the hot-button campaign issue in Virginia’s recent governor’s race. The Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, campaigned on his record. Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, took a different approach, tapping into the fears and frustrations of his constituency. Youngkin won on the promise of more parental control in education, saying his first action would be to fire the state’s education chief, and that he would promote school choice.

While this was an effective way to win a race, it misses the complexity of the issues impacting education in COVID recovery. Beyond platitudes and promises, we need decision-makers who bring people together to work towards the common good of student learning, healing and recovery. Using education as a wedge issue to stoke anger, resentment and to deepen divisions will only make matters worse.

Youngkin’s win and the public conversation on education that took place across Virginia and the US leading up to his election, illuminates three problems we face in education: issues of trust, truth and trauma.

Pandemic experiences have made parents less trusting of their children’s schools. Campaigns and conversations have focused on who should have power over a child’s education, when the reality is that parents and educators share that responsibility.

For many kids, the adults who support learning go beyond the household and school. Extended family, counselors, services providers and afterschool programs are also a part of the equation. Adults need to work in partnership to support children’s learning and well-being. Parental and family engagement, along with school-community partnerships, must be a top priority for states and schools. This requires professional development on effective engagement, working with parent groups and providing ways for parents and community partners to have a voice in education decisions.

Parents have their own role to play. This starts with taking a posture of empathy and openness towards the people running schools and teaching kids. The past two years have been hard for everybody, but the pressures and demands on educators have been extreme. Formal parent groups, like the PTA, and informal organizing groups, can establish and enforce a culture that upholds the dignity and worth of all people.

Exacerbating these trust issues are alarming disagreements over truth. Culture wars are getting worse. CRT and school curriculum debates reveal unsettling differences between what people view as “truth” in current circumstances and American history. We cannot move around this issue. We must work through it. Schools and communities need assistance from experienced facilitators and mediators to have difficult and necessary conversations about racism, inequity and our history. This is reconciliation work, and it is vital for the health, healing and well-being of students, families and communities. If we do not do this, then our kids—especially those who are Black, brown, and Indigenous—will fall into the fault lines these culture wars have created.

Trauma has been an accelerant to trust and truth issues. We are nearly two years into the most disruptive period many of us have ever experienced, and trauma abounds. Left unaddressed, it will take a continued toll on student learning and mental health, educator wellness and community capacity for collective care. Healing from trauma takes time, training and focus. This is especially true in places and with people who already were experiencing trauma before COVID. It is time for leaders to prioritize and invest in mental health, to get trained on trauma-informed care and to work on improving systems of care.

The future of our schools and long-COVID education recovery is about more than power, advancement and choice. It will last longer than a campaign cycle, and even a gubernatorial term. Real recovery is about care, connection and healing. For students to learn and schools to function, we must work and heal together.

For nearly eight years, I have worked alongside Virginia’s most inspiring educators and education leaders. They know Virginia is for Learners is a promise that extends across political and community divides, and that it must hold true, even in times of disruption or disagreement. This is the path forward that supports students, builds great schools, and a future of learning where young people can thrive.

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