Editor’s Note: Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, is the 74th governor of Virginia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. He joins CNN’s Jake Tapper for a town hall on education in America on Thursday, March 9 at 9pm ET. Read more opinion on CNN.
Last month, I had the honor of joining a fourth-grade class on their field trip to Fort Monroe — to the very spot where more than 400 years ago the first enslaved Africans touched American soil. We focused on the transformation and contradiction that Fort Monroe represents — as the origin of the evils of slavery in the US and then as a refuge for freedom during the Civil War. We talked honestly about Virginia’s and America’s history — the good and the bad.
As the discussion turned to the future, I encouraged the students to dream big and work hard, and noted that if they followed that guidance, their dreams could soon become reality. After all, that is part of the promise of the American Dream — that, with a good education, any child from any background can climb the ladder of success.
While people across the political spectrum agree that education is key to providing the very best opportunities for our children, our current education system is leaving far too many children behind.
This academic year alone, half of students in the United States started at least one grade level behind in at least one subject. And 20 years of progress in math and reading were erased over the course of the pandemic — with Black and Hispanic students faring disproportionately worse.
Compounding the problem is a national teacher shortage plaguing more than three-quarters of states. In Virginia, this shortage is particularly acute in elementary schools, for students with disabilities and in science and other major subjects.
Given students’ academic struggles and school’s employment challenges, it’s no surprise that Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with the state of K-12 education. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, only 42% of Americans are satisfied with their children’s education. The reasons for this range from concerns over the rigor of academic curriculum to the lack of school funding and quality teachers.
Notably, members of both parties voiced their dissatisfaction with the educational status quo in the Gallup poll — almost half of Democratic and Democratic-leaning respondents and 70% of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents. In short, Americans on either side of the aisle agree that the current system isn’t providing our children the best chance to succeed.
However, I believe there is a path forward, and that my beloved home of Virginia — which has long been a pioneer for the American Experiment — is laying out the blueprint for America.
This blueprint helps our students achieve academic excellence by raising accreditation and classroom standards, demanding transparency from school administrators and creating additional opportunities for students to succeed.
But none of this is achievable without giving parents their seats back at their children’s academic tables. According to a fall 2022 Pew Research Center poll, less than half of American parents are satisfied with the level of input they have in what their children are learning at school. That same survey finds that one in five parents of K-12 students don’t think their children’s schools spend enough time teaching the fundamental subjects of reading, math, science and social studies, either.
Despite a former Virginia governor expressing he doesn’t “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” I believe they deserve a say. I signed legislation giving parents the ability to provide direct input on education performance standards and proposed policies for public elementary and secondary schools. I revoked the mandatory mask mandate for children, allowing parents to choose what’s best for their children, and through our model policies, restored parents’ ability to be engaged in critical discussions on their child’s gender identification — not cut out of them.
Of course, this is also about improving the quality of our children’s education, too. In my commitment to bolster our educational system’s focus on fundamental subjects, I kept a promise to Virginians to ban the use of “inherently divisive concepts” in Virginia’s public schools. This ban used the tenets of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a guide — in an effort to teach children how to think in a fashion that does not encourage or lead to discrimination. Never again would a child in Northern Virginia be subject to “identify their privilege” for being born into the family of a military hero during a classroom game of “privilege bingo.”
In an effort to fund a strong educational system, I worked with the General Assembly to pass landmark bipartisan legislation, including the largest K-12 education budget in Virginia’s history. We increased teacher pay by 10%, strengthened support for school resource officers and passed the Virginia Literacy Act — resetting K-3 reading instruction with support specialists in schools and uniform training for Virginia teachers in the science of reading.
Finally, we are investing in innovative approaches that empower Virginians to choose different pathways within our public schools, notably lab schools. By partnering with our top-ranked higher education institutions and the private sector to stimulate experienced-based learning for our K- 12 students, lab schools provide multiple career pathways for Virginia’s next generation.
To date, the Department of Education has awarded 13 lab school planning grants across the Commonwealth. Recently, for example, Eastern Shore Community College began partnering with local public schools and NASA Goddard Space Center to design an aerospace lab school to help support rocket launch operations from Wallops Island.
As evidenced from our actions so far, improving education requires aspiring to, and celebrating, excellence. Fundamentally, it’s rooted in a deep, abiding commitment to parental involvement, measurable achievement and bold innovation. After all, we can — and should — have high expectations for our children, raising the ceiling and the floor by providing specific support for schools and students who need extra help.
There is nothing more important to making Virginia — and the nation — the best place to live, work and raise a family than by meeting our obligation to offer all children a top-quality education. We must set our eyes on the future that unites us, and when students, their teachers and their parents are energized and engaged, we can.