Editorial: Stand up for teachers in the new year

A little more than 60 years ago, the battle over school integration roiled Virginia.

It divided communities and inflicted lasting scars, all at the expense of students and their education. Norfolk public schools were among those that cruelly closed their doors to Black students, and there are still many residents here who can recall that painful experience in vivid and emotional detail.

On Dec. 31, 1959, The Virginian-Pilot published, “The Year Virginia Opened the Schools,” an editorial that chronicled the failed and morally corrupt “Massive Resistance” to public school integration.

“If it is assumed that Virginians in the world of today think it intelligent and wise, or even tolerable, to shut down the public education program on which democracy rests, then we should be condemning ourselves to darkness,” editor Lenoir Chambers wrote, in the final installment of an editorial series that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1960.

As 2022 comes to a close and 2023 is set to begin, Virginia again finds itself amid a heated struggle about the future of public education. The lines are not as clear as they were in 1959 and the topics of contention are more numerous — and less stark — than they were then.

But one similarity holds: History will be a harsh judge of those who perpetuate baseless attacks on education and educators as well as those who stand silently by and allow them to happen.

It’s easy to single out Gov. Glenn Youngkin for his role in this. He rode a wave of frustration about pandemic-related school closures — and stoked the outrage machine about “critical race theory” — to an election win in 2021 and signed an executive order on the day he took office taking aim at “divisive concepts.”

That nebulous phrase has come to mean “things with which the governor disagrees.” His Department of Public Instruction ended all policies related to diversity, equity and inclusion, for instance. And the Youngkin administration sought to enforce those misguided policies using an email tip line that encouraged Virginians to report teachers and schools that didn’t fall in line with the governor’s orthodoxy.

Citizens should have access to documents used to shape state education policies and threaten the careers and reputations of public employees, but when asked for copies of those emails, the governor’s office cowered behind a provision of Virginia’s open government law to refuse that request. A lawsuit filed by Virginia media organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press, managed to pry a handful of those emails loose, but the governor’s office was content to crow about how it kept the bulk of them secret.

That’s not the totality of the Youngkin administration’s attacks on public education this year.

The governor has proposed policies that would be harmful to transgender and nonbinary students, clearing the way for discrimination against them. And he has overseen a ham-fisted attempt to rewrite history curricula, scrapping a draft that took two years to produce and proposing one that omitted mention of Martin Luther King Jr., among other egregious errors.

One need not wonder what effect such policies had on our talented and dedicated educators. Virginia teachers are leaving the profession in droves, either to change careers or to find appreciation and respect elsewhere.

The “divisive concepts” debate and the governor’s snitch line aren’t solely responsible for the teacher exodus. The pandemic had a profound effect and Virginia still ranks near the bottom of states for teacher pay. But alienating those who spend their days at the front of the classroom is reckless and counterproductive.

Our teachers need champions inside and outside of the schoolhouse. They need citizens who are willing to stand up for them and for children, and who will stand against the baseless criticism leveled by those who seek to undermine trust and confidence in public education

As Chambers wrote 63 years ago, we must rally in defense of the public education program on which democracy rests, or else we risk condemning ourselves to darkness.