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Statement of the Lieutenant Governor Earle-Sears – Dobbs v. Jackson Decision



The Lieutenant Governor supports the Governor’s actions to ensure the safety of the Supreme Court justices and their loved ones. “We support the First Amendment and the right to protest peacefully but not at the expense of the safety of others. We are a civilized society. The baby in the womb wants to live. We ask for God’s protection for our commonwealth and our country”, stated Winsome Earle-Sears in the decision for Dobbs v. Jackson.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization argued this term before the Supreme Court, will determine the constitutionality of a state’s right to make laws allowing or prohibiting abortion. This case was heard in reference to legislation passed by the state of Mississippi: the Gestational Age Act (HB 1510), prohibiting most abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Dobbs, giving power back to the states to make decisions on abortion. The court has recognized that the 1973 decision was an example of judicial and federal overreach. The important question of abortion has now been returned to statehouses across the country, in order for them to make their own policy decisions- which is exactly what the founding fathers envision when they wrote the 10th amendment to the Constitution. I applaud the Court for recognizing this wrong and having the courage to correct it. I look forward to working with the Governor and the General Assembly in the next legislative session on legislation that respects life,” the Lieutenant Governor added.

“The 10th Amendment to the Constitution says, ‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’ This ruling supports this amendment.”


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As Virginia budget negotiations drag on, here’s what hangs in the balance



In normal years, Virginia’s budget plan is supposed to be pretty much done by April, except for any late changes recommended by the governor.

But for the second year in a row, the politically split General Assembly is heading into spring under a cloud of uncertainty over when the budget will get done and what will be in it.

According to House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, budget negotiators are taking a deliberately cautious approach to getting a better feel for the status of the broader economy.

‘Buckle up’: Youngkin budget proposal includes another $1B in tax cuts

“We are taking our time and being very deliberate with the stock market volatility, revenues softening some and to see if the bank situation doesn’t proliferate,” Knight said in an email Wednesday, referring to possible ripple effects of the failure of Silicon Valley Bank this month.

Lawmakers are set to return to Richmond on April 12 to take up vetoes and legislative amendments from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. If there’s no budget to vote on by then, the next big deadline is June 30, when the state’s current budget year ends.

Some legislators have pointed out that the General Assembly technically isn’t required to pass a budget this year. Because the state is approaching the middle of its two-year budget cycle, lawmakers are modifying an existing plan, not creating an entirely new budget.

Still, several key priorities won’t get funded if the two parties can’t come to an agreement over the next few months. Here are a few of them:

Tax relief

For a second year in a row, Youngkin and his Republican allies have made broad tax cuts a top priority, and Democrats have again been trying to use their negotiating power to lock in more targeted relief that would help lower-income Virginians.

Democrats have made clear Youngkin’s proposal to cut the corporate tax rate from 6% to 5% is a non-starter for them. But they’ve expressed more openness to broader forms of relief for individual taxpayers, such as raising the standard income tax deduction.

Signs of strength or weakness in state revenues could be a major factor in determining how much tax relief is feasible because Youngkin has indicated he will only pursue tax cuts the state can comfortably afford.

Legislators have also floated the idea of doing another round of one-time tax rebates instead of making more structural tax cuts meant to be long-term. As part of last year’s bipartisan budget deal, the state sent out millions of tax rebate payments worth up to $250 per person.

Mental health investments

Following years of financial and staffing strain that culminated in five of Virginia’s state-run mental hospitals closing to new admissions in July 2021, Youngkin this December laid out a broad package of $230 million in reforms to the government behavioral health system.

While some of the aims in the governor’s “Right Help, Right Now” proposal can be achieved by consolidating current programs, said Virginia Department of Health Chief Operating Officer Christopher Lindsay, the numerous amendments to the current budget would be a “significant contributor” to those goals, which are generally backed by both parties. Those include money for a school-based mental health pilot, the expansion of local crisis centers that provide an alternative to hospitals for people seeking help, and higher Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain behavioral health providers.

Both budgets would also increase pay for staff at the state’s community services boards, the locally based bodies that are the primary providers of behavioral health and developmental disability services in Virginia. The House calls for an extra $37 million, and the Senate an extra $50 million.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin unveils his Right Help, Right Now plan for reforming Virginia’s behavioral health system at Henrico Doctors Hospital on Dec. 14, 2022. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)


Teacher raises

Virginia, like other states, is suffering from teacher shortages, with many policymakers pointing to low pay as one driver of the vacancies. A 2019 report from the state’s legislative watchdog agency found Virginia ranked 33rd among the states in average salary for K-12 public teachers.

The House and Senate are proposing even bigger raises for public school teachers than the existing budget. Under the current budget, teachers get 5% raises, while this year’s amendments would push those up to 7%. Both chambers are also recommending that $50 million in proposed teacher performance bonuses be redirected to other goals, with the House specifically putting that money toward bigger salary bumps and calling for a workgroup to set “appropriate metrics” for teacher compensation.

Help with Richmond’s massive sewer project

Both the House and the Senate are backing a request from Youngkin to put $100 million toward the city of Richmond’s ongoing struggle to fix its 19th-century combined sewer overflow system, which routes storm runoff and sewage through the same pipes. CSO systems, which were built over a century ago in many historic East Coast cities, including Richmond and Lynchburg, cause sewage overflows into waterways whenever heavy rainfall overwhelms the network.

Lynchburg has almost completed its CSO conversion, and Alexandria’s is in full swing. But with an estimated cost of over $1.3 billion, Richmond’s project far outstrips its counterparts in both price and complexity, and the high percentage of residents living below the poverty line has limited the city’s ability to cover costs through rate increases.

The James River in Richmond near Brown’s Island. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)


Hiring more reading and literacy specialists

After sharp drops in reading test results during the pandemic, both chambers have proposed hiring more literacy coaches and reading specialists to help students. House and Senate amendments would allocate $6.7 million to expand the state’s literacy program, which currently covers students up to grade 3 through eighth grade. Both also call for the hiring of more reading specialists, with the Senate proposing more than $27 million and the House almost $14 million for the initiative.

Increased funding for the state’s Business Ready Sites Program

One of Youngkin’s biggest spending priorities was $450 million to boost the state’s supply of economic development sites that could make the state more attractive to big employers looking for somewhere to build.

That funding became a sticking point for budget negotiators late in the regular session, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and it remains unclear how legislators will resolve their differences.

School security grants

Both budgets call for ramped-up spending on school security. The Senate is proposing an extra $50 million in grants for that purpose, while the House is suggesting $12 million be diverted from the Lottery Fund for school security grants, $8 million go toward hiring more school resource and school security officers and $1.5 million go toward security renovations at two elementary schools in Newport News, including Richneck Elementary, where a 6-year-old shot his teacher in January.

Statewide housing needs assessments

While their numbers differ, the House and Senate budgets both provide funding for a statewide housing needs assessment. As home prices rise faster than inflation and many areas of the state see ongoing shortages of affordable housing, the two chambers backed legislation this session to direct the Department of Housing and Community Development to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s housing stock and need every five years. The Senate proposes $400,000 for the effort, while the House proposes $500,000.

Building construction, Richmond, Va. Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury


An inland port in Southwest Virginia

Both budgets include substantial new funding for the Virginia Port Authority to begin the process of building an inland port in Southwest Virginia’s Mount Rogers Planning District.

The state currently has an inland port in the northern Shenandoah Valley, and proponents of adding a second logistics hub in Southwest Virginia say it could increase the flow of cargo and boost business development in the area.

The House budget includes $55 million for the project. The Senate budget allocates $10 million.

Jury duty pay

Lawmakers passed a proposal this session to raise jury duty pay from $30 per day to $50 per day after initially considering compensation as high as $100 per day.

Youngkin signed the bill setting the new amount at $50, but nearly $1.4 million in new funding to help the courts system cover those costs depends on the budget being approved.


by Sarah Vogelsong, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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With college enrollment dropping, could 529 savings plans help cover workforce credentials?



As more Virginians pivot from the traditional path of going to college and earning a degree, state and federal policymakers are considering expanding government programs designed to encourage college enrollment to cover training for middle-skilled positions in high demand.

Two of Virginia’s congressional representatives — Reps. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, and Abigail Spanberger, D-Prince William — are backing one such proposal that would let families saving for college through 529 accounts use that money to pay for workforce credential expenses such as examinations, certifications, and licenses to operate the equipment.

“Whether you’re a young adult just coming out of high school, or you’ve been in the workforce for a while, and you’re looking to gain some additional skills — or pivot careers completely — there are opportunities for folks to grow professionally,” said Mary Morris, CEO of Virginia529, the state’s college savings program. “More and better programs exist than ever before, and the fact that you can’t use a 529 account for some of those just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Beginning in the 1980s, states began offering 529 plans to help families save for college expenses, including tuition, fees, and books. The tax-advantaged investment accounts for educational savings are today offered in most states. Virginia created its 529 programs in 1994.

While 529s provide flexibility for account holders in that they can be used for colleges, universities, vocational schools, registered apprenticeships, and most public, private, or religious K-12 tuition expenses, Morris said the plan is primarily used for eligible educational institutions that qualify for federal financial aid. If a student chooses not to go to college, the funds can be withdrawn, but the account holder may be subject to taxes or penalties.

Earlier this month, Wittman and Spanberger reintroduced legislation that would expand the use of 529 funds to other non-college workforce training and expenses like examinations such as those administered for real estate licenses and heavy equipment operations.

“For students and workers in Virginia, 529 savings accounts have long ensured that the next generation can afford a higher education,” Spanberger said in a statement. “But right now, students can’t use these accounts to pay for necessary credentialing programs and exams.”

The proposal is backed by Virginia529 as well as the Professional Certification Coalition, a group representing approximately 100 professional certification organizations and service providers.

In a March 2021 letter, the PCC called the legislation a way “to ease the financial burden” for people seeking certifications or switching jobs “as an alternative to a traditional four-year college degree.”

David Gillespie, president and founder of Virginia Technical Academy in Newport News, said the passage of the legislation would help “de-stigmatize the trades as a career path, contrary to the current mentality of ‘college is the only choice.’”

Gillespie said passage of the legislation coupled with the Jobs to Compete Act, which would expand Pell Grant eligibility to students enrolled in workforce programs, would also help prevent the academy from turning students away. Since 2020, he said the academy has turned down more than 200 potential students who could have been trained in various trades.

An employment gap

Analysts and advocates for improving skills training said employers are facing a shortage of trained workers to fill middle-skilled positions or jobs that require more than a high school diploma and less than a four-year degree. Some of those jobs include electricians, nurses, dental assistants, teacher assistants, and firefighters.

This November, the Virginia Community Colleges System reported an estimated 300,000 jobs were vacant in the commonwealth, with about half of them considered middle-skilled. The total increased to 333,000 as of January, according to a March 27 report by the Virginia Employment Commission.

This January, newly hired VCCS Chancellor David Doré said one of his priorities is to address the skills gap, which is the disparity between the skills employers expect their employees to have and the actual skills employees possess. 

“The skills gap is a national crisis, frankly, and certainly, that’s not unique to Virginia,” Doré said. “I think that the Virginia community colleges will play the pivotal role in really addressing the skills gap in Virginia.”

But while a 2019 report from the University of Virginia’s StatChat noted a third of U.S. adults have a high school degree as their highest level of education, almost two-thirds of jobs require postsecondary training.

“Is there a solution to this dilemma?” wrote author Spencer Shanholtz in the report. “Shall we begin to rethink the traditional education model by focusing in between the two extremes of either ‘no college’ or a full four-year degree?”

Cultural shifts

The traditional process of graduating from high school and going to college is changing in Virginia. According to analysts and data, fewer students are finishing school, and more are looking for opportunities besides earning a four-year college degree.

Between 2017 and 2022, fall college enrollment in the commonwealth declined by 3%, from 521,445 students to 519,531, according to data collected by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The commonwealth recorded a low in the fall of 2021 when 516,980 students enrolled in college.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit that provides colleges and universities research services, shows that student career interests also appear to be changing, with growing enrollment in programs in fields such as computer sciences, engineering, health, and education.

“Our nation and economy are not the same as they were 15 or 20 years ago – it’s critical that we equip our students to excel in the future workforce,” Wittman said in a statement. “Not only are the current requirements to obtain [career and technical education] and STEM educations incredibly costly, but we’ve seen that the high school degree does not necessarily provide the same career opportunities it once did.”

A total of 72% of Virginians who were contracted to do jobs said they would be interested in completing training or education to acquire new job skills, according to a 2021 report by a Virginia Department of Labor task force.

That report also found substantial declines in employer contributions to employee training, as well as the will to invest in independent contractors.

Virginia efforts

Since taking office in January 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has advocated for strengthening the commonwealth’s workforce and expanding career and technical education.

Youngkin has said one key to workforce development is to have every high school student graduate with a credential that can be used in the workforce. In December, he proposed that an additional $21 million go to the Virginia Community College System to expand dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to take college-level courses or classes that count toward industry credentials. The amendment, like other proposals to update the state’s biennial budget, remains tied up in negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.

Other proposals aimed at strengthening the workforce through career and technical education failed during the last General Assembly session, including bills to expand the state’s tuition assistance program for community college students interested in high-demand industries.

Nevertheless, Wittman said the administration’s work aligns with the federal legislation he and Spanberger are carrying in recognizing the importance of career and technical education and ensuring Virginia students enter the workforce with valuable, in-demand skill sets.

Other state efforts predate Youngkin’s term, including the tuition assistance program called Get a Skill, Get a Job, Get Ahead, or G3, for qualifying residents seeking a career in the commonwealth’s most in-demand industries, including early childhood education, healthcare, information technology, public safety, and skilled trades.

Virginia has also administered apprenticeship programs and training programs through the commonwealth’s 23 community colleges, while VCCS launched HIRE, an initiative to support middle-skilled positions.

“We’ve had many conversations about advancing educational opportunities and educational access across Virginia, and that’s what Virginia 529 is all about,” Morris said. “And a big piece of that is workforce training. It’s becoming more and more important as an opportunity for students.”


by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Attorney General Miyares returns from Israel and Poland; Urges Virginia State Police to require antisemitism training



On March 30, 2023. Attorney General Jason Miyares concluded a nine-day trip to Israel and Poland to learn about the most up-to-date innovative technology for public safety and security and to learn more about antisemitism and the best ways for states to combat it. Along with North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, Attorney General Miyares spearheaded the trip, leading a bipartisan delegation of eight attorneys general from across the country.

Attorney General Miyares with trip co-chair, North Carolina Attorney General Stein (D)

The attorneys general first visited Auschwitz with the foremost Holocaust scholar in the United States, Mr. Michael Berenbaum. There they discussed the historical rise of antisemitism in the 1930s and 1940s, and particularly how it was able to thrive in progressive European cities.

The delegation also met with Ministry Foreign Affairs experts for global antisemitism, where they specifically addressed the issue of boycott divestiture and sanctions (BDS) and the alarming rise of antisemitism in America.

Attorney General Miyares in Auschwitz

“A significant takeaway from our time in Israel was that to eradicate antisemitism once, and for all, we have to understand the trends that have allowed it to thrive and grow throughout time, worldwide,” said Attorney General Miyares. “Virginia’s newfound relationship with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs experts will greatly help our Antisemitism Task Force in combating this scourge here in the Commonwealth. As attorneys general, it was beneficial for us to learn from Israeli security officials about their nation’s world-class security technology and defense capabilities. Very few nations face the amount of threats that Israel does, and yet they’re able to successfully keep their citizens safe.

“It was also an interesting time to visit Israel during their domestic debate about the future of their judiciary system. The people of Israel were able to voice their concerns to their government, just like the United States and democratic countries around the globe. Unfortunately, there are still nations where this is not possible, like China, Cuba, and many countries in the Middle East.”

The delegation also had meetings with Isaac Herzog, the President of Israel, and Ambassador Ron Dermer, the Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister. The group discussed a wide range of issues, including the historic reforms being made in Israel as well as their constant national security threats.

The trip to Israel highlighted the importance of learning about and understanding antisemitism as one of the key tools for combating it. That’s why Attorney General Miyares today sent a letter to Virginia State Police Colonel Gary Settles, urging them to add antisemitism awareness training for new officer training and recurring training for current officers. This is a recommendation from the new Office of Attorney General Antisemitism Task Force, which was created by Attorney General Miyares in February. Attorney General Miyares also encourages local police departments across the Commonwealth to consider antisemitism awareness training.

Read the letter here.

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Third attempt to exempt eyebrow threading technicians from licensing requirements fails



A bill to help remove licensing requirements for eyebrow threading technicians failed to pass a House committee during the recent General Assembly session.

Eyebrow threading is a method to remove facial hair and eyebrows that began millenniums ago in Asia, and gained popularity in Western culture.

People interested in pursuing eyebrow threading must obtain certification through wax technician courses overseen by the Board of Barbers and Cosmetology under the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. The curriculum requires individuals to complete a minimum of 115 hours of training and to pass a written exam and practical exam according to state licensing requirements.

The Board of Barbers and Cosmetology syllabus mentions waxing and temporary hair removal, but not threading specifically, according to LaFarn Burton, founder of LB Beauty Academy in Richmond. The state curriculum needs to delve into threading education more thoroughly, Burton said.

“It’s like it was just stuck in there, but no meat to the threading,” Burton said.

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 1498 to remove the requirement that an eyebrow threader must obtain an occupational license. The bill failed to advance out of a House subcommittee by a 3-5 vote.

Fowler introduced a similar bill in 2019, and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, introduced a similar bill in 2015.

Convirs-Fowler did not return multiple calls and emails for a statement about the bill.

DPOR did not bring the bill to the General Assembly and declined to comment on the legislation when contacted.

Meagan Forbes, director of legislation and senior legislative counsel for the Arlington-based Institute for Justice, testified to the subcommittee panel on behalf of the bill.

 “Threading is a safe hair removal technique,” Forbes said. “It does not involve chemicals or dangerous devices, threaders simply use their hands and a single piece of cotton thread to remove hairs.”

Twenty states currently exempt threading “without issue,” according to Forbes.

Zahra Lakhani, a DPOR-licensed educator, recently retired after doing eyebrow threading for approximately 30 years.

It would be a step backward to remove the license requirement for threading, she said. The education an eyebrow threader receives through instruction is important, Lakhani said.

“It’s very important to know the sanitary part of it, how to keep yourself safe, how to keep your customer safe, how to do the practice well and well skilled,” Lakhnai said.

 Sanitization is essential for threading because technicians roll the thread on the clients’ faces, which could cause cross-contamination, according to Lakhani.

 She said that rolling the thread cuts or burns the skin if the skin is not tight and held a specific way while removing hair from your face.

 “The consumer and the provider should always be protected,” Lakhani said.

If the waxing education requirement was removed, Lakhani thinks at least 60 hours of threading training would be “sufficient” and should include sanitation training, theory, and practice hours.

Stefania Rafeedie, who owns Arch and Beauty Studio LLC in Fairfax County, wrote DPOR to request an “Eyebrow Specialist” license in 2021, according to the letter accessed from the regulatory agency. More specific training is needed to provide specialized eyebrow treatments, according to Rafeedie.

“It is puzzling to me that while one of the above licenses is required, none of them teach a future practitioner how to perform these services,” Rafeedie stated.

By Janae Blakeney
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Virginia Explained: The debate over student expectations



Throughout his tenure, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has focused on the need to “raise expectations” in Virginia public education. As proof, officials have pointed to drops in proficiency ratings and test scores on both state assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The culprit, says the Youngkin administration, is decisions by the previous Virginia Board of Education to lower the cut scores on student assessments and change the state’s standards of school accreditation.

However, the few board members that have remained since Youngkin took office said there are other factors to consider in determining why student test scores have dropped, including socioeconomic issues and the rigor of the tests being administered.

The debate can be hard for non-policy experts to follow. Here’s what to know.

The Standards of Learning and NAEP

Before Virginia education officials determine what students need to learn at a particular grade level, they craft the Standards of Learning — a series of educational objectives in mathematics, reading, writing and history, and social science that students are expected to meet and demonstrate proficiency in through state tests.

Virginia first administered SOL tests in 1998. Student scores are classified as failing/basic, proficient, or advanced.

Virginia defines “proficient” as “evidence that the student demonstrated the skills and knowledge defined in the Standards of Learning as appropriate for the grade level or course.”

Besides taking the Standards of Learning, representative groups of fourth and eighth-grade students in Virginia and all other states also take the National Assessment for Educational Progress or NAEP. This assessment of mathematics, reading, science, and writing is mandated by Congress and has its own system of classifying results as basic, proficient and advanced.

Cut scores

Cut scores are the test scores used by state education agencies and boards of education to classify whether students are proficient or advanced in a given subject. For example, a “proficiency” cut score might be 26 right answers in a set of 50 questions. An “advanced” cut score might be 45 right answers out of 50.

Across the country, state boards use two methods to determine their cut scores: the Angoff method or the bookmark method.

Virginia uses the Angoff method, which determines cut scores before tests are given based on the content of the assessment. The bookmark method defines cut scores after tests are administered based on test data. Both methods rely on the use of education experts to determine how rigorous tests are and where the cut scores should be set.

In Virginia, three different groups — a standard-setting committee, an articulation committee, and the superintendent — put forward recommendations of what the cut scores should be for each subject and each grade. The Board of Education then votes to adopt the final cut scores.

Virginia Board of Education presentation, March 2019. (Virginia Department of Education)

 Student test results

Since August, test scores from Virginia’s public schools have been under a microscope by educators and critics.

That month, SOL results revealed that while students performed better in 2021-22 after returning to in-person learning compared to 2020-21, pass rates were below the state’s baseline.

Two months later, NAEP results showed declines in Virginia in both reading and math between 2019 and 2022, and continuous drops in fourth graders’ proficiency since 2017.

Recent Virginia cut score and accreditation decisions

The current debate concerns the board’s decision in 2017 to change accreditation requirements, which went into effect during the 2018-19 school year. In 2019, the board also lowered cut scores in Grades 3-8 mathematics; in 2020, it lowered them in reading for the same grade levels.

Overall, the board lowered the proficiency cut scores by one to four points in every grade level in reading and mathematics. For example, Grades 6 through 8 saw a three-point drop in the reading proficiency scores, and Grades 4 through 8 saw four-point drops in the mathematics proficiency scores.

Board President Daniel Gecker and Vice President Tammy Mann, appointees of Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam, told the Mercury that the board adopted reading cut scores based on recommendations provided by the superintendent and articulation committee, which is made up of subject experts.

Gecker said in an email that the board saw the purpose of the cut scores on the SOLs as providing an assessment of whether a student has sufficient knowledge to advance to the next grade.

“The scores were set at that level as recommended by the articulation committee,” Gecker wrote. “At that time we understood the potential for political fallout (the issue of having too many children pass the tests is not a new one).”

Prior to the cut score changes, the Board of Education also revised its school accreditation guidelines, the criteria set by the state for whether a school meets certain expected educational standards. The new accreditation standards included measures beyond student performance on tests, including chronic absenteeism and other factors.

The administration’s perspective

The Youngkin administration said the 2019 and 2020 decisions to lower the cut scores, coupled with the 2017 accreditation standards changes, lowered state expectations for students and drove down student achievement, even before the commonwealth shut down in-person classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The State Board of Education changed its accreditation requirements in 2017 to de-emphasize grade-level proficiency in reading and math,” former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow wrote in a scathing 34-page report issued in May 2022. “Despite the gaps between state and national proficiency standards, the State Board of Education voted to lower the proficiency cut scores … on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in math and reading in 2019 and 2020, respectively.”

During a Jan. 19 Senate Education Committee hearing, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera argued higher cut scores have historically led to higher student achievement in Virginia.

In 1998, for example, she said, Virginia fourth graders achieved higher proficiency ratings in reading on the NAEP compared to the national average. Then, in 2003 and 2013, Virginia fourth graders pulled further ahead of the national average in reading, an outcome Guidera said was linked to the Board of Education’s decision to raise its Standards of Accreditation.

“When we continue to benchmark our standards to what the world requires and our students deserve, students perform, and it works,” Guidera said.

In October, following the release of the NAEP results, Youngkin said the accreditation system “masked the fact that we are failing too many of our students across the commonwealth.” 

A Youngkin administration chart comparing NAEP Grade 4 reading results for Virginia students and students nationwide. (Virginia Department of Education)

At the same briefing, Balow accused the previous two administrations of systematically lowering school standards and student expectations. She added that policymakers made the “conscious decision to end the practice of driving expectations upward.”

Before the release of the NAEP results, Balow’s May 2022 report argued that prior increases in “the rigor” of accreditation standards linked to the inclusion of high school graduation benchmarks, higher expectations for elementary reading, and the replacement of multiple-choice tests with assessments based on content knowledge led to more students performing well on the SOLs and NAEP.

“This culture of excellence took a wrong turn in 2015 as the State Board of Education began a review of its accreditation regulations, culminating in a 2017 adoption of accreditation standards that watered down the importance of grade-level proficiency,” she wrote. The new standards, she continued, were followed by “a steady decline in student achievement on state SOL tests” as well as on NAEP.

The accreditation changes, Guidera said, “erased 20 years of success in the past five years.”

Mark Schneider, director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, said during an Oct. 19 meeting that while Virginia students “are, on average, doing pretty good,” the state’s SOL standards and cut scores are too low.

“It’s not like the performance of your students is bad — it’s not as good as you want — it’s just that the way in which you’re setting your cut score for proficient is so far below where it should be,” he said.

He continued, “when you tell me that 68% of your students are proficient, and I’m using a national benchmark, and it says 48, that’s a big disconnect.”

Schneider’s remarks are in line with the administration’s claims that Virginia has an unusually wide “honesty gap,” a term used to describe the difference between state-level and NAEP proficiency standards.

Board’s perspective

Gecker said it’s difficult to know whether the revisions to the Standards of Accreditation were effective because they were implemented shortly before the pandemic began.

“The standards were in effect only a year before COVID, then they were waived,” Gecker wrote. “It is difficult to say what the impact would be although we know under the previous higher expectation standards the results were not improving.”

Last year, he wrote in response to the superintendent’s 34-page report that research has shown a link between student socioeconomic status and academic achievement, and the number of economically disadvantaged students has increased over more than a decade in Virginia.

Virginia Board of Education pans Youngkin report on K-12 student achievement

According to a 2019 study conducted by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Virginia ranked 26th in the nation in state and local per-pupil education funding and 42nd in state per-pupil funding. It ranked 33rd in average salary for K-12 public teachers.

“We cannot expect to change outcomes — or maintain previous levels of achievement — while starving the system of resources,” Gecker wrote. “And we cannot expect to attract and retain a high-quality cadre of teachers if we continually underpay the profession relative to other college graduates.”

Gecker said it’s “disingenuous” to believe that Virginia students’ lower NAEP results in 2022 were due to a reduction in expectations for both school accreditation and student assessments. He said the claim ignores declines in NAEP scores that were noted by the board and department prior to 2019 and likely resulted from the state continue to fund public education at a level below that set in 2009, adjusted for inflation.

He also pointed to a study conducted by the Urban Institute last year that found that setting higher expectations on state assessments alone does not impact NAEP scores. The same study found no correlation between the state reading and math standards and NAEP proficiency ratings.

Previous board members have argued cut scores can’t be viewed in isolation but are set depending on the specific assessment and its level of difficulty. More challenging tests may have lower cut scores, while easier tests may have higher scores. Final decisions say, board members, are the result of evaluating recommendations from superintendents and the two committees.

Summary of adopted cut scores. (Virginia Department of Education)

Cut scores are adopted to “reflect the rigor of each test,” said Mann.

Recent Virginia Department of Education documents make similar observations: “It is important to be aware that cut scores must be interpreted in light of the difficulty of the test,” a March 23 agency report reads.

“It’s not like the board sits there and throws a dart at the wall and says, ‘What should the score be?’” Gecker told the Mercury. “It goes through a scientifically validated process and comes to us with recommendations.”

“By and large, the board has followed the modified Angoff method for many years,” he said. “It was not a question of lowering standards.”

What’s happened in the last six months?

Last October, Youngkin asked the Board of Education to raise expectations, including establishing new accountability and accreditation systems, as well as cutting scores for reading and math SOLs for Grades 3 through 8, among other proposals intended to address the declining proficiency scores.

“Work to establish new accountability and accreditation systems will include contemplation by the Board about learning proficiency and high expectations for students,” a memo to the board noted. “Raising our cut scores to what we believe is the content and skill mastery needed to be on track for readiness for college and career is foundational.”

On Nov. 17, the board discussed the matter after more than nine hours on the dais but did not act. Since then, the administration has hired a new superintendent, and department staff released a summary of the board’s adopted cut scores at the March 23 meeting.

As a way to improve the process of adopting cut scores, board member Andy Rotherham, a Youngkin appointee, recommended adding experts from higher education to the articulation committee. Board member Anne Holton, a McAuliffe appointee, recommended the board consider impact data, or the prediction of what pass rates will be, in determining future cut scores.


by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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New bill directs universities to implement human trafficking awareness training



The governor recently signed a bill that will require public higher education institutions to develop and implement a human trafficking awareness and prevention training program for first-year students to take during orientation.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, introduced House Bill 1555, signed into law on March 17 by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The measure is identical to Senate Bill 1373, introduced by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier.

Patrick McKenna, the co-founder of the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said this bill is important for first-year students entering college.

“It’s critical that they understand traffickers’ means and methods and how they go about creating vulnerability,” McKenna said.

The training will hopefully help students understand their own potential vulnerabilities and be able to see and help others that could be taken advantage of, McKenna said.

“You can’t identify if you don’t know what you’re seeing,” McKenna said. “You can’t describe what you’re seeing, potentially how you are being exploited, or being groomed to be exploited.”

The bill is pertinent due to the rise of human trafficking, Brewer said during the House Post-Secondary and Higher Education subcommittee.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 140 cases in 2021 in Virginia, 120 cases in 2020, and 188 in 2019. The number of human trafficking victims is generally higher than the number of cases, according to statistics on the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which estimated between 150 to 300 victims every year in Virginia.

“We found this bill to be important to be able to really make sure that young people are aware of their surroundings and the effects of human trafficking signs,” Brewer said during the subcommittee.

The bill also requires the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, or SCHEV, to encourage private higher education institutions to provide the same human trafficking awareness and prevention training for students during their orientation programs.

Grace Covello Khattar is the associate for finance policy at SCHEV. The council invited all of the presidents of private colleges and staff to attend the next meeting, where they will discuss training ideas, according to Covello Khattar.

“We plan to have a topic at the May council meeting as of now to really encourage our private institutions to develop and implement the same policies that our public institutions are going to be doing,” Covello Khattar said.

The preventative training is important and will hopefully help to bring exposure to the issue of human trafficking, Covello Khattar said.

“It could shed some light on some topics that they haven’t really considered before or maybe not in-depth or detail that the orientation would present on,” Covello Khattar said.

The bill does not have a specific timeline for when the human trafficking prevention training must launch but has an effective start date of July 1.

“It is enacted this summer,” Covello Khattar said. “So my understanding is that it will start this fall.”

By Anna Chen
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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