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Virginia skill-game lawsuit pushed back again over disputed budget amendment

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The closely watched legal fight over skill games in Virginia is unfolding at the courthouse in Greensville County. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

 

EMPORIA – In the hundreds of pages of legal documents filed in a Southside Virginia courthouse as part of a closely watched gambling lawsuit, an image from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” succinctly captures what the surrounding legalese is about.

It shows the android character Data standing at a craps table in a spaceship casino, using superior robotic precision to throw winning dice rolls over and over.

Theoretically, a human could try to become so skilled they achieve similar dice mastery, a gambling consultant working with the state of Virginia wrote. But in the real world, no matter how much players want to believe they’re in control, a dice roll is fundamentally a matter of chance, not skill.


The notion that profit-seeking companies would design betting machines that the most skilled players can beat every time is a similarly far-fetched idea, according to two gambling experts Virginia hired to help defend its ban on so-called skill games, the slots-like devices widely available in truck stops, sports bars, and convenience stores despite lingering questions about their legality.

The state’s experts contend that the skills required to play the games are either so trivial they only require a toddler-level grasp of tic-tac-toe patterns or so advanced players would need superhuman abilities to win on skill alone consistently.

“If players COULD readily beat the game in this manner, then one should expect that they WOULD be doing so regularly,” consultant Mark Nicely wrote in an algorithmic breakdown of a dragon-shooting game that he says requires players to solve complex equations in their head as rapidly as three times a second. “However, the fact that these machines are reported to generate tremendous profits for their operators speaks to their inability to be beaten by human achievable skill.”

A gambling expert hired to poke holes in the skill-game ban came to a sharply different conclusion, saying Virginia’s new laws “turn the history of the control of gambling on its head” by criminalizing far more than what lawmakers intended.

“The reach of the new law is enormous,” wrote I. Nelson Rose, a professor emeritus at California’s Whittier College. “Virtually every game, both in the real world and online, would be outlawed.”

Over months of legal wrangling, the state government and the skill-game industry have filed reams of documents in the Greensville County Circuit Court in a case that touches on free speech, the nature of video games, legislative privileges, the origins of pinball, lobbying ethics, whether Virginia’s Indian tribes are beyond the reach of court subpoenas, the gambling norms of ancient Rome and Pac-Man.

But before the court gets to any of that, the judge has to resolve the more mundane matter of whether the General Assembly’s habit of tucking unrelated legislation into the state budget has gotten so bad it violates the Virginia Constitution.

A difficult-to-enforce ban

Since the summer of 2021, skill machines — many of which feature the same spinning reels and nine-square layout as slot machines but require players to take some action to complete a winning pattern — have officially been banned in Virginia. But that policy decision is proving stubbornly difficult for the government to execute due to strong opposition from the industry and its small-business allies.

The legal challenge pending in Greensville, brought by Southside Virginia truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, led to a temporary court injunction late last year blocking state officials from enforcing the ban. Sadler, who is now running for the Virginia Senate as a Republican, and his attorney, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, say the state’s ban is an overbroad and improper attempt to crack down on smaller local establishments that pose competition for big gambling interests planning to build full-blown casinos. In their telling, the law singles out a specific type of game they say isn’t all that different from anything found in an arcade.

 

According to court filings, Emporia’s Sadler Travel Plaza, part of the lawsuit challenging Virginia’s skill-game ban, has had the machines for roughly two decades. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

 

The clear difference from the state’s perspective is that skill machines pay out in cash or cash-equivalent credits, whereas successful play of regular arcade games might mean free plays, a plush toy, or tickets redeemable for merchandise at a prize counter. According to the state, the government has a clear interest in maintaining a state-sanctioned and regulated gambling industry, and devices it sees as unregulated and illegal slot machines undercut that effort and pose risks to Virginians playing machines that have gotten little vetting to ensure they work as advertised.

The pro-skill game side insists the state is targeting certain games because of their aesthetic resemblance to slots, which they say is a free speech violation based on the “adult” vibe of the games. The state contends the games aren’t a form of expression because they lack the storylines and characters present in most other video games. And regardless of any First Amendment-protected messages, the games might communicate, the state says, the law targets the wagering activity, not the games themselves.

The case was supposed to be heard in May, but it was pushed back to early November due to the correct assumption the General Assembly would try to toughen the ban through the state budget approved in June.

The November trial date was also pushed back, leaving the machines completely unregulated for at least another month as another General Assembly session approaches. The upcoming session could complicate the case given Stanley’s status as a sitting lawmaker with privileges that let him postpone court dates when the legislature is in Richmond.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 5, when retired Judge Louis R. Lerner is expected to rule on the state’s latest effort to dismiss the legal challenge.

The ‘one object’ rule

Though the broader issue remains the distinction between games of skill and games of chance, the two sides are now battling over the General Assembly’s effort to pass budget language with a direct bearing on the lawsuit, according to court records reviewed by The Virginia Mercury.

Working with lawyers affiliated with leading skill-game company Queen of Virginia and one of the nation’s top free-speech attorneys, Stanley is arguing the General Assembly violated a constitutional rule requiring all bills to have “one object” stated in the legislation’s title. The pro-skill game team argues the 2022 budget provision on skill games was a rushed, opaque attempt to broaden the reach of a law that carries criminal penalties.

“The public should not be expected to read hundreds of pages of the Budget Bill over [the] Memorial Day holiday in order to determine what new crimes the General Assembly is considering,” Sadler’s attorneys wrote in a Nov. 14 filing. “Nor should the public be surprised by such new crimes becoming effective 10 days after being signed by the Governor.”

Attorneys for the state say gambling policy is relevant to the state budget because efforts to create a state-sanctioned gambling industry have a direct tie to state tax revenues. If the court were to side with the skill-game industry, state lawyers wrote in their Nov. 14 filing, it would upend 200 years of precedent in how the “one object” rule has been interpreted.

“Gambling is germane to the budget,” wrote Assistant Attorneys General Erin McNeill and Calvin Brown. “Furthermore, it is simply good public policy to allow lawmakers to cure a potential constitutional defect in a previously-passed statute, even if that good medicine is delivered in an amendment to the budget.”

The budget amendment specified that skill games are considered illegal gambling and got rid of an earlier exemption for “family entertainment centers,” which the industry had attacked as an unconstitutionally discriminatory distinction based on how businesses market themselves to the public. The idea that skill games should be OK in a bowling alley or family-friendly arcade but not in a bar or a truck stop, the plaintiffs argued, contradicted claims the crackdown would prevent minors from having access to the loosely supervised machines.

In an attempt to paint the state as hypocritical, the skill-game industry tried to pull the arcade/restaurant chain Dave & Buster’s into the litigation, filing a subpoena seeking a detailed accounting of how the ticket-based prize system works at its four Virginia locations. Attorneys for Dave & Buster’s filed a motion to quash the subpoena, saying it has nothing to do with the issues in the lawsuit.

“Dave & Buster’s does not host or allow gambling in its locations,” the company’s lawyers wrote. “It seems apparent from the face of the subpoena that Plaintiffs do not know what they are looking for but are ‘fishing’ for some as yet unknown information that they think Dave & Buster’s may or may not possess.”

Fights over subpoenas

The skill-game industry is using aggressive legal tactics to try to get the ban nullified, sending numerous subpoenas in August to state agencies, state officials, and other gambling interests. The subpoenas seem aimed at substantiating theories the anti-skill game budget amendment came at the request of competing casinos.

 

Skill games in a Richmond corner store. The games popped up in gas stations, convenience stores, and bars around the state before they were outlawed. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

 

The effort included a request for documents from Sen. Janet Howell, a high-ranking Democratic senator who plays a key role in crafting the budget as chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee. The subpoena requested all of Howell’s communications concerning skill games with several other legislators, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office, Attorney General Jason Miyares and his office, the Virginia Lottery, and a dozen entities affiliated with casinos.

Responding on Howell’s behalf, the attorney general’s office said the subpoena should be quashed due to legislative privileges that prevent “exactly this type of intrusion into the legislative process.”

The plaintiffs also tried to subpoena the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, which is involved in a project to open a casino in Norfolk by 2024. In a response noting Virginia has recognized the Pamunkey since “colonial times,” lawyers said the tribe is “cloaked with sovereign immunity” that keeps its tribal government records off limits to the state government’s courts.

“Accordingly, this Court has no subject matter jurisdiction over the Tribe,”  wrote the tribe’s lawyer, Betty S. W. Graumlich of Reed Smith.

A more narrowly tailored subpoena to the Virginia Lottery raised specific questions about the role of the Eckert Seamans law firm, which previously represented both Queen of Virginia’s parent company, Georgia-based Pace-o-Matic, and a Pennsylvania casino venture with an adversarial interest in the legality of skill games. The subpoena claims a deeper conflict existed in Virginia because Eckert was also consulting for the Virginia Lottery, which had taken aim at the skill-game industry for allegedly eating into lottery ticket revenues. The Lottery subpoena sought documents to shed light on whether any of Pace-o-Matic’s “confidential information and proprietary data” made its way to the Lottery as the state tried to eliminate skill games.

It’s unclear how much information the subpoenas turned up. In a filing, last month, pro-skill game attorneys indicated the state defendants named in the suit — Youngkin, Miyares and the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority — had “uniformly refused to produce any documents” detailing their communications on skill games.

Dueling experts

The two legal teams are also battling over what type of expert testimony should be permissible if the case advances to trial, a dispute that has led to both sides’ expert reports already being filed in court as evidence.

In a report prepared for the attorney general’s office by Spectrum Gaming Group, consultant Michael Pollock pointed to a YouTube user named “JeffTheHokie” who has published how-to videos purporting to show his system for beating Queen of Virginia’s games.

Much of JeffTheHokie’s content focuses on ways players can improve their chances with a “Follow Me” mini-game that lets players win back their wager plus 5% if they can repeat a 20-step randomized pattern. The expert report notes that JeffTheHokie says the mini-game is “made slow and boring on purpose” and “you would have to be Rain Man” to do it by memory alone, a reference to the 1988 movie in which an autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman helps his brother win big by counting cards in Las Vegas.

“JeffTheHokie is the exception that makes the rule,” Pollock wrote in his report. “To assume that players would endeavor to master a complex system in order to win back their bet plus five percent is absurd, and it is clearly antithetical to the business model embraced by the operators and suppliers of these machines. … Building on that theory, such players, could bankrupt the house.”

In a pair of reports filed for the plaintiffs, Rose, the Whittier College professor emeritus, said Virginia is confusing a skill versus chance distinction that’s been well understood for centuries, noting that ancient Roman authorities only loosely enforced anti-gambling rules due to “Romans’ intense love of dice games.” Early pinball machines were once considered a form of illegal gambling, he said, until the addition of player-controlled flippers, which made them games of skill. Because classic arcade games like Pac-Man and Galaga award free lives, Rose wrote, they too could potentially be construed as illegal skill games in Virginia.

He suggested the defense experts were applying a “Goldilocks test”  by claiming some skill games are illegitimate for being too easy and others for being too hard.

“Different people have different levels of skill. One person may be better at golf than another,” Rose wrote. “It may be virtually impossible for some of us to play a round of golf under par, but that does not mean that golf is not a game of skill.”

 

by Graham Moomaw, 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: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hampton Roads ships recovering spy balloon wreckage and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Ships based in Hampton Roads were recovering the wreckage of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon after it was shot down off the South Carolina coast over the weekend.—Virginian-Pilot

• Newly released emails shed more light on prosecutors’ decision to drop a prostitution-related case against a Virginia Beach pastor.—WRIC

• A push to give Petersburg a chance at a casino development could be in jeopardy after the enabling legislation failed in the state Senate.—Richmond Times-Dispatch


• The Orange County Board of Supervisors pulled funding for a local arts center after backlash to a design class taught by a drag performer.—Culpeper Star-Exponent

• A bipartisan pair of lawmakers in the House of Delegates appear to be succeeding in ending the use of solitary confinement in Virginia prisons.—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, 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: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Failed Bills: Eliminated divorce period, sexual harassment education, wrongful death and shorter absentee vote period

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Elected officials serving in the Virginia General Assembly have a short amount of time to potentially discuss thousands of proposed measures that are either defeated or signed into law.

Over 1,900 bills were introduced this session, in addition to joint resolutions and legislation carried over from last year. So far, over 100 bills have failed to advance in the House and over 300 in the Senate. Over 1,000 bills are pending in the House and over 500 in the Senate, with the session midpoint approaching.

Here are a few of the bills that failed to advance this session.

Senate Bill 1288: Petition for defendant to pay child support due to wrongful death of child’s guardian resulting from driving under the influence


The measure introduced by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, would allow the court to consider child support payment in an instance of wrongful death of a child’s parent or legal guardian that was caused by driving under the influence. The legislation was passed indefinitely with a 14-0 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely dead for the session. Committee members felt the bill did not add additional value to the current scenarios in wrongful death civil cases. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, questioned the legislation because it is not “a policy solution to a specific problem.” “It’s not clear to me why we would say ‘you pay child support if somebody dies by drunk driving instead of murder,’” Surovell said during the committee.

Senate Bill 880: In-person absentee voting period shortened to a week prior to any elections

The measure, introduced by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, would shorten the in-person absentee voting period to seven days prior to the election. Currently, absentee voting in person begins 45 days before the election. The bill would create a burden at high-volume localities, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said during the committee hearing. “They would need hundreds of people [staff] to get those people not having to wait for hours and hours in line,” Ebbin said. The legislation was passed by indefinitely with a 10-4 vote in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee.

House Bill 1720: Eliminates one-year divorce waiting period due to cruelty, bodily hurt

Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Portsmouth, introduced a measure to eliminate the one-year period spouses wait to be pronounced divorced and legally separated. A separation or divorce would be granted before the one-year period in cases of spousal abuse such as cruelty, reasonable apprehension of bodily harm, abandonment or desertion, and more by either party. The bill would have applied to divorce filings on or after July 1.

A divorce is currently permitted if the parties lived apart without interruption for one year, or entered into a separation agreement, had no minor-aged children born or adopted, and lived apart without interruption for six months.

An anti-human trafficking advocate and victim of spousal abuse offered testimony on behalf of the bill. “Right now, this does not solve the problem that Del. Clarke wants to solve,” said Richard Garriott, with the Virginia Family Law Coalition, in opposition to the bill. “We have a solution for that, called an emergency and permanent protective order.” The House of Delegates Courts of Justice subcommittee defeated the bill with a 5-3 vote.

House Bill 2003: Enforcement of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination training and education

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill to require employers with 50 or more employees to provide annual interactive sexual harassment and workplace discrimination training and education. Employees in a supervisory role would be required to complete at least two hours of training. Other employees would be required to complete one hour.

A provision in the bill called for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers to have the one-hour training to start on Jan. 1, 2024. Employees would receive a certificate of completion. A House Commerce and Energy subcommittee recommended the bill not advance with a 5-3 vote.

Still to come

There will be plenty of other failed bills this session. In fact, gridlock is to be expected when “voters put one party in charge of one chamber and the other party in charge of the other,” according to Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies and a political science professor.
“From guns to abortion to taxes to schools, Republicans and Democrats in Richmond demonstrate over and over again that there is little interest in compromise in these polarized times,” Farnsworth stated in an email.

The session is approaching the midpoint with “crossover day” on Feb. 7, when a bill must have passed its respective chamber to advance, or it will be left behind.

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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First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin names first Spirit of Virginia Award for 2023

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Governor Youngkin and First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin presented a 2023 Spirit of Virginia Award to Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation, a metro area community development corporation focused on cultivating housing and financial self-sufficiency for primarily Black, Hispanic, and Latino and women-led households.

First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin gives remarks. Photo by Shealah Craighead Photography.

“For more than 30 years, Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation have helped countless Richmonders prepare for and achieve home ownership. If ‘home is where the heart is,’ then Glenn and I laud the hearts that are forever changed by the good works of SCDHC,” said First Lady Suzanne S. Youngkin.

“SCDHC appreciates the honor of being a recipient of the Spirit of Virginia Award. We are elated that the arduous work we do to ensure the equity in housing for people of color is recognized by the First Lady of Virginia,” said Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation President & CEO Dianna Bowser.


Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation is Central Virginia’s oldest, historically Black-led community development corporation. Their mission is to build viable, thriving, sustainable communities through affordable housing and wrap-around support services.

Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation have built homes in over a dozen neighborhoods and developments throughout the Richmond area, totaling over 750 units of affordable housing, with 450 as single-family affordable homes. In 2022, the organization served nearly 800 clients through its housing counseling and educational services, including foreclosure prevention, rent relief, and workforce development tools.

The Spirit of Virginia Award recognizes unique qualities and standout achievements across the Commonwealth and salutes Virginians for their uncommon contributions to private industries, education, culture, the arts, and philanthropy.

Governor Youngkin and the First Lady will name five more Spirit of Virginia Award recipients in 2023. Learn more about the award here. To learn more about Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation, visit the organization’s website. All recipients of the Spirit of Virginia Award are recognized during a holiday reception at the end of the year at The Virginia Executive Mansion.

Follow the First Lady on Facebook and Instagram as she celebrates Virginians across the Commonwealth.f

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Three interesting bills of the week: implicit bias training, geriatric parole and furloughed feds

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The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond on Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

Hundreds of bills are filed for General Assembly consideration each year. In this occasional series, the Mercury takes a look at a few of the proposals that might not otherwise make headlines during the whirlwind legislative session. 

House Bill 1734 – Implicit bias training for practitioners working with pregnant persons

This legislation from Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, is part of a bipartisan effort that would require practitioners who have direct contact with persons who are or may become pregnant to complete two hours of continuing education related to implicit bias and cultural competency in health care.


The Virginia Board of Medicine would adopt and implement the policies and require that the education be completed at least once every other license renewal cycle, which is every two years. The bill defines implicit bias as “a bias or prejudice that is present but not consciously held or recognized.”

An identical version of the bill introduced this year by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, was struck in committee Thursday, with the panel agreeing to send a letter to the Task Force on Maternal Health Data and Quality Measures asking for a study.

Advocates have been calling for solutions to narrow the gap in racial disparities in maternal mortality for years. Multiple studies have confirmed that many medical professionals hold implicit biases that affect the quality of care.

Black women in Virginia are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth than white women, according to a 2017 Virginia Department of Health report. In 2020, non-Hispanic Black women nationwide experienced maternal mortality rates nearly three times higher than those of their white counterparts, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

This is the eighth piece of legislation brought before the General Assembly to require implicit bias training for health care providers since 2022.

House Bill 1458 – Limiting certain geriatric prisoners from petitioning the Parole Board for release

This bill from Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles, would expand the list of offenses that prohibit a person from petitioning the Parole Board for conditional release as a geriatric prisoner.

Current law allows any geriatric prisoner serving a sentence for a felony offense other than a Class 1 felony — the most serious type of crime, such as capital murder — to petition the Parole Board for conditional release. The designation includes any person who has reached the age of 65 or older and has served at least five years of his or her sentence or anyone who has reached the age of 60 and has served at least ten years of his or her sentence.

Ballard’s legislation would expand the list of felony offenses that prohibit geriatric prisoners from petitioning the Parole Board to include crimes such as the murder of a pregnant woman, killing a fetus, lynching, acts of terrorism, kidnapping or abduction, robbery or carjacking, and treason, among others.

Lawmakers voted along party lines to move forward with the bill in subcommittee this week.

Senate Bill 1545 – Eviction and foreclosure relief for furloughed federal agency employees during a shutdown

SB 1545 from Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, would provide temporary relief from eviction and foreclosure proceedings for certain Virginians who are furloughed or lose wages or payments as a result of a partial closure of the federal government. Eligible residents would include employees of U.S. government agencies and contractors for those agencies.

Under these circumstances, an employee would be granted an extra 60 days of protection from eviction for nonpayment of rent if he or she provides written proof of being furloughed.

Additionally, a 30-day stay will be granted if an employee owns a one- to four-family residential property and faces foreclosure or if the property’s owner has a tenant who the federal government furloughed within 90 days of the closure or 90 days following the end of the closure.

The bill defines the closure of the U.S. government as a “closure of one or more agencies of the United States federal government for a period of 14 consecutive days or longer as a result of a lapse of appropriation.”

Senate lawmakers unanimously moved forward with the bill in a subcommittee last week and full committee this week.

The last federal government closure was in December 2018 and lasted 35 days – the longest in the country’s history.

by Meghan McIntyre, 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: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

Three interesting bills of the week: Pound charter, stillborn child tax credit and private police

Three interesting bills of the week: declawing cats, antidepressants and the UDC

Three interesting bills of the week: journalism tax credits, negligent fires and cyclist exemptions

 

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Despite public pushback, Board of Ed accepts draft history standards for first review

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A speaker holds up a sign supporting a draft of the history standards different from the version completed by the staff at the Virginia Department of Education. (Nathaniel Cline / Virginia Mercury)

 

The Virginia Board of Education voted to accept for first review the newest draft of Virginia’s hotly debated history and social science standards Thursday on a 5-3 vote.

President Daniel Gecker, Vice President Tammy Mann, and board member Anne Holton, all appointees of former Govs. Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe, opposed moving forward with the proposal over concerns that the introductory pages were too “political.”

“I did take my time and read through the January revision,” said Mann during a Wednesday work session, referring to the latest draft. “It is improved, but it is difficult to constantly have to navigate through these coded ways of dealing with elements of our history.”


Despite the concerns, board member Andy Rotherham, an appointee of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, on Thursday made a motion to move forward with the new standards.

“This process is not over,” he said, calling the proposal “good at this point in the process.”

The vote, which followed four hours of public comment, came after months of pushback by Virginians who criticized a lack of transparency in the authorship of changes that appeared in a November draft and the absence from it of influential figures and events. The final draft will set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social science in K-12 schools, as assessed through the Standards of Learning tests.

Complicating the process was the decision to separate the standards from an accompanying curriculum framework. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow has said the combination led to “vague” and “confusing information,” although one board member said the separation “created the conditions for confusion.”

The controversy over the standards, which under state law must be revised at least every seven years, has bled over into the General Assembly. Last week, legislation that would have required the Board of Education to publish a list of any consultants used in revising the standards and how much they were paid at least 30 days prior to a public hearing on a revision failed in a House subcommittee.

“This process is too important to our kids to leave it to conversations behind closed doors without transparency about who is deciding what will be taught in our schools,” said the bill’s patron, Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun.

On Thursday, Balow urged speakers to assess the standards and not base their opinions on “a specific set of talking points.”

“It’s not a long document, and it’s meant to be public-facing,” Balow said. “So I really hope that people take a look at the standards and find themselves, find their cultures, find their interests reflected in the standards because they are representative voices and work over the last two years. This is not a standalone document that was stood up over the last couple of weeks.”

January draft vs. alternative version

The board heard from dozens of speakers Thursday criticizing the newest draft, which they accused of “whitewashing” parts of history, requiring a high rate of memorization and excluding various issues such as geographical themes and the American labor movement.

“I’m concerned that this new revised standard is going to set education back in this commonwealth,” said Milton Hathaway, a parent of public school graduates. “There is no question about your commitment to education in the Commonwealth, but to pass this January standard is going to set our commonwealth back, and your name will be on the documentation.”

Martin Brown, Virginia’s chief diversity officer and director of the state’s Office of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion, was a rare supporter to speak on Thursday.

“We believe the good, the bad, and the ugly have actually been communicated in the standards,” Brown said.

He added that the standards are “more robust” and have “more expanded content” about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Indigenous people’s movement in America.

Additional remarks by Brown that the standards honored recommendations issued by the African American History Education Commission, however, stoked pushback from former commission members in attendance.

One member, Makya Little, told the Mercury no one on the commission knew Brown.

“We literally had no idea who he was,” said Little, who served as the commission’s parent advocate and is running for the House District 19 seat as a Democrat.

“What the Youngkin administration is doing is what the DeSantis administration is doing,” she added, referring to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has publicly criticized what he calls “woke” ideas and “indoctrination” in schools. “They are just being more underhanded about it.”

The January draft included content from earlier drafts produced in August and November.

An alternative version was published by the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium, Virginia Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and American Historical Association in December.

Many speakers and groups urged the board to accept that alternative version, which its crafters said aimed to “ensure that content was accurate, age-appropriate, inclusive, and vertically articulated in a manner that supports a natural progression of content, depth, and skill acquisition.”

However, a motion to substitute the alternative draft for the administration’s latest version failed 3-5, with Mann, Holton, and Gecker in favor.

Board member Anne Holton, a former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointee, at the Virginia Board of Education business meeting on Feb. 2, 2023. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

‘Restoring excellence’

On Wednesday, the board spent significant time debating the opening pages of the January draft, which included a discussion of the standards’ guiding principles, background, and context.

Mann urged the board to remove the section, which she said: “has a tone that is [more] partisan than is needed in this kind of document.” She particularly objected to a statement that the new draft would “restore excellence” to Virginia education.

“The standards are not our problem, in my humble opinion,” Mann said. “This is a revision of 2015 [standards]. If we have issues with how students are performing on assessments, that deserves to be understood because that may not be due to our standards lacking, but it actually may also be associated with the fact that they may not have access to instruction that is qualified to teach the high standards.”

Holton also expressed opposition to the phrase, which she said could be interpreted as a reflection on current and future educators.

“How are we going to retain qualified teachers when we tell all the teachers across the commonwealth and all the curriculum educators that we need to restore excellence because they’ve decimated it?” Holton asked. “I think it’s the wrong way to start out this document.”

Youngkin appointees Suparna Dutta and Bill Hansen disagreed, with Dutta calling the draft “fantastic” and Hansen saying he viewed the introductory pages as “a call to action” after the recent drop in assessment scores statewide.

“I’m viewing this as more of a call to action, a call to help change things because if we keep going on the trajectory we’re going, it’s not a good one,” Hansen said.

Public hearings are scheduled to begin on March 13 and run to March 21 at five locations in Virginia, according to Virginia Department of Education staff. Final approval is expected on April 20.

Gecker said he expects line edits to be conducted after public comments.

 

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: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Elite cross-country runners race in Virginia for Team USA spot

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Top distance runners in the country recently competed at Pole Green Park in Hanover County for a chance to land a spot on Team USA in the upcoming World Athletics Cross Country Championship in Bathurst, Australia.

Over 450 participants participated in the USA Track, and Field Cross Country Championship held on Jan. 21 as part of the Richmond Cross Country Festival. There were 12 qualifying Team USA spots between the men’s and women’s teams.

Professional runner Emily Durgin, who represents Adidas, competed in the women’s 10K and punched her ticket to the World Championships.

“I did not really prepare much for this race, but I think that’s what made it just so fun and exciting,” Durgin said.


Durgin dropped out of the New York City Marathon last November for personal reasons, she said. She decided to take care of her body and rested until three weeks before the championship qualifier race.

“Not that I was necessarily planning on putting pressure on making the team and moving forward, but I knew I just wanted to compete, and I love to front run,” Durgin said.

Her training runs felt good, and she was ready to return to her cross-country roots, she said.

“I was like, ‘all right, let’s just kind of brush off the end of last year and start on a positive note and run hard from the front,’” she said. “I knew if I did that, it would produce a good result.”

Durgin has competed in national championships, but this will be her first time competing in the World Championships. She wants to ensure she does everything to set herself up for a good performance and represent USATF, USA, and her brand Adidas.

Runners were divided into sex and age brackets for the long distance 6 kilometers, 8 kilometers, and 10 kilometers races.

The six women who placed on Team USA in the 10K category were, in order: Ednah Kurgat, Makena Morley, Durgin, Emily Lipari, Weini Kelati, and Katie Izzo.

The six 10K runners who placed on the men’s Team USA were: Emmanuel Bor, Andrew Colley, Anthony Rotich, Leonard Korir, Sam Chelanga, and Dillon Maggard.

Pole Green Park has hosted cross-country championships more than five times, such as the Atlantic 10 Conference Championships, according to the Collegiate Running Association. The USATF Championship has never been held in Virginia, according to Steve Taylor, the race organizer. Taylor founded the Collegiate Running Association and coordinates with the USATF national development team.

Taylor was excited to see six years of planning become a reality.

“Yesterday, I was out at the course, and there were Olympians out there,” Taylor said. “Just jogging the course, and they’re right here in Richmond.”

Track and field fans came out to watch and buy Team USA gear from the onsite shop.

Organizers wanted this to be a community event, Taylor said.

“We wanted it to be free so people could come in and see our nation’s best cross country runners compete and earn a spot on Team USA,” Taylor said.

The day’s first race was a community 6K race, which brought 12 people to the starting line. A race for ages ten and under followed. The competitive races were underway by 10:30 a.m., with the last one at 2:50 p.m.

Top athletes from around the globe will compete in the World Championships in Bathurst, Australia, on Feb. 18.

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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