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Saturday April 22, 2023 - SPECIAL EDITION
ANALYSIS: In Spotsylvania, the worst is yet to come - and it starts Monday
ANALYSIS: In Spotsylvania, the worst is yet to come
And the worst starts Monday
by Martin Davis
Taylor’s assertion that “Virginia came in last in math and reading for 4th graders and 8th graders in the United States” is demonstrably wrong. In fact, Virginia’s 4th and 8th graders scored squarely in the middle or better in math and reading.
As bad as things have been in Spotsylvania County Public Schools, they’re about to get worse. Much worse.
And the opening salvo was fired on America 180 - a production of the conservative Washington Times and hosted by evangelical Christian and Christian Broadcast Network commentator David Brody - Friday afternoon.
School superintendent Mark Taylor, who refuses to be interviewed by F2S or to spend time with the Free Lance-Star, gave an extended interview to David Brody replete with hagiography for far-right-leaning Jen Peterson and her crusade against library books. He also promulgated blatantly wrong NAEP data about Virginia students’ performance on the assessment more-commonly known as The Nation’s Report Card.
Why Taylor is misleading people is not as troubling as this reality. The superintendent of Spotsylvania County Public Schools, who was criticized when he was hired for having no background in education, put that ignorance on full display for a national audience by stating blatant untruths about the state’s educational performance.
Following up on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s assertion last fall that Virginia’s performance on NAEP was among the worst in the nation - an assertion I refuted last October in an op-ed - Taylor took the governor’s reporting of incorrect analysis of NAEP data a step further, promulgating a demonstrable falsehood when he stated:
Last November, the results were posted for the National Assessment of Education Progress [NAEP], and Virginia came in last in math and reading for 4th graders and 8th graders in the United States. Last.
There are several things of note here.
First: Taylor gets the name of the assessment wrong. It’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, not “Education.” This is a minor miscue that otherwise wouldn’t be worth noting, except for what Taylor then claims.
Second: His assertion that “Virginia came in last in math and reading for 4th graders and 8th graders in the United States” is wrong. In fact, it’s not remotely close to right. Virginia’s 4th and 8th graders scored squarely in the middle or better nationally in math and reading.
“In 2022, the average score in Virginia (236) was lower than those in 5 states/jurisdictions; higher than those in 14 states/jurisdictions; not significantly different from those in 32 states/jurisdictions.” [Emphasis added]
Graphic is from the NAEP report for Virginia showing math performance by 4th graders.
“In 2022, the average score in Virginia (214) was lower than those in 8 states/jurisdictions; higher than those in 6 states/jurisdictions; not significantly different from those in 37 states/jurisdictions.” [Emphasis added]
Graphic from the NAEP report for Virginia showing reading performance by 4th graders.
Perhaps, you’re thinking, the scores were worst in the nation for 8th graders, and Taylor simply got confused. But that’s not the case.
“In 2022, the average score in Virginia (279) was lower than those in 1 states/jurisdictions; higher than those in 29 states/jurisdictions; not significantly different from those in 21 states/jurisdictions.” [Emphasis added]
In other words, Virginia’s 8th graders’ scores were among some of the best in the nation.
Graphic from the NAEP report for Virginia showing math performance by 8th graders.
And again, from the report on Virginia’s performance by 8th graders in reading:
“In 2022, the average score in Virginia (260) was lower than those in 4 states/jurisdictions; higher than those in 9 states/jurisdictions; not significantly different from those in 38 states/jurisdictions.” [Emphasis added]
Graphic from the NAEP report for Virginia showing reading performance by 8th graders.
So clearly, Taylor’s understanding of Virginia students’ performance on the NAEP assessment is wrong. Horrifically so.
Third: Not only does Taylor blatantly misrepresent the performance of Virginia’s 4th and 8th graders on NAEP performance, but he went so far as to emphasize that he meant to say our students finished at the bottom on the national barrel.
“Virginia came in last for math and reading for 4th graders and 8th graders in the United States. Last.” [Emphasis added]
Why Taylor would spew such falsehoods, misleading parents and a national audience about student performance on NAEP, is anyone’s guess. Whatever the reason, there’s no defense for just how far off the mark he is. NAEP data and results are easy to find and clearly presented so that any educated person can understand them.
It is true that Virginia’s students suffered some of the steepest declines in scores from 2019 - 2022 (See this story in Axios). This is worrying and deserves attention - though what it really means is hard to say. Still, it’s a far cry - a very far cry - from what Taylor is trying to argue.
Still worse that Taylor spewed this nonsense before a national audience. A performance that would earn an F in any high school class in the state.
Taylor’s irresponsible statements on Friday are more disturbing in light of the agenda for the budget work session scheduled for this Monday night. Are they a type of foreshadowing?
The so-called work session is front-loaded with agenda items that have absolutely nothing to do with the budget.
Among the items:
Visual Arts Awards for April (Guempel)
2023 SCPS Teachers of the Year (O'Quinn)
Winter VHSL Academic and Athletic Recognitions (Guempel)
Instructional Highlight - Brock Road and Lee Hill Purple Star Designation (Belako)
Approval of Resolution in Support of Military Children and Families (Guempel)
Approval of the 2023-2024 Special Education Annual Plan Application (Langridge)
Food Operations Management Services (Trayer/Pitts)
Approval of Spotsylvania Middle School Renovation Project (Forrest)
Approval of Purchase of Replacement Firewall (Zicari)
Each of these items is more appropriate for a regular meeting. Which begs the question. Why are all of these in a budget work session?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but there is reason to believe that the four majority members of the board and Taylor want as small an audience at this work session as possible. Work sessions are generally less-well-attended than regular meetings, and even when meetings are well-attended, the later the meeting goes the fewer the people in the audience to vocalize their concerns. So by forcing the budget discussion to the very end of a long meeting focusing on significantly less-important issues, by comparison, they increase the odds that people won’t be there to see what happens.
Why he is misleading people is not as troubling as this reality. The superintendent of Spotsylvania County Public Schools, who was criticized when he was hired for having no background in education, put that ignorance on full display for a national audience by stating blatant untruths about the state’s educational performance.
That matters because this meeting Monday night has the potential to be more than a work session. In fact, it’s described as a “Budget Work Session/Possible Adoption of FY 2024 Budget and FY 2024-2028 CIP.”
In short, the board could approve this budget on Monday night - and whatever cuts it plans to make for the division.
Taylor - in a move that can only be described as a political misstep of the highest order - publicly announced recently that school libraries were on the cut list. Would this board move to cut school libraries this coming Monday night?
Virginia statute requires that libraries be maintained. (8VAC20-131-190). But that statute did not stop Taylor from making the threat. And there’s no guarantee this statute would stop this board from moving forward.
I asked Rabih Abuismail - the only member of the board majority I’ve been able to have any level of discussion with - via text message why the majority is burying the budget discussion so late in the meeting. And I asked if libraries were specifically on the chopping block.
He would not answer the first question, stating that he needed “more context,” and then wrote that he had previously spoken out against libraries being cut.
Still, Abuismal has shown no stomach for voting against Phelps and Twigg. He has repeatedly voted for whatever they put before him, showing no real ability to think independently and act accordingly.
All of this, of course, is bad. But things get even worse.
At the time of writing (Friday evening), the minority board members who will have to vote Monday - Dawn Shelley, Nicole Cole, and Lorita Daniels - has each communicated with F2S and confirmed that they have not seen the budget the majority is planning to put forward.
This is not uncommon behavior for Phelps and Taylor. But given the magnitude of the decision about to be made, this behavior is not beyond reckless.
It raises serious questions about the extent to which Taylor and the majority board members are working to keep the minority board members in the dark.
Are Taylor and company trying to keep whatever information they’re hiding out of the public eye - potentially so as to drive down attendance at Monday night’s meeting - so they can do whatever damage they plan in a dark corner where the antiseptic of public sunlight can’t expose their plans and lead to people demanding an accounting of their actions?
Time will tell.
Mounting external pressure
Public outrage against Taylor’s hiring, supporting book-banners, desiring to eliminate libraries, and incorrect reading of NAEP data hasn’t, to this point, been enough to stop Taylor and the four majority members. In fact, their disdain for dissenting opinion is clear in the chaotic meetings that Lisa Phelps runs.
But another development on Friday surely is making these five a bit more nervous.
The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Virginia sent a letter to the Spotsylvania County School Board in care of Lisa Phelps, and challenged head-on Taylor’s interpretation of state law and his ability to remove books from school libraries.
From the letter (The full version appears at the end of this article):
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (“ACLU-VA”) writes to express our concerns regarding the recent “Memo Regarding 14 Book Challenges” that was circulated by Superintendent Mark Taylor on March 29 indicating that Spotsylvania County Public Schools (“SCPS”) will be banning any books that receive complaints from parents. Contrary to the representations made in the Memo, the removal of these 14 books and adoption of the proposed policy is neither required by nor consistent with the stated intent of Virginia Code section 22.1-16.8 (“the Law”). Senate Bill 656, which codified the Law, contained an enactment clause clarifying “[t]hat the provisions of this act shall not be construed as requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”1 The automatic removal of challenged library books from circulation, preventing any student’s access, is censorship that contradicts the Law’s express limitations. Superintendent Taylor has manufactured a crisis by reading the term “instructional material” to include all books even passively available to students in the library rather than, as its plain meaning would suggest, material presented to students during their instruction in class.
Interestingly, Taylor defended his ability to remove these books on Washington 180 on Friday by presumably referencing this law.
The ACLU letter addresses how extreme Taylor’s reading of this law is by following it to its logical conclusion. Again, from the letter:
The Virginia Administrative Code requires schools to maintain a library that contains “hard copy, electronic technological resources, materials, and equipment that are sufficient to meet research, inquiry, and reading requirements of the instructional program and general student interest.”4 Taken to its logical extreme, the superintendent’s proposed policy with no review mechanism whatsoever could lead to very large number – hypothetically even all – of the books in the SCPS libraries being challenged and automatically removed, undermining its above obligation.
How far the ACLU intends to pursue this matter remains to be seen, but it’s not unreasonable to believe that if Taylor continues on this path the ACLU will sue in an effort to stop him.
Taylor, by going on a national broadcast and defending his arguably illegal moves in removing books, and falsely describing NAEP results, shows he is going to continue to push the boundaries of what this school board can get away with.
And if they do, will the ACLU prove the check on this board’s ongoing bad behavior?
November is coming, none too soon for many in Spotsylvania - both liberal and conservative - who have tired of watching this board majority and Taylor take actions that appear designed to wreck this public school system.
But if the worst is to be prevented, it will likely take the aid and assistance of an organization like the ACLU to put Taylor in check.
Buck up, Spotsylvania. What has been a horrible situation is about to get much, much worse. Taylor signaled as much today. And Monday may prove the full flowering.
If this proves true, let’s hope the ACLU is ready to bring legal pressure to bear on them to cease the destruction they’ve wrought.
And let’s hope the voters of Spotsylvania have learned from the horrendous mistake they made in the last election by giving four highly unqualified people - who then selected the uniquely unqualified Taylor - power over a school board they neither care for, nor care about, as their votes and their twisting of laws and their misrepresentation of data for political gain continues to show. As it has since January 2022.
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