Local Issues

Governor Youngkin Puts Educational Freedom in the Spotlight

Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s newly minted Governor, ran a campaign centered around the importance of educational freedom and parental choice. On his first day in office, Governor Youngkin continued that emphasis by signing an executive order that allows any parent to send their child to school without a mask, regardless of the local school’s policy. The executive order takes the decision to require masking away from education bureaucrats and instead places it with parents where it belongs.

Not long after the executive order was issued, several school districts around the state, including Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington county schools, announced that they were going to ignore the Governor and continue requiring masks. Some of those schools cited a recently passed Virginia law, SB1303, which requires in-person learning that adheres with applicable CDC guidance. They also cited the federal requirement that masks be worn on public transportation, which includes school buses. 

When it comes to school buses, some have argued that the federal government may have the authority to require masking under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. However, the aforementioned Virginia statute, SB1303, contains very specific language – “to the maximum extent practicable” – when prescribing the requirements for school district compliance with CDC guidelines. It does not require full compliance 100% of the time, but instead offers schools the flexibility to adapt their procedures based on an ever-changing pandemic. Therefore, when Governor Youngkin issued a new executive order to make parents the decision makers on masking, school districts are still complying with SB1303 “to the maximum extent practicable” when they follow the executive order’s guidance. 

More importantly, open defiance of Governor Youngkin’s executive authority carries critical constitutional implications. At worst, these local authorities, including some unelected administrators, have chosen to elevate themselves above the Governor by willfully ignoring a valid and lawful executive order. At best, they have turned themselves into a quasi-judicial branch, deciding for themselves that the Governor’s order fails to comply with other state/federal law rather than allowing a court to make that decision.

There are clear parallels between these decisions and the fight for educational freedom. For years, parents have been shut out of the decision-making process when it comes to their own child’s education and forced to accept the beliefs and views of school administrators. If public schools are willing to openly defy a sitting Governor, what makes us think they will listen to and respect the wishes of parents? This is why we must be funding students and families, not systems.

Coming off a massive year for educational freedom in 2021, 2022 is off to perhaps an even bigger start. According to the Educational Freedom Institute, about a dozen different states have proposed legislation to expand or create an education savings account (ESA) program. ESAs are designed to put parents in charge by sending education dollars directly to each student for books, supplies, uniforms, special education therapies, private school tuition, testing fees, and more. They let the parent decide where their child’s education money goes, not school administrators. Last year, neighboring West Virginia created the Hope Scholarship Program that will allow virtually all families to participate, easily making it the most expansive ESA program ever implemented. For policymakers looking to create an ESA program in their state, the ALEC Education Savings Account Program Act offers a great place to start.

Parents are now more involved than ever in their child’s education, and it is essential that policymakers follow Governor Youngkin’s lead and ensure they are put front and center.

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