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Why the Text Matters
Reading Governor Youngkin's Executive Order Number One and Executive Order Number Two
Newly-inaugurated Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin issued two Executive Orders on January 15. Executive Order Number One directs the end of, “the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, and [seeks] to raise academic standards.” Executive Order Number Two empowers parents to elect that their children will not, “be required to wear a mask under any policy implemented by a teacher, school, school district, the Department of Education or any other state authority.”
The reaction thus far has mostly been about which Virginia school systems will comply with the lifting of mask mandates--the Alexandria and Arlington schools have stated that they will maintain their mask mandates--and the potential outcome of litigation over the governor’s elimination of mask mandates. The actual text of the orders is revealing.
Executive Order Number One (see below) states that, “our educational system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves” and, “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history—both good and bad.” The method to achieve these laudable goals is to identify and remove all policies and practices that promote or endorse “inherently divisive concepts,” a term used in 10 of the order’s 13 specific directives. The order defines “inherently divisive concepts” as, “advancing any ideas in violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including, but not limited to of [sic] the following concepts (i) one race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith is inherently superior to another race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith…”
Read as a whole, Executive Order Number One is a deep dive into the subjectivity of perception—what may be one person’s “inherently divisive concept” may be another person’s neutral account of historical events. Despite the order’s extensive elaboration of facts and circumstances that constitute “inherently divisive concepts” it seems likely that this slippery standard will be the subject of numerous debates based mostly on politics and perception.
Executive Order Number Two (see below) elevates a value statement in a Virginia statute that, “a parent has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of the parent’s child” over the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending the wearing of masks. This order appears destined for the courts.
There is a paradox here. Executive Order Number One mandates that “inherently divisive concepts” are to be shunned in classroom instruction. But, Executive Number Two promotes individual rights (not to wear a mask) over procedures and guidance intended to promote the collective welfare—something that is “inherently divisive.”
That the rights of the individual are paramount is confirmed in Directive 3 that, “No parent electing that a mask mandate should not apply to his or her child shall be required to provide a reason or make any certification concerning their child’s health or education.”
In summary, “inherently divisive concepts” are anathema in Executive Order Number One and promoted in Executive Order Number Two. The first mandates classroom instructional practices, “because we—the state government— say so.” The second empowers a student or parent to refuse to wear a mask, “because I say so.”