About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Using a sledgehammer to swat a fly

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Using a sledgehammer to swat a fly
Mark Eaton. (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Eaton

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was exasperated when, on Feb. 2, a Virginia Senate committee blocked House Bill 2426, which would have required Virginia schools to notify students when they receive awards. Information about the bill, including the complete text, can be seen at lis.virginia.gov/cgibin/legp604.exe?231+sum+HB2426

According to WJLA-TV, Youngkin said: “I don’t understand how anybody could object to the idea that when a student receives an award or an accolade that they are informed about it, and that this is just a matter of common sense. And I do believe that our General Assembly eventually will come around to common sense. And if politics are in the way here, then I would just ask our Senate Democrats to put down politics and do what’s right for Virginia’s kids.”

The General Assembly’s legislative session ended last Saturday, but lawmakers have yet to complete a budget. If House Bill 2426 is to become law, it will probably have to be passed in a future session. The bill responds to the failure by some Fairfax County high schools to notify students of their results on the 2022 National Merit Scholarship Exam.

According to a Jan. 19 Washington Post story, advocates for HB 2426 “contend the failure to tell students how about their honors was driven by an equity agenda … they charge the districts did not want to draw attention to high-achieving Asian students because students of other races did not do as well.”

Serious high school teachers and administrators spend nearly every waking moment trying to help individual students maximize their abilities. Omitting to notify students of their successes does not further that goal. The idea that teachers and administrators would subordinate their concern for individual student achievement to a “woke” conspiracy of silence to make non Asian-American students “feel better” strains credulity.

HB 2426 uses a sledgehammer to swat a fly. It also confirms the wisdom of Virginia’s system of having the General Assembly meet for short sessions. An embarrassing oversight by high school administrators does not require a legislative remedy, as this information is readily available online from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation and other sources. Moreover, nothing the high schools have done, or could do, will change those results.

The allegations of a malicious woke conspiracy also overlook, deliberately or otherwise, real world facts. Anyone in a high school, particularly a large one, knows that from the opening of school, information flows in daily torrents to students and staff. Flyers posted in classrooms and halls, endless e-mail, assemblies and daily public address announcements – such as “Underwater Basketweaving Club meets after school today” – all contribute to information overload.

At Alexandria City High School, there is so much information that Titan Media Alexandria, the student-produced, in-school televised news program, is essential viewing for students and staff. TMA’s student production staff has been expertly guided for years by Television and Media Production teacher Vilma Zefran.

Information that originates outside the school requires internal coordination for distribution. The field hockey coach is expected to provide updates on the field hockey program, but who should take the lead for communicating results on National Merit or other standardized tests administered outside class hours?

The argument that omitting to tell students of their National Merit Exam results made, or did not make, a difference in their college admissions results will never be settled and is beside the point. Communication is the greatest challenge in any human endeavor.

The schools that did not tell students about their National Merit exam results should up their communications game. Even so, failing to notify parents was probably an inadvertent omission, not the product of a nefarious conspiracy. The maxim known as Occam’s Razor holds that the simplest of competing theories is the most likely explainer of unknowns and it probably applies here.

It takes a calculating politician to advocate for unnecessary legislation to enhance his political image as a culture warrior for parents, meaning voters, and then to admonish opponents of his performative moves to, “put down politics and do what’s right for Virginia’s kids.”

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at mre.eaton@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available for free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/