Virginia county directing $20M of COVID relief toward 'equity,' 'social and emotional' programs

Fairfax County is moving COVID relief money to 'woke' programs and Zuckerberg-funded company

One of the nation's wealthiest school systems is planning to spend millions in coronavirus relief money on so-called "equity" training and a type of learning intervention that has been scrutinized for its purported ties to left-wing ideas.

At the end of last month, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) announced it would direct $78.8 million in toward a "welcoming" and "culturally responsive" environment for students. Its website explains that the funding is intended to "support equity professional development for school teams, and social-emotional staff to work directly with departments and school-based teams."

It adds that "[f]unding will also be used for allocations to schools based on a formula (size, poverty, English learners, special education). These funds will be used to directly support student social emotional needs."

A more detailed breakdown of FCPS' plan showed the majority ($46.2 million) designated for "Intervention Special Education Teacher Contracts." But it also showed $2.2 million going toward "Equity PD for School Teams" and $140,115 toward "Equity PD for Equity Leads" — both apparently referring to professional development for staff and faculty.

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The funding came as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund III (ESSER III) provisions included in Congress' coronavirus relief. 

Parents Defending Education, a nonprofit opposing so-called woke "indoctrination," criticized this week one of the social and emotional learning (SEL) initiatives. In total, the school district is directing $23.3 million toward "SEL (Wellness) Intervention" through ESSER III funds.

Part of that entails an SEL "screener" through Panorama Education, a private contractor that's received investment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. According to their acceptance agreement, FCPS is paying the company $1,845,660 over the course of five years.

"Social and emotional learning" (SEL) and "culturally responsive" training have become seemingly innocuous buzzwords in Virginia education, but critics have worried that they served as conduits for left-wing ideas about race and identity. FCPS' screener seemed to focus more generally on social behavior and emotional health, but also included some content about race.

"Equity" programs have also come under fire for resemblances to critical race theory and its associated ideas. On its website, Panorama promotes "powerful words" describing equity as integral to SEL. "If you are talking about social-emotional learning but not equity, you are not talking about SEL," reads the quote from Dr. Lorenzo Moore, who spoke during Panorama's September 2020 virtual meet-up.

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The website adds from Moore: "SEL and equity are two sides of the same coin. In fact, they're both on both sides of the same coin. When we set goals to raise racial consciousness of our entire district, it means that we have to change the mindsets of people." Moore serves as executive director for Social and Emotional Learning and Culture in the Aldine School District.

FCPS offered a preview of the questions students might be asked under Panorama's contract. Parents can also opt-out of SEL screening, according to the website. A video on FCPS' website displays questions like, "When things go wrong for you, how calm are you able to stay?" Another read: "How often do you think about what someone of a different race, ethnicity, or culture experiences?"

According to the video, the screener will generally focus on social and emotional health but also include content surrounding race or cultural awareness. Under "Supports & Environment," for example, the video reads: "Valuing of School Supportive Relationships Belonging Cultural Awareness & Action." A sample of questions also includes one that reads: "How confident are you that students at your school can have honest conversations with each other about race?"

As part of FCPS' agreement, teachers will purportedly report on K-2 students while students in grades 3-12 will respond to the screener themselves. According to FCPS, the data is primarily intended for "[s]chool administrators, school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors."

While some details are unclear, the spending raised questions about a school district that has encountered criticism for its racial content. 

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Previous reporting has revealed that FCPS agreed to spend thousands on a presentation from controversial author Ibram Kendi, as well as copies of his books to distribute among students. Kendi also reportedly received at least $44,000 from Fairfax County Schools, including $20,000 for a one-hour lecture.  

In a statement to Fox News, PDE expressed concern over the contract and Facebook's previous attempt to manipulate users' newsfeeds to see if "exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviors."

PDE Vice President of Strategy and Investigations Asra Nomani told Fox News that "Fairfax County Public Schools is wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money in an egregious example of school administrators trampling parental rights."

"By claiming that 'schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities,' the school district is usurping parents’ roles as primary caregivers to their children."

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Nomani was referring to a portion of FCPS' request for proposal (RFP) that claimed "schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S. As a result, it is essential that school staff are able to appropriately and proactively identify social-emotional barriers to students' ability to access the academic curriculum." FCPS documents also show it requested psychometrics to be analyzed by a psychometrician for "reliability and validity of measure." 

Nomani added: "Moreover, it’s outrageous Fairfax County Public Schools is collaborating with a for-profit company funded by Mark Zuckerberg. In 2012, Zuckerberg admitted to performing 'emotional manipulation' studies on Facebook users without their consent or knowledge. His involvement today with surveys examining students’ mental health is beyond the pale. Schools must stop trying to manipulate students and focus instead on educating students."

When asked, Facebook directed Fox News to the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, but didn't respond when asked specifically about Nomani's criticism of Facebook's activities. The Initiative didn't immediately respond to Fox News' request for comment and Panorama didn't respond to multiple requests.

FCPS also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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The Virginia Department of Education also considered draft SEL questions in a proposal earlier this year. The state proposal included statements that students could presumably make about themselves at certain grade levels. Many of them cover things like "bias" or identities in ways that reflect rhetoric in controversial diversity trainings.

One reads: "I can understand that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and influence my decisions."