Bell Sounds from the 20th - Spotlight on Education

Over the last few weeks there have been several comments and accusations coming from those who oppose my candidacy regarding my views on education policy.  While I don’t normally feel inclined to respond to every criticism that comes my way, I do feel the need to address this with you. 

As many of you are already aware, I am a retired special education teacher.  I taught for 18 years before I retired in 2010.

I’m extremely proud of my record on education.  My experience in the classroom, especially in special education, taught me that all children learn differently.  I loved working with those children and they are the reason I am so passionate about education reform in the Commonwealth. 

I believe that every child in our Commonwealth deserves the right to a top-notch education, regardless of their zip code.   There is no doubt that Virginia has one of the best school systems in the country, but many of our students are still being left behind.  Traditional public schools work well for the vast majority of our students, but I believe parents should have additional choices should they find that their child does not learn well in the traditional classroom environment.

Education is the gateway to opportunity and should be the great equalizer. No matter a student’s background, our education system should make anything possible for every child.  This is why my colleagues and I have worked to make sure that our education system meets the unique needs of every child, whether that means a traditional learning model, virtual education or access to a charter or private school.

While I am extremely supportive of homeschooling, charter schools, and other school choice initiatives that we’ve looked at over the past few years, my specific interest has been in full-time virtual education.  During the 2017 Session we worked on House Bill 1400.  This bill established the Virginia Virtual School. Beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, the bill would have required the School to be open to any school-age person seeking a full-time virtual education in the Commonwealth and to provide an educational program meeting the Standards of Quality for grades kindergarten through 12.

The virtual legislation has been a work in progress over the last several years, but I believe we have built a strong piece of legislation.  The bill did NOT take funding from public schools, but rather required the average state share of Standards of Quality per pupil funding for each enrolled student to be transferred to the School.  We modeled this legislation off the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton.  This idea has passed both Houses of the General Assembly the last two sessions, only to be vetoed by Governor McAuliffe.  

My support for school choice initiatives does NOT, however, mean that I do not support our traditional public schools.  On the contrary, I believe that empowering parents and students with choices in education and improving our traditional public school system go hand in hand.

Our state constitution specifically requires the General Assembly to maintain not only a public education system, but one of “high quality.”  This is a core function of state government. Strengthening and improving education has been a top priority for the General Assembly each year.

This starts with recruiting and retaining the best and brightest teachers.  We have excellent teachers in Virginia and we have made it a priority to provide these teachers with the tools, resources, and flexibility they need to provide our children with an excellent education. 

We have provided four teacher pay raises in the last five years.  This includes a 2% raise in 2017, 2% raise in 2016, a 1.5% raise in 2015 and a 2% raise in 2013, for a total of $106 million.  The most recent raise passed by the General Assembly was fully funded by the state without the local match requirement. This will go into effect in February of 2018.

We have made major reforms to our Standards of Learning, reducing the total number of tests from 22 to 17. We’ve worked to eliminate burdensome red-tape that takes time away from what matters most: educating our children.  We included $193 million in the 2016 budget to reduce the unfunded liability in the teacher retirement account.  In 2013, I patroned House Bill 2151, which reformed the teacher evaluation system to create more accountability while clarifying contract status for existing teachers. This was a major bipartisan achievement, endorsed by Republicans and the Virginia Education Association. In 2013, as part of our initiative to attract and retain good teachers, we created the Teach for America program in Virginia.

Another common misconception is that we have continued to cut funding to K-12 education or that somehow public education is not fully funded.  This in fact is not true.  While there was some reduction to direct aid to public education a few years ago during the peak of the recession, we have increased funding every year since FY 2011 and education funding now exceeds its pre-recession levels by approximately $200 million.  The current budget invested an additional $18 million in K-12 beyond the Governor’s introduced budget.  Additionally, for the current budget we increased the amount of lottery money going back to schools to $191.3 million.  This money goes to schools with no strings attached, so they can use it to meet their most critical needs.

I’m proud of the work that my colleagues and I have put into education over the last several years.  I have personally patroned 39 education related bills during my time in the house that range from school choice initiatives, to school discipline reform measures, to legislation to improve educational rights for students who are deaf and hard of hearing and expand opportunities for learning American Sign Language. 

I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still so much more to be done. My commitment to education reform in the Commonwealth is one of the reasons that I am running for re-election. I want to continue the work that we have started and continue improving our education system for our teachers, students, and parents.

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