As the race for governor in Virginia heats up, education has become a focal point for gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.
A constitutional amendment to allow vouchers, tax credit scholarships, teacher licensing changes, a Parent Trigger law, and financial rewards for improving schools are all part of Cuccinelli’s twelve-point education plan released in August. Such efforts have gained conservative support in other states but remain untested in Virginia.
“There is a broad feeling in Virginia that public schools are excellent,” said Don Soifer, vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington. “There was a time when they were at the top of the country, and they’ve fallen to about the top fourth of states.”
Opponent Terry McAuliffe has underlined the importance of broadening Virginia’s Preschool Initiative by reallocating money and partnering with small businesses to increase funding.
McAuliffe’s campaign disregarded requests for comment.
Parents and Failing Districts
Speaking in one of the state’s lowest-performing districts in October, Cuccinelli talked of the importance of creating opportunities for families with children in persistently failing schools.
“One of the mistakes education choice people make is we talk about how good it is for parents in underperforming school systems and then we don’t talk to those parents,” said Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute.
The word “parent” is far more prevalent in Cuccinelli’s education platform than in McAuliffe’s, Braunlich noted.
Marion Handley, a Northern Virginia mother of three children under five who teaches preschool and has a master’s degree in social work, supports school choice.
“I could not afford to send my own children to preschool without the generosity of donations to our school scholarship fund,” Handley said. “Our family chose the program because it was important to us that we keep our children safe within the confines of a small school community that is also a part of our faith tradition.”
She says young children learn best when their parents are involved with education, which includes choosing where their children attend school.
A Parent Trigger law would let parents at a failing school petition to have the school closed, converted to a charter, leaders replaced, or provide students with opportunity scholarships or tax credits.
The state’s constitution, which currently gives local school boards supervision of public schools, would require an amendment for this to become law.
“I don’t know if the [legislature] would pass a parent trigger law,” Braunlich said. “It would have to be a pretty devastating school situation … and be crafted extraordinarily carefully.”
Expanding school choice would remove the state as a domineering force on the current system, which would evoke positive change, Braunlich said.
“This is a bottom-up effort, whereas most other reforms in VA have been top-down,” Braunlich said “The key thing to [Cuccinelli’s] proposal is it is a bottom-up kind of accountability, so you have got to get to the parents who are going to be part of that accountability model and encourage that change.”
“Virginia has one of the most detrimental charter school laws in the country,” Cuccinelli’s plan states.
He supports a constitutional amendment that would allow the state Board of Education to establish charters rather than only allowing local districts to approve charters. Limiting charters to district approval essentially asks districts to approve competitors.
The attorney general’s plan would increase opportunity scholarships for low-income preschoolers, removing obstacles to faith-based choice and accessibility.
This proposal would also require amending the state’s constitution.
“A teacher or mentor can have a powerful impact in the preschool years; however, in most cases it is the parent who determines the child’s overall experience and establishes the child’s earliest sense of morality and values,” Handley said. “It makes sense that the parent ought to have input in the child’s placement and not be barred from pursuing their child’s interests by financial concerns.”
Improving Teacher Quality
Cuccinelli’s and McAuliffe’s education plans include new ways to attract and retain high-quality teachers. McAuliffe’s plan calls for increasing teacher benefits and pay, improving teacher training, and decreasing administrative duties.
Merit pay, reforming teaching requirements, and allowing for broader licensing avenues drive Cuccinelli’s plan for improving teacher quality.
Image by Gage Skidmore.