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September 29, 2017

A Closer Look at the Candidates’ Education Plans

As Virginians look to the elections in November, they want to know what the gubernatorial candidates will do to improve the quality of K-12 education across the commonwealth. A recent poll shows that K-12 education is the top issue voters want the next governor to focus on. Unfortunately, in many ways education has not been at the forefront of the debate. It’s important that voters know how the candidates plan to improve educational opportunities and give every student a chance to pursue their career ambitions and to help grow Virginia’s economy.

Investments in Public Schools

The campaigns for all three candidates – Ed Gillespie, Cliff Hyra, and Ralph Northam – have proposed ambitious pledges for public education including increased investments in schools. Yet, at the same time, all three have also called for tax cuts that would result in substantial reductions in the resources the state will have to make these important investments.

Key education priorities from each of the campaigns are summarized below. For a comprehensive list, click on the campaign links.

  • The Gillespie campaign calls for increasing teacher compensation; improving teacher recruitment in hard-to-staff schools; supporting wrap-around services and out of school programs like Communities In Schools; and increasing the availability of magnet schools like governor’s schools and specialty academies for gifted students. The Gillespie campaign also calls for cutting the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students in half in 10 years.
  • The Hyra campaign calls for the expansion of career and technical schools, while also proposing a complete restructuring the state’s funding and accountability systems through the repeal of the state’s education formula and standardized testing. The campaign emphasizes the need to shift teacher and school accountability toward academic growth measures.
  • The Northam campaign calls for raising teacher pay; expanding access to early education; investing in STEAM curriculum; expanding access to apprenticeship and on-the-job training opportunities for students; and “breaking” the school to prison pipeline by investing in school counselors and proactive intervention strategies.

These pledges show that the candidates view education as an important issue for their campaigns. But, a challenge remains for the candidates, all three have also called for substantial reductions in revenues through individual, sales and business tax cuts, which will mean less money to invest in public schools.

The individual income tax reduction proposed by the Gillespie campaign would reduce the state’s General Fund revenues by $1.4 billion when fully phased in, the dramatically increased standard deduction proposed by the Hyra campaign would reduce state revenues by at least $3.1 billion, and the elimination of the state share of the sales tax on groceries proposed by the Northam campaign would reduce state revenues by $381 million.

It’s going to be a real challenge for any of these candidates to come through with their promises on education if they go forward with these dramatic reductions in state revenue.

For example, both the Gillespie and Northam campaigns have supported increasing teacher pay, which is needed to make Virginia’s salaries competitive with nationwide salaries and to begin to address the looming teacher shortage. Average teacher salaries in Virginia are 13 percent lower than the national average. Closing that gap requires funding. During the 2016-2018 session, a 2 percent salary increase for teachers and school staff was projected to cost the state $134 million in the 2016-2018 budget, and the state had to delay those raises and reduce the investment to $32 million, because the state did not hit revenue targets. Further cutting revenues by $1.4 billion or by close to $400 million makes those promises on teacher pay seem impossible.

Charters, Vouchers, and Tax Credits

Beyond proposed state investments in public schools, the candidates also differ on the issue of using public funds to promote private school options.   

  • The Gillespie campaign supports establishing educational savings accounts (ESAs) in Virginia that are similar to private school vouchers, except that the payment goes directly to the family that forgoes public education and can be used to help pay for private school tuition. He has also called for the expansion of a tax credit that goes to individuals or corporations that make donations to private schools for scholarship programs. Lastly, he has called for increasing the number of public charter schools in Virginia.
  • The Hyra campaign supports expansion of Virginia’s public charter schools and suggests that it should be modeled after New York City charter schools.
  • On the campaign trail, Ralph Northam has called for adequately funding Virginia’s K-12 schools before looking to charter schools or vouchers and has spoken out against limiting the local school board’s authority to approve the creation of charter schools.

Our past review of the performance of public charter schools shows mixed performance, and the performance of private school vouchers has fared worse – with many studies showing little to no impact and some recent studies showing both positive and negative impacts. 

As the candidates discuss these ideas, they would do well to make sure they are promoting policies that are designed to truly benefit students from low-income families – as these are the students that truly lack opportunity. Prior proposals for ESAs that we’ve seen in Virginia have not targeted these students or have effectively excluded them. This is the case when the private tuition costs far exceed the dollar value of the voucher thus making them of no value to a low-income family that can not afford to make up the difference.

Given the differing views that the candidates have on the future of K-12 education in the commonwealth, it’s important for the public to be made aware of where the candidates stand on one of the issues that matters most to them.


Chris Duncombe

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