By Ken Cuccinelli
That’s true. We should be grateful to our great teachers and schools throughout the state for our good reputation. But we’re in deep trouble if we rest on our laurels. The reality is that being one of the best school systems in the United States is no longer good enough in the global marketplace. The American education system, once the envy of the world, has fallen behind.
While we have to make sure our kids are prepared to compete in a global economy, leaders in Richmond also need to make sure that we’re taking a holistic approach to education reform. There are far too many communities in Virginia where students are struggling to keep up with their peers across the Commonwealth. Try telling a mom in Petersburg, where 30 percent of third-graders fail the reading test of Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL), that Virginia’s education system is one of the best.
Within Virginia’s education system there is a disturbing disparity based on race and wealth that must be addressed if we’re going to give all our students the opportunity to succeed in the classroom and in life. Currently, 19 percent of white fourth-graders fall into the “below basic” level for reading proficiency. For African Americans it’s 45 percent; for Hispanic students it’s also 45 percent. Similarly, the dropout rate for white students in Virginia is 4.4 percent, compared to 9.3 percent for African Americans and 13.6 percent for Hispanic students.
I’ve made clear throughout this campaign that if I’m fortunate enough to be elected on November 5th, I’m going to be a governor for all Virginians. My focus on education reform will be driven by what I believe is a solemn responsibility on the part of lawmakers to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to learn from effective, highly motivated teachers. Kids also deserve to go to a quality school regardless of the color of their skin, where they live, or economic class. Make no mistake, my top priority as governor will be economic growth and job creation, but education reform is central to that end. In the long run, they cannot be separated.
The first principle of our plan is accountability. If we care about our student’s progress we must have real and verifiable measures that allow us to replicate success and remedy failure. Already, Virginia has passed legislation that will give each school an A through F letter grade to give parents a simple measure of how their school is performing and that’s a good first step. But we must also review and modify Virginia’s SOLs to ensure our graduates are prepared for success as they enter the workforce or go on to college. One of my first actions as governor will be to establish the Academics, Parents, Principals, Leaders, Educators and Students (APPLES) Commission to reform the SOLs with a focus on competency and cognitive-based education, demonstrated by student knowledge and problem solving ability rather than memorization that leads to teaching to the test.
The second principle of our education reform model is that every child, regardless of who they are or where they live deserves the opportunity to receive a high quality education. We must end the helplessness both parents and children feel when trapped in an underperforming school with no hope of a viable alternative. We’re going to work to improve and expand the Virginia Educational Opportunity Scholarship tax credits and establish a separate tax credit program for students in failing schools. My administration will also work with legislators to enact the Parent Empowerment and Choice Act, to give parents a voice in reforming schools that are not delivering on their promise. If a school is not satisfying the community’s needs, those parents should have the ability to petition to have the school closed down, make changes to the school’s personnel or convert the school to a charter school.
There’s no question that charter schools offer students, particularly in lower and middle-class areas, an excellent opportunity to receive a high-quality education and as governor, I will push for constitutional amendments to provide greater flexibility for charter schools so that parents can have more options. I will also make it a priority for Virginia to significantly expand our students’ access to digital learning so that students who have fallen behind have another option to catch up and students looking to enrich their learning have the opportunity to do so.
The third principle of our education platform is that we must recruit, retain and encourage high quality teachers. Teachers are the backbone of our school system and study after study demonstrates that there is no more important variable than the quality of our teachers, and that quality has real and lasting impacts on the success of our students – not just in the classroom – but in the workforce. Instead of pouring money into administration as we have for many years, we should preserve that money so we can pay our good teachers more. My administration will also work closely with Virginia’s public colleges, universities and the community college system to make sure that our teacher training programs are graduating teachers with the tools to succeed in a modern classroom.
One of the most important keys to Virginia’s long-term economic growth is reforming and modernizing our education system so that every Virginia child has the opportunity to work hard and receive a high-quality education. I’ve spent my entire career putting Virginians first, and when it comes to education reform we can no longer be beholden to special interests working against change. As governor, I will always put our kids first.
Ken Cuccinelli is Virginia’s Attorney General and the Republican candidate for governor. This piece originally appeared in the Petersburg Progress-Index and is reprinted with permission.