What the candidates for governor are saying about education and what voters need to know
WASHINGTON – Fifty or sixty years - that’s how long today’s high school students will spend working before they retire.
The best thing schools can do today to prepare students for decades at work is to teach them to be lifelong learners so they can adapt to changing job climates, said Steve Partridge, vice president of workforce development at Northern Virginia Community College.
Virginia has laid out the foundation to redesign high school education that will help address that. But whoever wins the race for Virginia governor in November will face rolling out the significant changes to high school graduation requirements enacted last year. And the state still hasn’t made up for education funding lost during the recession.
Partridge said that no matter who wins on Nov. 7, the best way to prepare students for the jobs available in today’s economy is to invest in K-12 education.
All three candidates for governor have laid out robust policy proposals for education and workforce development giving voters lots to consider: teacher training and pay, standards of learning, and internships and school vouchers.
Here's a look at what voters should know.
Career and Technical Education
Career and technical education is the modern term for vocational education. But it’s not just carpentry or cosmetology anymore. It also includes data analysis, cybersecurity and health care fields.
All three candidates are putting renewed emphasis on the importance of career and technical education as part of their education platforms – including the need for apprenticeships and internships and certifications.
"We have, for example in Hampton Roads alone, 3,000 unfilled welding jobs. These are great paying jobs, and there's an opportunity here for folks to be able to have a good career path. We need to celebrate these skills in our high schools in the same way we celebrate other academic achievements," Republican Ed Gillespie said during a recent debate in McLean.
In Northern Virginia, the welding equivalent might be cybersecurity jobs. As many as two-thirds of all cybersecurity jobs posted in the U.S. are located in Northern Virginia, Partridge said.
Many of those jobs, which are generally well-paid, only require a two-year degree or a certificate and a bachelor’s degree. "And we can’t find enough people to fill them," Partridge said.
Partridge said schools have become too focused on the “college-for-all-track” and he welcomes the renewed focused on alternate career paths.
Staffing and Funding
Virginia cut more than $1 billion for direct K-12 spending at the height of the recession. This year, the state injected about $800 million back into public education. But per-pupil funding still hasn’t caught up to pre-recession levels, said Chris Duncombe, senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Institute, a progressive think tank in Richmond.
“There’s still a long road ahead in finding the political will to support our public education and schools. I think that’s a really important question for the gubernatorial candidates, is if they see themselves as continuing down that path that we started recently in restoring our investment in public education,” he said.
Staffing levels dropped across the state in the years after the recession, but staff levels are beginning to rise again. However, average teacher pay in the state is about 12 percent below the national average. And Virginia teachers earn less on average than teachers in neighboring states, such as Maryland and Kentucky, Duncombe said.
Another round of pay raises could help reverse that trend, he said.
Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam are both calling for an increase in teacher pay and are talking about teacher training and recruitment – especially for rural or disadvantaged schools that have a hard time keeping teachers.
They differ in one area, however. Gillespie has proposed education savings accounts that, similar to vouchers, would help students and their families pay for private education. Also, he would make it easier to create charter schools.
Northam, who currently serves as the state’s lieutenant governor, has pledged to support traditional public schools and wants teachers to have a greater say in policies developed at the state level.
Virginia Standards of Learning continue to evolve, requiring fewer tests for students, but the benchmarks for each grade level and subjects remain.
Northam described the SOLs as “broken.”
“We are teaching children how to take multiple choice tests when they should be thinking creatively,” he said during a debate last month.
He’s defended recent efforts to reduce testing and update the SOLs.
Gillespie also wants to reform the SOLs so that they measure students’ progress, not just whether they meet the standards or not.
“We need to have accountability,” Gillespie has said.
Duncombe said voters should question, however, how the candidates would pay for their investments.
“All of the campaigns have put out fairly ambitious pledges for public education,” Duncombe said. “Yet they’ve also called for fairly significant reductions in the resources the state will have to make those priorities.”
Coming next week: What the candidates say about unlocking the region's congested roads.