Va. Gubernatorial Hopefuls Debate Education

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In a tight Virginia governor's race punctuated by partisan accusations and negative advertising, education policy has emerged as one of the main jousting points for the two gubernatorial hopefuls.

Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., the Democratic candidate, and Republican James S. Gilmore III, a former state attorney general, have each staked out positions on education issues ranging from academic standards to teachers' salaries in their race to succeed Republican Gov. George F. Allen, who is barred from serving two consecutive terms.

In a lively televised debate this month--one of the last such exchanges before the Nov. 4 election--Mr. Beyer charged that Mr. Gilmore's education agenda was aligned with the religious right.

School Policy and the Virginia Governor's Race

In a close race, both candidates for governor have run advertisements touting their education agendas.

Former Virginia Attorney General James S. Gilmore III promises to make schools safer, support the state's new standards on school accreditation, and hire 4,000 new teachers.

Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. promises to raise teachers' salaries to the national average by the year 2002, and warns that, if elected, his opponent will support school vouchers.

Mr. Gilmore replied by dismissing his opponent's portrayal as an effort to paint him as an extremist. The GOP candidate went on to accuse the lieutenant governor of misleading the public to gain points in a close contest.

The latest poll puts the pair in a dead heat, each with 43 percent of the vote and the remainder undecided, according to Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., which conducted the survey of 820 registered voters for several Virginia newspapers earlier this month. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

As Election Day nears, both are drawing sharp distinctions between their positions on state school policy. Mr. Beyer has already won the endorsement of the state's largest teachers' union.

In campaign advertisements showing him chatting with students, Mr. Gilmore proposes hiring 4,000 new teachers in grades K-6 to reduce overcrowding in the elementary grades and strengthen remedial instruction. The initiative would cost $200 million over four years, the Gilmore campaign said.

Gilmore and Students

Touting his work as a former county prosecutor, Mr. Gilmore also has promised to bolster school safety measures by supporting criminal-background checks for new school employees.

The Republican candidate also has vowed to fully support the new state standards of accreditation that were backed by Gov. Allen and approved by the state school board last month. The controversial accountability measures would strip schools of their accreditation if 70 percent of their students over a period of several years failed new state tests. The measure faces legislative and gubernatorial approval next year.

In this month's televised debate, Mr. Beyer cited a campaign donation Mr. Gilmore received from the Rev. Pat Robertson, the conservative religious broadcaster and former presidential candidate. Mr. Beyer also said his opponent supports school vouchers. "If the people of Virginia believe Pat Robertson should control what happens in our public schools, then Jim Gilmore is your candidate," Mr. Beyer said.

Reed Boatright, Mr. Gilmore's deputy press secretary, said in an interview last week that while Mr. Gilmore doesn't endorse a specific voucher plan, he would be willing to consider such a proposal if it didn't hurt public schools.

Beyer's Pledges

Mr. Beyer supports the Virginia standards effort overall, but takes issue with some of the provisions in the accreditation plan embraced by Gov. Allen. For instance, he objects to the state board's decision to allow schools to use state funds to hire reading specialists instead of guidance counselors. Mr. Beyer also opposes the board's decision this year to do away with the state mandate that districts offer sex education to students.

Mr. Beyer's top education proposal would be to raise all teachers' salaries in Virginia to the national average of $37,800 by 2002, a $3,000 hike per teacher per year, according to campaign materials. The move would cost $400 million over four years.

If elected, he has also said he would also establish a professional-standards board for teacher education and licensing to encourage professional development. He opposes school vouchers.

Such positions have won Mr. Beyer the endorsement of the 56,000-member Virginia Education Association.

"Don Beyer has the proven record on [public] education and will support it, and we're not so sure about Gilmore," said Cheri W. James, the president of the VEA, a National Education Association affiliate, whose political action committee has contributed $12,000 to Mr. Beyer's campaign. "When you begin to take money from the public schools, which are already strapped, vouchers aren't going to do much to help them," she said.

Eyeing Surpluses

But both candidates, who have issued separate proposals to slash personal-property taxes, have come under criticism from some education and business leaders who think that in a time of economic growth in the commonwealth any surplus revenues should be spent on education and other services.

"It's hard for us to get warm, fuzzy feelings about either candidate when they are talking about cutting taxes when we need more money for higher education and K-12," and to build roads and other infrastructure, said Paul Dresser, one of the leaders of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council in Richmond.

David C. Blount, a lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, added that because more than half of the state's schools require major renovations, more state aid ought to go toward school construction instead. He estimated building needs at about $2 billion.

Mr. Dresser said last week that he would vote for Mr. Beyer because he believes the Democrat would ultimately be a stronger advocate for schools. But he said the race as a whole has been uninspiring. "The campaign is lifeless," Mr. Dresser said.

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