Debating his Republican opponent for governor of Virginia in October 2001, about all that Mark Warner, a businessman and Democratic Party activist, could muster to say on K-12 education was that history questions on Virginia’s standardized tests might need some tweaking.
Little more than three years later, now-Gov. Warner is emerging as one of the country’s most visible leaders on education policy.
A co-host of this weekend’s national education summit on high schools, to be held in Washington, Mr. Warner has used his chairmanship of the National Governors Association and his former chairmanship of the Education Commission of the States to propel himself—and his ideas on education—into the national spotlight.
“There’s no doubt his star has risen tremendously,” said Robert Holsworth, a political scientist and the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University here.
As governor since January 2002, Mr. Warner has scored some of his biggest political points on education policy. Using his business acumen to help the state weather a $6 billion budget deficit, he teamed up with some Republican lawmakers last year to pass a sales-tax increase and a record boost in Virginia’s K-12 funding for teacher raises and other items.
“Money alone is not going to solve our education crisis. It is a necessary component, but not the only component,” Mr. Warner said during a recent news conference in Washington.
In a Feb. 9 interview, he said his goal is to find promising and practical ways to improve public schools, then spread those strategies across an entire state. “These are things that can go beyond an individual school,” he said.
A co-founder of the cellphone giant Nextel, Mr. Warner is an Indianapolis native who moved around in a military family. Finishing public high school in Alexandria, Va., and college at The George Washington University in Washington, he graduated from Harvard Law School.
Now 50, he is the father of three daughters, two of whom attend private school here in Virginia’s capital. The youngest girl attends public school.
Gov. Warner said that after taking office he wanted to spread Northern Virginia’s technology wealth into the rural areas of the state. He planned to “trot up to all my high-tech buddies and convince them to put jobs in all those regions.” But he realized that many workers had not been trained to work in technology.
Former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. and other policy leaders convinced the new governor that education could lay the groundwork for the pursuit of better jobs for Virginians. “The more I got into it, the more I realized this stuff was hard,” Gov. Warner said. “If I was really going to be a change agent, I had to learn it.”
He began to hone what he saw as a winning approach for Democrats—in his state and beyond— in addressing education: Stress tough standards and accountability, but couple them with greater help for struggling schools.
Many of his key education programs in Virginia have cost relatively little. For example, he asked state education officials to devise programs to help turn around traditionally low-performing schools. The result was a program that sends teacher-coaches, principal-coaches, and extra resources into low-scoring schools—all for little more than $1 million a year.
He also worked with the University of Virginia to develop a training program for school principals as “turnaround specialists.” (“Va. Principal Cadre Aims To Fix Schools,” April 28, 2004.)
At this week’s education summit, Gov. Warner wants governors and their staffs to discuss measures that he says can be implemented quickly: approaches like better links between high schools, colleges, and community colleges, and strategies proven to keep students from dropping out of school.
“Take one or two of those ideas and become a champion for them,” he urged.
Crossing the Aisle
Not everyone is impressed with Gov. Warner’s education record.
Former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, Mr. Warner’s predecessor and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, suggested in an interview that Gov. Warner had done little to improve schools—especially compared with Mr. Gilmore’s own support for accountability policies that were begun under another Republican governor of the state: George Allen, now a U.S. senator.
There’s a difference between “talk about reforms, and reforms,” he said in a Feb. 16 interview.
Mr. Gilmore, now a lawyer in Washington, added that Mr. Warner is wrong to support a move by several Virginia public universities to free themselves of most state oversight. “I wonder if Governor Warner has any idea what he was doing,” he said.
But Gov. Warner’s favor among education supporters in Virginia was on display here Feb. 10 at a Virginia School Boards Association conference.
Republican Lucy S. Beauchamp, the board chairwoman for the 66,000-student Prince William County schools in the Washington suburbs, was among the many hundreds in the audience here who leaped to their feet and applauded when the governor entered the room to speak.
“He’s made education one of the top issues, and for all the citizens in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Ms. Beauchamp said.
Virginia State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jo Lynne DeMary said she was grateful when Gov. Warner decided to reappoint her, signaling his intent to keep the state’s emphasis on testing and accountability initiated by his Republican predecessors.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, praised his colleague’s bipartisanship. “You’re really talking to a colleague who’s trying to find solutions to problems, and he doesn’t really care where they come from.”
Friend and business associate Jim Murray of Charlottesville, Va., wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Warner reaches the White House. “He has kind of a Clintonesque ability to immediately become the focus of attention in any room he enters.”
Gov. Warner wouldn’t say much about his future. “Regardless of whether I stay in politics or stay active in the private sector, this is a passion,” he said of education. “Whatever role it’s going to be has got to be an action-oriented role.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as Virginia Gov. Warner Takes School Lessons To the National Stage