Virginia voters say education is one of their top election issues in this fall’s race for governor.
But with less than a month to go before Election Day, it’s hard to tell if Democratic candidate Timothy M. Kaine’s plan for universal prekindergarten or Republican Jerry W. Kilgore’s proposal for teacher merit pay have energized the voters they want to woo.
The contest between Mr. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, and Mr. Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general, is itself still too close to call, according to many polls. Transportation and taxes—two other big topics for state voters—dominated the questions during the only statewide televised debate between the two candidates. Out of more than 30 rapid-fire questions posed in the Oct. 9 event, only one dealt specifically with K-12 education.
H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator and the chairman of the Senate education and health committee, is running for governor as an Independent and is considered a long-shot contender.
Whoever wins won’t have much time to get an education plan going.
Virginia is the last state in the country to limit its governor to one term at a time. Much of the new governor’s efforts likely will be spent fine-tuning major programs already in place and pushing for waivers from federal education mandates.
“They only have time to focus on one or two areas,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and a well-known political prognosticator in the state. “You have to produce quickly, or you’re not going to have a legacy.”
The race is garnering national attention—and money from the major parties—because it is considered a potential proxy for the 2008 presidential election. Incumbent Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is considered a possible presidential candidate, as is Republican U.S. Sen. George F. Allen, who is also a former governor of the state.
Some will be watching to see if Virginia Republicans would be willing to vote for Kaine as a successor to the outgoing governor, who is popular in a GOP-leaning state.
The only other race for governor this year is in New Jersey, and it isn’t seen as having the same national implications as the Virginia election.
U.S. Sen. Jon S. Corzine, the Democratic candidate in the Garden State, has called for full-day kindergarten to be available for all children, expanded after-school and prekindergarten offerings, and more-rigorous high school curricula. His Republican opponent, Douglas Forrester, a former assistant state treasurer, has emphasized decreasing class size, improving teacher recruitment and training, and increasing parental involvement in schools.
Virginia’s new governor will have to address some education issues right away.
The state’s school improvement program, called the Standards of Learning, is now 10 years old. But the state has yet to say what will happen to schools that don’t meet accreditation standards by 2007, the deadline that was set when the Standards of Learning were first enacted.
Virginia’s school accountability program has also conflicted in some areas with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The state has asked for, and been granted, waivers of some of the law’s mandates. But state education officials and lawmakers are seeking more.
And while Gov. Warner ushered a $1.4 billion tax increase through a Republican-controlled legislature to pump new money into K-12 programs, many observers in Virginia say the state is still not paying its full share of education costs.
Kirk T. Schroder, who chaired the Virginia board of education from 1998 to 2002, said that he believes the race is focused on spending priorities.
“Education is a top issue in the campaign, but no one has the smoking gun to solve everything,” he said of the two candidates. “The reality is that people are arguing now about details and practicality.”
Lt. Gov. Kaine says that he’s the one best suited to lead the state in the educational direction Gov. Warner has pursued.
The cornerstone of Mr. Kaine’s education efforts would be a prekindergarten program available to every 4-year-old in the state. Such a program, the Democrat estimates, would cost $300 million in its first year. The expense is significant, Mr. Kaine says, but it is one that he believes is worthwhile.
“The data is so strong about the effect of pre-K on later academic success, but also later economic success,” he said in an interview. “I believe this will make us an innovator.”
He argued that offering preschool would save the state money over time on remedial instruction and prepare students for work and higher education. If elected, Mr. Kaine, 47, said he would form a task force to address such issues as school financing and finding space and teachers for the pre-K program, which he said could be a partnership between public and private providers.
During the statewide debate, he was asked if the program, which he has called the Start Strong Initiative, represented a costly new entitlement for the middle class, since 4-year-olds from low-income families already have access to state and federal early education programs.
“It’s always been shown that kids with special needs learn better not when they’re just segregated in their own programs, but when they can be surrounded by kids from all walks of life,” Mr. Kaine responded.
Costs in Question
Former Attorney General Kilgore, the Republican, responded that Kaine “has no idea how he’d even pay for a plan like this.”
He also notes that Mr. Kaine was the mayor of Richmond during a time when the school system in the state capital was badly trailing other districts on state standardized tests. The 25,000-student district has improved on some measures, but is still receiving intensive help from the state. Mr. Kaine said that improvement began under his watch.
Mr. Kilgore, 44, says his plans for teacher merit pay will keep good instructors in the classroom.
He did not return calls for this article.
According to his campaign literature, Mr. Kilgore’s proposed “better pay for better teachers” plan would establish a task force charged with creating a statewide performance-based pay system that included subject-matter tests, peer evaluations, and class-performance trends.
The GOP candidate believes teachers—especially good ones—should be paid more, stressed Tim Murtaugh, the press secretary for the Kilgore campaign.
Mr. Kilgore believes “the rank-and-file teachers across the commonwealth like Mr. Kilgore’s idea [of merit pay], whether or not their union leadership does,” Mr. Murtaugh said in an interview.
Mr. Kilgore has also recommended a tax credit of up to $500 per child to be used by parents for nontuition education-related expenses, such as computers or tutoring.
Mr. Schroder, the former state school board president, said that idea is one of the most innovative to come out of the race so far, but said that the Kilgore campaign has done little to promote it. Mr. Kilgore did not mention it during the televised debate.
Mr. Kaine has hammered back at Mr. Kilgore, noting that the Republican was against the bipartisan $1.4 billion tax increase, and has worked against race-based diversity programs at state universities. Mr. Kilgore has countered that diversity can be supported in other ways.
Mr. Potts, 66, the Independent candidate, says both of the leading contenders have offered ideas with no money. He has spoken in support of increasing access to vocational education, and reducing what he believes is too much reliance on memorization and rote learning in the state’s SOL tests.
Staff Writer Alan Richard and Assistant Editor Catherine Gewertz contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Virginia Gubernatorial Hopefuls Differ on School Policy