In Va. Race, Education Overshadowed But Not Ignored

By Alan Richard — October 17, 2001 6 min read
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The race for governor in Virginia was focused squarely on education and a few other issues. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11—one of them on Virginia soil at the Pentagon—and everything changed.

But education is still on voters’ minds in the Old Dominion, the only state besides New Jersey scheduled to elect a governor this year. While the campaign here has turned to themes such as taxes, leadership, and public safety in the aftermath of last month’s attacks, the state’s standards-based school accountability system remains the focus of often spirited debate.

The battle of the two Marks—Republican Mark L. Earley and Democrat Mark R. Warner—pits a candidate who stresses his years of experience as a political leader against one who portrays himself as a chance for a fresh start.

They are vying to succeed Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, who is barred by state law from seeking a consecutive term.

Mr. Earley, who was the attorney general here until he resigned this summer to run for governor, touts his nearly four years in statewide office and 10 years as a GOP state senator. Mr. Warner, a wealthy businessman and party activist, hopes moderate voters in the populous northern Virginia suburbs of Washington will help carry him to victory.

For educators and policymakers, the race isn’t as much about Virginia’s Standards of Learning as it could have been.

State law requires schools to follow grade-by-grade academic standards that critics see as too prescriptive. In 1998, the state began basing its school accreditation system on results of tests tied to those standards; that system seems to have settled in.

Instead, more traditional issues have emerged: teacher salaries, school construction, and education finance, among them.

Mr. Earley, who trailed badly in early polls but in recent weeks has gained ground, wants to shrink class sizes in the early grades, recruit 21,000 volunteers as mentors in schools, and allow tax credits for businesses that give scholarships for low- income students to attend private schools or seek tutoring help.

The father of six children, four of them now attending public schools in Chesterfield County outside Richmond, the 47-year-old candidate went to the Philippines as a Christian missionary after college and later finished law school. His mother was a substitute teacher.

And he lets it be known that he’s the only candidate with children who actually attend Virginia public schools.

“This is not just a political or policy issue with me. It’s a personal priority,” Mr. Earley said.

Mr. Earley proposes that Virginia reach at least the national average in teacher salaries, and he wants to change state law to allow districts to partner with private firms to build and renovate schools—much the way the state has built some new roads in northern Virginia.

He also proposes testing teachers after their third and eighth years on the job, an idea that he says would lend more professionalism to the field and open up the chance for higher pay. He wants loan-forgiveness programs and school-based clubs to encourage more high school students to pursue teaching careers.

Business Background

Mr. Warner, 46, is climbing a less traditional political ladder. Wealthy from his early investments in the cellular-telephone industry, the venture capitalist lives in the Washington suburb of Alexandria with his wife and three daughters, who all attend private schools.

Raised in a military family, Mr. Warner finished public high school in northern Virginia. He has never held elected office, but managed the successful campaign of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in 1989 and has served on the boards of directors of several nonprofit organizations. He ran unsuccessfully to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Warner in 1996.

In a debate between the major-party candidates here in the state capital on Oct. 3, the Democrat boasted the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association and pushed for greater state spending on education. Mr. Warner said this year’s budget debate—which delayed school funding decisions for months as the legislature and governor battled over Gov. Gilmore’s plan to eliminate the state’s car tax—showed the current state leadership to be insensitive to schools and parents.

“If you like the politics that have been coming out of Richmond the last nine or 10 years, then I’m not your candidate,” Mr. Warner said in the debate at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Mr. Warner’s education plan contains fewer specifics than Mr. Earley’s, but aims to address a broader range of issues. He wants to raise teacher salaries, encourage parent and community involvement, promote the use of technology, and increase state- employee leave time for parents to attend school events.

The Democrat proposes to expand the TechRiders computer-training program that he created for adults into a statewide parent-literacy effort. He wants to improve reading skills in young children, train teachers in the use of computers in schools, and promote limited public school choice, including charter schools.

His platform also includes early-childhood programs, such as setting up a referral network for parents choosing child-care providers, sending a packet of brain- development information home with the parents of every newborn, and fostering more training for child-care workers.

Vouchers Opposed

Both candidates oppose publicly funded vouchers for private school tuition, but say school choice isn’t a bad idea. Mr. Earley said vouchers are “constitutionally problematic,” while Mr. Warner says that type of choice works against a public system that he believes is in need of greater funding.

The candidates agree that Virginia’s school accountability laws generally are working, but Mr. Warner is more critical. He argues that social studies exams should include more essay questions, for example. The state board of education has agreed to make that change.

“I can tell you it’s benefited my own children,” Mr. Earley said of the Standards of Learning exams, or SOLs, as the state tests and the accountability system are called. “Any testing tool has to be constantly evaluated,” the Republican added.

Whoever wins the race, school districts need more financial help from the state, said Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of the 165,000-student Fairfax County schools in suburban Washington, the state’s largest district.

Mr. Domenech said his county receives only 12 percent of its education budget from the state. Wealthier districts such as his need more help, especially in school construction, he contended, while poorer districts also could qualify for more aid if state leaders reworked funding formulas.

“The state has to revisit its role in supporting education,” Mr. Domenech said.

Mr. Warner supports allowing a multicounty referendum in northern Virginia that could raise local sales taxes for transportation, and possibly for education. But Mr. Earley said he opposes any measure that could end up raising taxes, and has run a television commercial accusing Mr. Warner of supporting a tax increase, which the Democrat denies.

The state legislature must give its blessing before any county-level or multicounty referendum could be held.

Mr. Earley said that, in short, he wants Virginia to keep on course while making adjustments to its school improvement efforts when necessary. He pointed to substantial test-score gains in recent years, especially for minority students. “We’re definitely going to stick with our approach in Virginia where no child gets left behind,” he said, echoing President Bush’s education slogan.

Mr. Warner said in the Oct. 3 debate that changes to the school finance system and the accountability law are possible if he’s elected. “Politics as usual is the last thing we need at this point,” he said.

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