Anne Holton, the wife of the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, has been out on the campaign trail in her own right. As the former secretary of education in the Commonwealth (a position that’s different from state education chief, more of an advisor to the governor), she has been an education ambassador of sorts for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, stopping at child-care centers and chatting up teachers.
Holton says her interest in public education began when she and her siblings helped desegregate schools in Richmond, Va., as part of a push by her father, former Virginia Gov. A. Lindwood Holton, a Republican, to change race relations in the state.
These days, desegregation is a big issue nationally, but it’s only been mentioned fleetingly on the campaign trail. I chatted with Holton about her personal experiences with the issue, what a potential Clinton/Kaine administration might do to further educational equity, and what her role might be. Holton, who spent most of her career as a legal aid lawyer and juvenile court judge, thinks she might be able to help folks with different perspectives on education redesign work together.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation. It’s been edited for brevity and clarity. Parts of it have been paraphrased:
When your husband introduced himself to the nation as Secretary Clinton’s vice-presidential candidate, he talked about the decision your father—former Virginia Gov. A. Lindwood Holton—made not only to integrate Richmond’s city schools, but to send his own kids to them, including you. What was that experience like for you? What grade were you in? What was the reception from other students and teachers? How did that change your educational experience?
“It was an important time for me and all my siblings in our lives. I was 12 years old. We had just moved into the governor’s mansion in January of that year  and Dad had declared in his
inaugural address that he wanted to make Virginia a model of race relations. Obviously, as a Southern governor at that time, that was a departure from the role other Southern governors had [chosen.] We went to formerly all African-American schools, and they stayed mostly all African-American, frankly, in those years because so many of the folks that were assigned there found other
“It was a great experience. On the one hand, it was being part of history. We did get a lot of attention. There was a very famous picture of my dad taking my sister to the high school. My mother took my brother and me to the middle school and we didn’t get quite as much attention, and we laughed about it at the time. But we all understood as a family that we were having an opportunity to be part of something larger than ourselves. We got letters from around the world from people supportive of it. There were [also] protests outside the mansion. There was plenty of opposition, but we heard more of the positive. ... As a 12-year-old, to have an opportunity to be part of something larger than yourself that advances the ball for the world, was a very special opportunity. ...
“Going to school, the experience part, was more like being any other 12-year-old. You know, [you’ve] got the math homework, and how’s our basketball team going to do. And you know, making friends. I will say it was my first experience—I was from a very comfortable middle-class background—being with people who came from a much different economic background. It was absolutely my first experience being with a lot of people of color.”
But, Holton said she liked, “learning [about] the similarities and differences” between her and her new classmates. “It was a fascinating time, for all of us.”
Were you able to make friends? Did you notice inequities between the school you’d attended before and your new school?
“I don’t remember the inequities between the schools. I was 12, I may not have noticed. But I do remember [other] inequities. One of my very close friends lived in a housing project, and when she would come over to play with me at the mansion that was a different experience than when I went to play with her at her house. I remember a lot of our friends at school really valued that hot school lunch that we had growing up. We’d always kind of turned our noses up at that, the school lunch food. So I was real aware of the economic differences.”
You sent your own children to integrated schools in Richmond, as well. What was their experience like? How did it compare to yours?
“I was delighted to return to Richmond after law school and delighted to send our kids to Richmond City schools, which is [still] an inner city school district, largely. Our kids got a great education. .... They all went on to great colleges and were well-prepared for their great colleges. They also got life experiences that kids that went to more homogenous school districts did not get.”
Desegregation is obviously an issue that’s popped up nationally. What do you think that a potential Clinton/Kaine administration could do to help schools become more integrated across the country? And what could they do to help reduce funding disparities between schools serving wealthy kids and those serving poor kids?
“Well, I think the first step is acknowledging the problem. ... I do think there’s been some progress in some communities. One of the ironies for me in my area is the Richmond City schools that we helped to integrate are probably not much more integrated now than they were then. ... But some of our surrounding county schools now have robust diverse communities. ...
“The data certainly shows that across the nation, we are, if not all the way back, close to all the way back to where we were before desegregation, which is just very painful. And so the first thing is calling it out. And, yes, I think there is a federal role, starting with the bully pulpit. And we’re doing that right now by talking about it. I also think there is a federal role if you put it in the larger context of equity issues, how are we going to address larger equity issues, both in school and out.”
Can you talk a little more about what kinds of concrete steps a Clinton/Kaine administration might take on that?
“I’m very excited about that. First of all, the larger economy proposals that Hillary has laid out will have an absolute direct impact on schools. ... If we raise the minimum, wage that’s huge, we’re tackling poverty at its source. ...
“The anti-poverty strategy is a very strong part of the school equity agenda. More specifically, within the pre-K-12 world, Hillary has very strong proposals to make sure high-quality pre-K is available to everyone regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of their ability to pay. ... Hillary [has] proposals for significant new investments in pre-K, early Head Start, child care. These are things she’s cared about forever.”
Do you expect that education would become part of your portfolio or your role if you did become a vice-presidential spouse?
Holton said Clinton has asked her to spotlight education on the campaign trail, and Holton is hoping she’ll be able to continue to do that if her husband becomes vice president.
And she’s hoping “there may be a role for me to play in helping find some common ground among folks with varying perspectives on how to improve education for [kids] who need it to the most,” Holton said. Nearly everyone believes that children from disadvantaged families need to be given the best chance possible for success, she said. “But there are some real differing perspectives on that. And I think there’s more room for common ground than people think, helping bring together some of the education reform folks with some of the more traditional school district folks. I would love to help play a role in that.”
When you talk about helping to find common ground, are you talking about the two wings of the Democratic Party (the education redesign community and practitioners) or between Democrats and Republicans? It sounds like you’re thinking about the divisions within the Democratic Party.
“My Virginia experience is that some of the things that we ought to be doing on public education cut across the Democratic and Republican labels. But you are right, within the Democratic Party there are some differences on this. ... If there is a role to play in helping bridge some of those ... I don’t want to call it divides, because, really, I think everyone is in for the same reasons, but in helping bridge some of those perspectives, I’d be honored to help do that.”
She also talked about her position on charter schools.
“There may be some confusion on my views on charters. And I have had limited experiences with charters here in Virginia for a variety of reasons. But I very much agree with Hillary’s perspective that high-quality public charters that are open to everybody regardless of disability status or background absolutely have a role to play, that giving parents options absolutely can help the overall goal that we’re making education work for [everyone].”
Charter quality, Holton said, seems to come down to “oversight. And some states don’t do it so well, and some states do it better.”
Why do think K-12 education hasn’t been a big issue in the campaign?
“Hillary has been talking about it a good bit and I don’t know why it hasn’t gotten much attention. Hillary has these very strong pre-K proposals,” Holton ticked off Clinton’s plans to offer grants to help schools improve safety and climate, train math and science teachers, fix up school facilities, and give more schools access to broadband and cutting edge technology. More here.
“We’ve talked about it a good bit. Maybe some of the context is that [the Every Student Succeeds Act] having passed so recently. ... Bringing everybody together to successfully implement ESSA may be the main thing that’s on the mind of most folks in the education world.”
Who do you think might make a good education secretary for Clinton?
“She’ll have lots of and lots of great candidates. It’s probably much too premature to talk about who it might be. ... I think one thing that Hillary has said is that there will be a teacher at the table for every decision and that teachers are included in the discussions, and I think that’s really important.”
Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., waves with his wife, Anne Holton, during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
--J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with vice presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Kaine’s wife Anne Holton during a rally in Columbus, Ohio, in July.
Gov. Ronald Reagan of California examines a “Virginia is for Lovers” button being worn by Gov. Linwood Holton of Virginia while attending the National Governor’s Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1971.