McAuliffe and Youngkin take on public education

The latest in Virginia politics

They both have prioritized public education, but McAuliffe and Youngkin differ greatly on policy

by Brandon Jarvis

Critical Race Theory, teacher pay, school choice, mask mandates for students, and other education-related topics remain prominent in discussions for Virginia candidates as election season nears. This brings the partisan debate over public education to the forefront — most obviously in the gubernatorial race. 

 Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, and Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, have both made education a top facet of their campaign platform. Their proposals for change, however, show no resemblance. 

Their plans

Youngkin’s plan is built around raising standards that he says were lowered during McAuliffe’s first term as governor. Politifact recently confirmed Youngkin’s claim that standards for school accreditation were eased under McAuliffe. 

“[Politifact] looked into Youngkin’s claim and found McAuliffe made it much easier for schools to win state accreditation. In fact, no Virginia school has been denied accreditation since McAuliffe-backed changes went into effect at the start of the 2018-19 school year,” Politifact reported

McAuliffe’s campaign pushed back against that characterization. 

“This is another baseless attack from Glenn Youngkin,” said Renzo Olivari, a spokesperson for McAuliffe. “To be clear: no standards were lowered. The truth is that Terry worked with Republicans and Democrats to reform Virginia's accreditation process to help students succeed and better measure school progress and success.”

Youngkin’s education plan also places an emphasis on preserving advanced math classes and the use of advanced diplomas, increasing the number of academic-year governor’s schools, and improving school measurement metrics. 

McAuliffe has announced a plan to increase investments in public schools to raise teacher pay, increase access to Pre-K programs, and increase access to broadband internet. 

McAuliffe says that his plan is to invest $2 billion annually into public education. “I will do this by strategically investing the more than $300 million per year from marijuana legalization, $360 million from casinos, as well as funds from the $2.6 billion surplus anticipated as a result of our economy rebounding faster than expected,” McAuliffe said in a statement Wednesday. 

After an editorial from the Washington Post stated that Youngkin wants to eliminate the state income tax, McAuliffe accused his Republican opponent of wanting to defund public schools and police departments. 

“Glenn Youngkin's economic plan would spell disaster for Virginia's economy -- it would drastically slash funding for our schools and our police, putting our students and our public safety in jeopardy and dragging Virginia backward,” McAuliffe said in a statement to Virginia Scope.

Youngkin’s campaign accused McAuliffe of a smear campaign when asked for comment about cutting school funding. "McAuliffe failed Virginia's kids by lowering academic standards, watched as the murder rate jumped 43% under his watch, and now he wants to defund the police and use inaccurate smear tactics to try to hide his failed record,” a Youngkin spokesperson said. ​​”Whereas, Glenn has dedicated 1.2 billion dollars to Virginia schools in his Invest in Virginians plan."

Youngkin has since pulled back on the comments about eliminating the state income tax, stating during an interview earlier this month that eliminating it would not possible. “I don't believe that we can fully eliminate Virginia state income tax,” Youngkin said during an interview with WMAL. “It would be aspirational to get rid of it, but it's very hard to get rid of it, and therefore we need to bring it down to make it more competitive, but I don't think we can actually eliminate our state income tax.”


Masks in schools

Both candidates have released competing statements on vaccine and mask mandates in public schools. 

With the exception of recently announcing a universal mask requirement for anyone inside of a Virginia public school, Governor Northam has mostly allowed local school districts to decide the specifics of returning to in-person learning. He attempted to not issue a mask mandate for this upcoming school year, advising school districts that CDC guidance recommends masks for students and teachers, but after a few school districts across Virginia made masks optional, Northam stepped in and issued a statewide mask mandate for all students and staff.  

McAuliffe applauded the move from Northam. "Terry believes we have to do everything we can to keep our children safe while they return to schools in-person this fall, and he believes everyone should follow CDC guidelines in wearing masks and getting vaccinated,” his spokesperson said. 

Youngkin pushed back against the mandate and said he wants the decision to be left to families. "With today’s student mask mandate announcement, Ralph Northam, Terry McAuliffe and Richmond liberals have made clear that they will stop at nothing to impose their will and take away parents' ability to decide what's best for our kids,” Youngkin said on the day that the mandate was announced.

McAuliffe has also called on all public schools in Virginia to require teachers and staff to be vaccinated. "A fully vaccinated school workforce is imperative to our next generation’s success,” McAuliffe said in his announcement. “With in-person learning resuming in school districts across the Commonwealth, it is critical to the health, wellbeing and future of the more than one million Virginia K-12 school students that our educators and school staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”  

Youngkin pushed back against any type of vaccine mandate but noted that he himself has received the shot. "I would not have a vaccine passport in Virginia, I don't believe in it. I think people should get the vaccine, I actually have been vaccinated because it was a decision that I made about my own health and my family’s health,” Youngkin said in a recent statement. “I would encourage everyone who can get the vaccine to get it, but everyone has to make their own decisions about this." 

McAuliffe did not directly answer if he would allow the decision-making process for COVID-19 restrictions in schools to remain at the local level, but he said he would “follow the science” as governor. “Following the science, including every eligible Virginian getting vaccinated, is the only way we're going to end this pandemic.,” McAuliffe said in a statement to Virginia Scope. “That's why I am requiring my campaign staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And it's why I have also called on health care systems and providers, as well as school districts, to require their employees to be vaccinated.” 

Youngkin’s spokesperson says that “Glenn would strongly encourage the local districts to make those decisions on their behalf."

Curriculum

Looking beyond the physical circumstances of public education and at the actual curriculum, Youngkin has made a promise to ban the teaching of any form of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools if he becomes governor. 

CRT is an academic approach that is centered around the idea that the United States was built on systemic racism. In general, CRT aims to show that racism is the result of complex, changing, and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, instead of explicit and intentional prejudices. 

Republicans across the country assert that CRT is being implemented into school curriculums, but school districts in Virginia deny that claim and there is little proof otherwise. 

At a June campaign rally in Henrico County, Youngkin told the hundreds of supporters packed into the ballroom that he would ban CRT and received loud cheers in response.

Youngkin continued to tell the crowd that day he opposes CRT because he believes it could cause children to view other children through a racial lens. “As opposed to working together towards common opportunity, they actually come up with excuses for why they can’t achieve their dreams.” 

When speaking to a Republican tracker earlier this summer, McAuliffe referred to the movement to center the public education debate around CRT as a conspiracy theory. “This is totally made up by Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin,” he said. 

McAuliffe’s campaign has not provided any additional comment on CRT, but they have released a plan that they say will address segregation in schools. ”Students of color are also more likely to attend schools with high poverty rates and with little access to challenging coursework,” his plan describes. “We must tackle this issue head on by examining the factors leading to segregation and aggressively implement policies that will promote integration.”

According to McAuliffe’s website, that that includes creating a school integration officer within the Virginia Department of Education, reviewing how diversity factors into school accreditation standards, incentivizing localities to implement integration strategies and working with developers to drastically improve access to affordable housing so that families can locate in areas with high-performing schools. 

School Choice

Youngkin has also been a strong advocate of school choice on the campaign trail. He is proposing to use some of the federal relief money and budget surplus money to provide parents with school vouchers. 

Democrats have historically opposed school choice options and say that it would take funding from public schools. 

 "It's unfortunate that McAuliffe wants to take away the choice of parents and students to pursue a better education and has consistently vetoed school choice education,” a spokesperson for Youngkin said Wednesday. 

School choice gives families options with their tax money to use it towards a private education instead of public. Public school advocates often say that allowing vouchers would take funding from public schools and negatively impact students who remain in those schools and cannot afford to leave. 

A recent study of Indiana schools from Ball State University found that school choice options reduced funding to school districts across the state — mostly impacting the pay of school employees. Indiana has a very robust school choice system and according to the study from Ball State, school choice saved the state $88 million during the 2019-2020 school year.

“The cost of schools is almost exclusively a labor cost, which includes not just salaries, but benefits, healthcare costs and retirement pay,” said Michael Hicks, George and Frances Ball professor of economics. “So the deep cuts that were made between 2010 and last year meant that most of the cost of most of the reduction in [state spending per student] was borne by workers — from lunchroom and school bus drivers to superintendents across the board.”

McAuliffe vetoed legislation in 2016 during his first term as governor that would have provided school choice options. At the time, he said it would have been a “backtrack” on Virginia’s investments in public education. 

Community Support

The Virginia Education Association (VEA), a non-union association of more than 10,000 education professionals endorsed McAuliffe earlier this summer. “We believe that Terry McAuliffe is the leader our students, educators, and public schools need to aid our recovery from the pandemic and significantly boost the prospects of all Virginia students,” said Dr. James Fedderman, the VEA President.

Youngkin announced the “Educators for Youngkin” coalition in June. His website describes them as a “coalition of teachers, parents, educators, and community members across Virginia” who are “committed to restoring excellence in education.” 

“I am proud to lead the Educators for Youngkin Coalition in this critical fight to protect our children's education and restore academic excellence,” said the coalition’s leader, Suparna Dutta, a mother of two children in the Fairfax County Public School system. “I know Glenn Youngkin is the right leader to increase academic opportunity for our children, provide more school options for our parents and teachers, increase transparency in our school system, and raise Virginia's academic standards.”  

Virginia was often considered a purple state that elected statewide officials who were opposite of the White House party, but McAuliffe broke that sentiment when he narrowly defeated Ken Cuccinelli for governor in 2013. It has now been 12 years since Republicans won a statewide race in Virginia. 

The race is tight with McAuliffe showing a consistent, but slim lead in polls so far.  

Also on the ballot this year are lieutenant governor, attorney general, and all 100 House of Delegates’ seats. 

 Early voting begins Sept. 17 for the Nov. 2 election. 

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