McAuliffe is clearer than Youngkin on Virginia schools funding, but Maryland bests both of them
Both candidates for Virginia governor say they want to increase spending on education, but there’s a big difference in how much they say beyond that.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign website has a six-page policy paper detailing how he would increase preschool and K-12 spending by $2 billion a year.
Republican Glenn Youngkin has said little about the schools budget, although a campaign spokesperson said last week that he wants to boost it overall.
Both Virginia candidates would do well to borrow their plans from neighboring Maryland, which approved an ambitious education package in February. National experts hail it as a model not only for investing billions of dollars in education, but also for ensuring that the extra money actually leads to improved classroom performance.
The future of education promises to be a major topic in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial election and a harbinger of similar debates in the 2022 national midterms. About 20 states are considering big increases in their education budgets, partly to make up for lost time after more than a year of crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans are hoping to win back moderate suburban voters by assailing Democrats for promoting liberal policies in schools such as racial equity and calling transgender children by the pronouns they choose.
McAuliffe wants to make his schools plan the signature issue in the gubernatorial race. His campaign says polls show education is a top concern for voters.
Among other things, McAuliffe proposes to “dramatically and immediately” raise Virginia teachers’ pay above the national average for the first time in state history.
The average Virginia public school teacher’s salary in 2020 was $57,665, which is 26th in the country, according to the National Education Association. That compares with $73,444 in Maryland, ranking ninth, and $79,350 in the District, ranking fourth.
McAuliffe also wants to ensure that all 3- and 4-year-olds are able to attend preschool and that all students have access to broadband.
The extra cost of $2 billion a year would represent a 25 percent increase in the state’s general fund spending on education, according to the campaign. McAuliffe says his plan can be financed out of new tax revenue from cannabis sales and casino betting as well as from a recently announced state budget surplus.
Youngkin has focused instead on cultural issues in education. He has hammered schools for allegedly teaching critical race theory. He objected to the elimination of accelerated math classes in what he called a misplaced desire for equity.
The Republican also has faulted the state’s Democratic leaders for keeping schools closed too long and relying on remote learning during the pandemic. He called for withholding funding from closed schools.
Youngkin hasn’t clarified how he would increase education spending, as he promises, at the same time that he has called for reducing or even eliminating the state personal income tax.
Asked to comment on McAuliffe’s plan, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, “By his own admission, Terry McAuliffe failed to adequately raise teacher pay or rebuild crumbling schools when he was governor, but Glenn Youngkin will get it done. Glenn will boost education funding, give parents the power to choose where their child goes to school, and restore excellence in Virginia’s classrooms.”
In response, McAuliffe spokesperson Renzo Olivari said his candidate “launched his campaign for governor with a plan to give every Virginia child a world-class education. . . . Glenn Youngkin’s campaign is focused on lifting up Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories and making false attacks because he has no education plan.”
Youngkin has time before the Nov. 2 election to offer more ideas for the education budget. Let’s hope he does, so voters can make an informed choice.
That said, even McAuliffe’s detailed proposals don’t go as far as Maryland’s plan.
In Annapolis, the Democratic-led General Assembly drew attention this year for voting to override a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and endorse a long-term initiative to eventually raise education spending by $4 billion a year. But the legislature didn’t get as much notice for also setting up what experts say is a unique system to hold local officials accountable for using the money effectively.
The project is known as the Kirwan plan, because it’s based on recommendations from a commission led by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, a former chancellor of the University of Maryland System.
In a key plank, Maryland created an Accountability and Implementation Board with the power to withhold funds from school districts if they don’t follow through with prescribed changes in when, what and how they teach.
In that way, the Maryland plan is “absolutely different from what’s happened in any other state,” said Marc S. Tucker, founder and chief executive emeritus of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
The board is to ensure implementation of goals borrowed from high-performing systems abroad, such as in Finland, Singapore and Canada. They include expanding pre-K programs, raising both pay and certification standards for teachers, and providing more individualized instruction.
One aim is to treat teachers more as professionals. That means not just raising their pay, but also providing mentoring and a ladder for career advancement.
U.S. teachers are paid about 20 percent less than other professionals with similar educational qualifications, even after accounting for teachers’ long summer vacations, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and the California state board of education.
“Teaching is not considered a high-status profession in the United States, while in Finland, it’s the highest status profession,” she said.
Admittedly, Maryland’s success is hardly guaranteed. The General Assembly must approve future appropriations to meet the spending goal. For now, the extra money is expected to come from casino and sports gambling tax revenue, as well as from levies on digital ads and streaming.
In addition, the accountability board will face political resistance when it pushes school systems to change their ways.
“On paper, the enforcement mechanism has teeth,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education and a member of the Kirwan Commission. “However, it could still be emasculated, depending on who gets put on it and whether it gets a competent staff and a budget and is able to do its work.”
Even with those caveats, Maryland’s plan promises to deliver more than dollars for our schools. Virginia should take heed.