Republican candidate for governor Wyatt B. Durrette said today he would support a planned $500 million increase in state spending for education over the next two years if it is coupled with a variety of reforms.
Durrette said at a news conference he was opposed to spending much of that money, already set aside in a proposed two-year budget by Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb, on across-the-board salary increases for teachers that could total about 17 percent over the two years.
Durrette said that if elected he would seek a revision in teacher salary scales to raise entry-level salaries and give smaller amounts to established teachers. He said he would use other savings to divert money to such programs as merit pay and other career incentives to improve schools.
Durrette's stand was immediately attacked by his Democratic opponent, Gerald L. Baliles, who accused Durrette of "engaging in another one of his flip-flops."
Durrette has been on the defensive on education since July when he told reporters at a joint appearance with Baliles that education was one of many needs in the state that are competing for state money.
The Republican candidate at that time refused to commit himself to Robb's proposed full funding of the state's basic aid to education, called the Standards of Quality, although Robb has said it would be achieved without a general tax increase.
Durrette's program today appeared designed to broaden the education debate over how the state spends education funds rather than focus on whether the money would be available, as he did in July.
For example, Durrette said then he would propose a "Family Savings for Education Act," which would allow parents to establish tax-deductible savings accounts up to $2,500 to pay for a "child's college education," public or private.
Durrette, a supporter of a modified tuition tax-credit plan for elementary and secondary students, did not include that provision in his plan today, saying it was not a "priority" with him.
Durrette, who noted that he has seven children when he discussed his concern for education, dismissed suggestions that the tax deduction plan would favor only well-to-do families who could afford to set money aside.
On other education issues, Durrette said he supports allowing parents to educate their children at home under certain circumstances, favors a local option to allow election of school boards, all of which are now appointed, and said he might favor tax incentives to encourage private business to become more involved in public schools.
Baliles called a news conference to respond to Durrette and defended the state's Standards of Quality. He said some of the changes proposed by Durrette already are included in those standards, including urging more involvement by parents in schools, staff development and preparation, stronger discipline and special education for gifted and handicapped students. "It appears he is playing catch-up," Baliles said.