The way Republican Wyatt B. Durrette and Democrat Gerald L. Baliles talk about education, there's no doubt that the two candidates for governor of Virginia see it as as one of the major issues in their race.
From separate appearances in Fairfax County classrooms to their literature and television ads, the two candidates stress the need for education. Each calls for doing more, spending more on schools and providing better academic courses and vocational training for the state's youth.
But behind the similar rhetoric from the two avowed friends of education is a sharp division over how to spend the state's multimillion-dollar school budget, a debate with an outcome that some say could affect local tax rates and shape the state's policies on education issues such as merit pay for teachers and tax breaks for educational spending.
Durrette, a Richmond lawyer and former legislator from Fairfax County, has charged that Baliles, in a typically Democratic fashion, simply wants to "throw money" at education problems.
Baliles, a former state attorney general and Richmond legislator, has claimed that Durrette is unwilling to support minimal education standards imposed by the state on Virginia's local school systems. Specifically, Baliles has charged that Durrette would abandon the commitment that Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb made to fully fund the state's "standards of quality" in education.
At issue is how to spend an additional $515 million for education during the next two years. Robb has proposed including that amount in the state's next biennial budget, but his successor who will take office in mid-January is certain to influence how the money is appropriated by the legislature.
Baliles has said he would follow Robb's lead and funnel the money to the state's schools, thus easing the burden on local real estate taxes, which provide most school funding. Durrette has said he, too, would spend roughly the same amount on education, but he would spend it differently.
Durrette questioned whether the $515 million will do what Robb and Baliles said it should: give enough money to the local schools to meet the state's commitment. He said the money could be better spent on other, more innovative educational programs.
That has upset some local officials, many of them Democrats, who say the state should live up to the commitment it made in 1971 to local school systems.
"Unless the state fully funds its share of the costs, they're really not putting their money where their mouths are," said Fairfax Supervisor Audrey Moore.
Moore, who supports Baliles, said Fairfax County stands to gain about $44 million during the next two years if Virginia for the first time fully funds its share -- 50 percent -- of local school costs. "That's the issue for Fairfax," she said. "Money."
Republicans see the issue differently. "It's not a matter of wanting to spend more. It's not wanting to write a blank check," said state Del. James H. Dillard II, a Fairfax educator who is supporting Durrette. A GOP administration "would be a little more cautious about how the money would be spent," Dillard said.
Several state politicians, including Dillard, said Baliles initially scored points over Durrette in July when the Republican refused to support full funding.
However, the same politicians tend to agree that Durrette rebounded with an 18-point program that emphasized spending and reforms -- a package that they said made Baliles appear more like a status quo candidate.
In his program, Durrette called for better teacher preparation and merit pay, more classroom discipline and more involvement of business in supporting schools.
Baliles said generally that "standards and expectations in higher grades . . . must be increased," that "more homework must become commonplace" and that the "cornerstone of education will be quality, professional instruction" with teachers' salaries "commensurate with their devotion to the job."
Baliles has won the backing of the Virginia Education Association, the largest teacher group in the state, with his support for Robb's proposals. The increase of $515 million, or 26 percent, for the first time would push state spending above $3 billion for the next two-year budget cycle.
Most of the additional money, about 80 percent, would go for salaries for teachers and administrators, officials said, although local governments ultimately decide how the money will be spent.
To pay for his ideas, Durrette has suggested diverting some money intended for across-the-board pay increases for teachers. He also has suggested he may support a plan to give beginning teachers more money, a step he said would attract better qualified teachers.
Durrette said he would support merit pay plans, a proposal that Dillard said the legislature may not be willing to support because a pilot project for merit pay for teachers proved "frightfully expensive and unbelievably time-consuming."
Baliles has said he opposes merit pay programs because they are difficult to administer fairly and do not address basic education problems.
The Virginia General Assembly has increasingly moved toward full funding of education and some legislative leaders said it is unlikely that Robb's spending package -- if proposed without a tax increase -- will be rejected.
"The matter of funding the state's share of education is something all of us have been calling for so long," said Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid (D-Fairfax), who is in line to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee next year if she wins reelection in November.
"It will help the localities. It will mean millions the localities don't have to spend" out of their own pockets," she said.