HENRICO, Va. — As a history and civics teacher in suburban Richmond, Schuyler VanValkenburg has seen his class sizes climb over the years. When he began teaching more than a decade ago, he averaged 25 students in a class. Now it's 30. And it even reached 35 once.
“We’re seeing a huge assault on public schools,” said VanValkenburg, 35, who teaches at Glen Allen High School. “Public schools are the main way you can create opportunity for people . . . and the main way to have a thriving locality and state.”
He is one of at least three candidates for Virginia’s House of Delegates with a background in education. Having witnessed firsthand the demands on students and the financial strain on school districts, these candidates decided to wade into politics with the goal of improving public education.
VanValkenburg is a Democrat running in the state’s 72nd District in Henrico County, a historically conservative area that’s grown kinder to Democrats in recent elections. The seat is open after Republican Jimmie Massie decided not to seek reelection.
Galvanized by the 2016 presidential election, in which he saw "deliberative democracy being kind of, you know, trampled on," VanValkenburg has emphasized strengthening schools.
It’s a message that appears to resonate with voters. A poll released in September by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University found that improving K-12 education topped gubernatorial voters’ priority list.
In a 2016 report, researchers at the Commonwealth Institute, a left-leaning Richmond think tank, found that Virginia schools haven't recovered from cuts made during the recession.
Faced with financial woes, Virginia slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from state education funding by adjusting the formulas used to determine how much money school districts get.
The state’s economy has rebounded, but many of the formulas have stayed the same, resulting in an underestimation of what it actually costs to educate children, according to the report.
The changes were “tactics used to reduce state support in a time of financial strain, and they ignore the actual costs of educating Virginia’s students,” the researchers wrote.
Recession-era cutbacks are still keenly felt inside schools, where class sizes are bigger and support staffs are smaller, VanValkenburg said.
“The General Assembly has been incredibly neglectful of things like education,” he said.
He also supports reforming curriculum, arguing that focusing too heavily on standardized testing detracts from sharpening students’ critical thinking and reading comprehension skills.
Eddie Whitlock, VanValkenburg’s Republican opponent, said supporting education funding and opposing extensive standardized tests are widely shared goals.
“This is not exactly a courageous platform full of innovative ideas. This is all stuff that is easy to support,” Whitlock said in an email. “Where it gets tough is where you have to prioritize and what you have to cut since Virginia can’t pay for every program or idea Mr. VanValkenburg and his fellow progressives want to impose on us.”
The candidates’ major dividing line, Whitlock said, is over school choice: He supports expanded school choice options such as charter schools, whereas VanValkenburg is a proponent of traditional public schools.
As VanValkenburg made the rounds in one Henrico neighborhood in October, voter Cindy Anderson said she was “honestly clueless” about the election.
But, she said, her two young children attend a nearby elementary school and are daunted by excessive testing. And the school is just now getting much-needed renovations. “My kids are in second and fifth grade, so education is my only focus,” she said.
VanValkenburg would hardly be the first teacher to sit in the House of Delegates: At least four Republicans and two Democrats with teaching backgrounds serve in the legislature.
Other educators running this year include Democrats Shelly Simonds in Newport News and Cheryl Turpin in Virginia Beach.
Turpin said she, too, would like to reexamine testing and rely more on problem solving and creativity in classrooms. The metrics-driven approach to education, she said, creates stress for students and teachers. “There have to be better ways of evaluating our students,” she said.