"You want jobs — you create a tax income. You cannot get that if you don't have a great workforce. You cannot have a great workforce if you don't have the best education system in the country," the Democrat said in an October interview reflecting on education during his tenure.
One initiative set a goal of graduating 50,000 Virginians each year from training programs in science, technology, engineering, math and health fields — known as STEM-H.
The state reached that benchmark in fiscal 2017 when, according to the governor's office, 50,361 STEM-H credentials were awarded statewide.
McAuliffe also sought to position Virginia as a leader in cybersecurity, with training camps for educators, programs for veterans and state-funded cybercamps for high school students.
More recently, the state's Board of Education voted in November to adopt computer science standards for students after lawmakers directed the board to do so.
Virginia also has overhauled the way it measures student achievement.
Lawmakers in 2014 eliminated five Standards of Learning tests in elementary and middle school, reducing the number from 22 to 17. Instead of the standardized tests, students are assessed on their knowledge of the material by project-based assessments.
The McAuliffe-appointed Board of Education also voted to do away with statewide history exams required for graduation. Critics doubt schools will be able to adequately measure students' understanding of the history curriculum without the statewide exam.
But supporters say having fewer standardized tests is a welcome shift from an extreme reliance on testing, and they note that students' mastery of the curriculum will be measured in other ways.
The Board of Education also revamped the accreditation system used by the state to hold schools accountable. Credit will be given to schools that show improvement on state tests and other signs of progress, such as narrowing achievement gaps. That is a departure from the current system, which relies almost entirely on student pass rates on standardized tests to determine accreditation.
Jennifer Parish, past president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said graduation standards scheduled to go into effect in the fall for incoming ninth-graders encourage "deeper learning."
The new standards — developed with input from superintendents, principals and other educators — require students to demonstrate critical thinking, creativity and communication.
"We've got to continue that momentum and sustain what we've started so we can make sure it all comes to fruition," said Parish, the superintendent of Poquoson city schools.
Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) said those reforms reflect bipartisan cooperation between the Republican-led legislature and McAuliffe.
Landes, chairman of the House Education Committee, said common ground was found on issues such as redesigning the state's high school graduation requirements and curtailing a persistent teacher shortage.
McAuliffe said the teacher shortage will be the steepest education challenge faced by his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The state is beset with an aging workforce, and McAuliffe said bolstering the supply of Virginia educators depends on attracting millennials.
The dearth of educators prompted McAuliffe to take emergency steps in December. He directed the Board of Education to implement a measure allowing the state's public colleges and universities to offer undergraduates a major in education by March 1, streamlining education requirements to get aspiring teachers into classrooms faster.
Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association, one of the state's teacher alliances, credited McAuliffe with restoring some funding for schools hit hard by the recession — the first steps in a recovery that Livingston said will require much more.
"Under his leadership, we've put into place some of the building blocks," Livingston said.