The outcome of Virginia's race for governor, the country's marquee statewide election this year, will have widespread significance for the state's roughly 1.29 million schoolchildren, political observers and education experts say.
"The governor's race matters a whole lot for what public education will look like in Virginia in the days ahead," said Sally Hudson, an assistant professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Virginia.
The contest pits Republican Ed Gillespie, who has received more than $100,000 in donations from the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, against Democrat Ralph Northam, who has accepted at least $465,000 from teachers unions.
Gillespie and Northam both want to boost teacher pay — Virginia ranks 32nd in the nation in that category — support more workforce training and rework the state's Standards of Learning tests, a measure for school accountability and student achievement.
But they diverge sharply when it comes to public charter schools and using tax dollars to help parents pay tuition at private schools.
Gillespie wants to expand the state's charter schools beyond the eight in operation. As a state senator Northam voted against loosening restrictions that govern the establishment of charter schools, and as a candidate for governor he has advocated investing in traditional public schools.
The state's current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, vetoed a bill advanced by the Republican-controlled legislature last year that would have permitted the state to create regional charter schools without permission from local school boards.
Supporters say charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately run, provide alternatives to underperforming traditional schools. Tightly regulated charter schools, such as the nationwide KIPP network, particularly its schools in Boston, have been relatively successful, Hudson said.
Fears surrounding charter schools are driven by the concern that "we would get the worst version" of them, she added.
Critics argue they siphon money from traditional public schools, exacerbate segregation and, in many cases, perform no better. They point to charter schools in Michigan, DeVos's home state, as a cautionary tale.
"You open the door to further stratification in a public school system that is already very stratified," said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an educational leadership professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The fact that the General Assembly has sent charter bills to McAuliffe on an annual basis and that he has stopped them means that the governor's office carries a lot of weight."
Research on the impact of vouchers is mixed. A study released earlier this year found that D.C. students enrolled in the only federally funded private-school voucher program in the country fared worse on standardized tests within a year than their counterparts who remained in traditional public schools. An analysis released last week of students enrolled in Florida's private-school voucher program found they were more likely to enroll in college than peers who remained in public school, but many left before earning a degree.
Asked whether Gillespie supports private-school vouchers, campaign spokesman David Abrams did not provide a direct answer.
He said Gillespie would support legislation for education savings accounts, such as one proposed by Republican lawmakers last year that would allow parents who remove their children from public schools to receive 90 percent of the state funding that would have been spent on their child. They would be able to use the funds for private-school tuition, tutoring, books and other educational costs.
Northam is opposed to that idea and would "be a brick wall against any effort to take away resources from our students and put them in the hands of unaccountable, private organizations," according to his spokesman, David Turner.
DeVos family donations
The Virginia Education Association, which represents 50,000 of the state's educators, has loudly endorsed Northam, leveling a television attack ad at Gillespie and sponsoring a website that asserts, "Ed Gillespie: Bad for Schools. Bad for Kids."
The association says Gillespie's plan to cut taxes will reduce funding available for public schools, a charge the Gillespie campaign says is untrue.
VEA President Jim Livingston said Gillespie would serve as a conduit for the policies of DeVos, who has been trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to promote taxpayer-funded private-school vouchers on the federal level.
Gillespie has received upward of $100,000 in campaign donations from members of the DeVos family, including her husband, according to information culled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
A spokesman for the DeVos family noted that Betsy DeVos has not personally donated to Gillespie.
"Friends, in-laws and others have the right and the freedom to make donations that fit with their own individual philosophical approach," DeVos spokesman John Truscott said in an email. "It would be irresponsible for any organization to presume they know the intent of an individual's reason for supporting a candidate."
DeVos, a former chair of the Michigan GOP, and her husband, Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune, are longtime donors to local, state and federal Republican campaigns as well as to conservative political action committees and think tanks.
Betsy DeVos defended their political giving in a 1997 op-ed in Roll Call in which she said her family was the largest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee.
"I have decided to stop taking offense," she wrote, "at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment."
The Northam campaign has seized on that connection. "Gillespie would bring Betsy DeVos's pro-voucher ideology into Virginia classrooms — at the expense of our kids," Turner, the Northam spokesman, said in an email.
Abrams, Gillespie's spokesman, said in an email that the candidate is grateful for the DeVos family's support and "is laser focused on policies that ensure every child in Virginia has access to a high quality, safe and student-focused education."
He added, "National teachers unions oppose innovative reforms that empower parents like Ed's plan does, and want a governor who will maintain the education status quo like Lt. Gov. Northam would."
Northam has received $320,000 in campaign contributions from the National Education Association and $20,000 from the VEA, according to Virginia Public Access Project. The nation's second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, has given $125,000 to Northam.
Voters: K-12 a top concern
Voters recently polled by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University said improving K-12 public education should be the top concern of the state's next governor.
That finding was surprising, given that Virginia students generally fare better academically compared with their peers elsewhere. Education received little attention from the candidates at their first two debates.
The state's fourth- and eighth-graders performed better in reading and in math than the national average, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has measured student achievement across states for more than two decades.
Both candidates have made lofty promises about investing in public education and have vowed to protect school funding.
But both have also called for tax cuts that would affect the revenue the state relies on to pay for public services such as education. Gillespie has said he would reduce individual income tax rates by 10 percent and Northam has called for eliminating the 2.5 percent state sales tax on groceries for people with low incomes, as part of a broader tax overhaul.
An analysis from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis estimated that Gillespie's tax cut would cost $1.4 billion once fully implemented. The candidate has said his plan would include revenue triggers that would base the income-tax cuts on meeting certain state revenue levels.
But those triggers, according to the left-leaning think tank, only signal when to implement cuts and do not account for whether they would make fiscal sense.
The Commonwealth Institute's examination of Northam's plan estimated that it would cost the state $381 million at full implementation.
"I don't know where . . . they would find the money," said Chris Duncombe, a Commonwealth Institute policy analyst. "And I think that's particularly true for the Gillespie campaign."
Hudson, the University of Virginia professor, said both candidates offer concrete policy proposals. Much hinges on whether voters believe the candidates will make good on them.
"A lot of this comes down to trust," she said.