Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli II unveiled a 12-point education plan Tuesday that would push for charter schools, offer voucher-like scholarships for preschoolers and empower a majority of parents to take over their children’s failing school, according to an outline of his K-12 education plan.
Cuccinelli wants to double the number of female students who focus on science and technology, expand virtual schooling and build on the commonwealth’s nearly two-year-old law that gives tax credits to donors who provide voucher-like scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. He also would seek two amendments to Virginia’s constitution, including one that would clear the way for government funds to flow to religious schools.
The package of reforms contained in Cuccinelli’s K-12 education plan include several that have become popular in recent years, especially among conservatives, although the efficacy of some of the initiatives has been disputed. The proposals would generally push Virginia in the direction of so-called school choice and private or community-based solutions to the problem of public education.
Several of his proposals are intended to address the achievement gap among some minority students and chronically underperforming schools in jurisdictions such as Petersburg and Norfolk.
“Try telling folks in Petersburg, where 30 percent of students fail the reading test for Virginia’s SOLs [Standards of Learning tests], that Virginia’s education system is one of the best in the world,” the attorney general told a group of students and educators Tuesday at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies in Richmond. “Just 59 percent of Petersburg students graduate on time, versus 82 percent in the rest of Virginia. That kind of disparity is something that concerns me on behalf of just those children and on behalf of Virginia.”
Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, criticized Cuccinelli’s plans because she said they would divert tax dollars to private companies with little accountability. “We are already underfunding public education,” Gruber said.
Steven R. Staples, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said he also was dismayed at Cuccinelli’s emphasis on charter schools.
“Should taxpayers take money from the police force and hire their own private security?” he asked.
But Don Soifer, a charter school advocate at the Lexington Institute, called Cuccinelli’s proposal to amend the state constitution the “boldest” push for charter schools yet from a statewide candidate.
Yet Soifer also characterized Cuccinelli’s plan as a “long shot” because Virginia’s constitution, which protects local control of schools and local education funding, is difficult to alter. Amending the constitution requires passage by two sessions of the General Assembly, with an intervening election, and then approval of the amendment by popular vote in a referendum.
Cuccinelli is running against former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe in a race that has attracted national attention, not only because of the lack of other competitive gubernatorial matchups in the country but also because of its occasionally caustic tone.
McAuliffe unveiled his education platform in May, with a series of proposals that included boosting teacher pay and restoring cuts in the state budget to K-12 funding that have shifted the burden to localities. McAuliffe said he would find those increased resources through “improved efficiency” without specifying how.
McAuliffe’s plan would also spend more on Virginia’s community colleges, encourage them to focus more on basic job skills and collaborate more with the state’s high schools. Unlike Cuccinelli’s plan, McAuliffe’s makes no mention of charter schools or letting parents take over failing institutions.
“Terry McAuliffe views education as an investment, not an expense, and has made it a centerpiece of his campaign,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said.
But the plans issued by McAuliffe and Cuccinelli also overlap somewhat on their support for testing reforms. McAuliffe has called for overhauling the state’s Standards of Learning tests to prevent “an overemphasis on drilling students to take one-time, multiple-choice tests.”
The idea of allowing parents to mount a petition to close or dramatically remake their children’s failing school — known as a trigger law — has caught on among an unlikely coalition of progressives and conservatives seeking to reform the nation’s schools.
Backers say a parent takeover is a radical but necessary step to turn around chronically poor-performing schools. But opponents believe trigger laws could open the way to abuses by private charter school companies hoping to take over public schools.
Cuccinelli’s educational platform includes establishing a panel to consist of academics, parents, principals, leaders, educators and students — whose acronym, the plan says, would make it the APPLES Commission — that would review Virginia’s Standards of Learning system and search for ways to strengthen the curriculum and testing.
Cuccinelli’s plan calls for using tax credits to create scholarships for preschoolers from low-income families.
He also proposes constitutional amendments that would broaden the cause of school choice.
The first would remove a provision in the state constitution that bans government aid to sectarian schools. Cuccinelli’s K-12 education plan said that despite a June 2000 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that found school choice programs to be constitutional, the so-called Blaine Amendment in Virginia’s constitution restricts the state’s ability to craft broad-based school-choice programs.
The second amendment would address what Cuccinelli’s plan says is “one of the most useless charter school laws in the country” by giving the state Board of Education the power to establish charter schools. Although such schools are permitted, they must be approved by the district — and that, Cuccinelli argues, creates a conflict of interest because public schools dislike competition.
“It’s like Pepsi having to get permission from the board of directors of Coca-Cola to sell a new product,” Cuccinelli’s plan said.
Ben Pershing and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.