Governors have a great deal to say about public education in the states they run, but voters don’t often cast their ballots with education as a prime issue. In Virginia, however, there are plenty of people interested in the education views of the two candidates in Virginia’s Democratic primary for governor — Ralph Northam, the lieutenant governor of the state, and Tom Perriello, a former one-term congressman and diplomat in President Barack Obama’s administration.
On a number of issues, the two have similar if not identical views. Both say they want to:
— focus their education policy efforts on improving traditional local school districts.
— implement state-funded universal prekindergarten programs.
— raise teacher salaries in a state where educators on average make less than the national average.
— improve the Standards of Learning, the state’s standards and series of standardized tests used for accountability purposes. Virginia is one of the handful of states that did not adopt the Common Core State Standards even when the Obama administration was dangling federal funds to persuade state authorities to do so.
— break the “school to prison” pipeline, given that one 2015 report showed Virginia leading the nation in referring students to law enforcement.
And both candidates say college costs should be cut. Perriello has offered a plan to make vocational training, apprenticeships or community college available debt-free for a minimum of two years, while Northam is offering an aid proposal that would be limited to high-need fields and would require a year of public service.
With school choice being the most important education priority of the Trump administration, some parents in Virginia are focusing on where both Northam and Perriello stand on those issues:
— Both say they oppose school vouchers and other programs that use public money for private and religion school.
— Neither opposes charter schools, though both have said they are not looking to expand them.
Some parents in Virginia have said Perriello has closer ties than does Northam to what is known as the corporate reform movement, which seeks to incorporate business principles into accountability systems for schools and districts. The Education Department during the Obama administration embraced some of these principles, including the use of standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions and an expansion of charter schools.
In 2010, as a congressman from rural Virginia, Perriello supported an initiative to create a model for charter schools, but it never opened. This was noted by Michele Boyd, an attorney who has two children in Virginia public schools and is a public education activist, who wrote a post that was published on DailyKos.com.
Boyd wrote that Perriello has ties to a pro-choice organization known as the Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and pro-charter candidates. In June 2010, Perriello was named as “DFER’s Ed Reformer of the Month” in a statement noting that he “was a strong supporter of Rep. Jared Polis’s (D-Colo.) All-STAR Act, which helps to replicate high-performing charter schools that serve at-risk students.” Perriello now does not talk on the campaign trail about DFER or its policy goals.
Boyd also wrote about a recent $25,000 donation to Perriello from the Emerson Collective, an organization based in California which was co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs and is dedicated to social reform efforts in the United States and abroad. A managing partner at the collective is Arne Duncan, education secretary under the Obama administration and a strong proponent of charter schools. Boyd wrote, “What interests could this Silicon Valley Limited Liability Company (LLC) have in Virginia’s public schools?”
Asked about Perriello’s comments and Boyd’s letter, a spokesman for Perriello pointed to a post on medium.com by David Jonas, policy director for Perriello’s campaign. It is titled, “I’m the son of a former Arlington public school teacher. Here’s why I trust Tom Perriello to defend Virginia’s public schools.” It says in part:
As Tom’s policy director, I get a lot of concerned e-mails from Virginians who read blog posts that mischaracterize Tom’s record. Needless to say, I would never work for a candidate who has the kind of agenda that is implied in some posts out there right now.
So let me be clear: Tom opposes any attempts to defund our schools through voucher systems, which we’ve seen Republicans try to pass in the General Assembly recently. As for charters, Virginia has only nine public charter schools, and Tom sees no reason to expand or change anything that would encourage further expansion. Tom’s focus will be 100% on our public schools, how to increase funding for them, how to lift the caps on administrative help, and how to give teachers flexibility in the classroom to bring back real, genuine learning.
He noted that Northam has said that he voted twice for George W. Bush as president; Bush’s big education initiative was No Child Left Behind, a failed accountability system that made standardized tests the key arbiter of how well schools were performing.
Jonas also noted that Northam had accepted “hundreds of thousands of dollars from Facebook co-founder Sean Parker, who’s been an active proponent of charter schools and whose foundation has supported charter schools.” Parker does support charter schools, and did give $200,000 to Northam, but it was in 2013, and, as Boyd noted in a comment on Jonas’s own piece, it was when current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe was in a tight race for governor against the conservative Ken Cuccinelli, and Parker donated money to the McAuliffe campaign to help them win.
When Northam was a state senator, he voted for a 2012 bill known as SB 440, which involved charter policy. An early version of the bill affected the ability of a local community to close a failing charter school, but the final version did not. This is what the final version did, and following that is an explanation from Northam about his position on it:
Asked why he supported it in its final form, Northam said in an email:
I have a long history of defending a local school board’s constitutional authority to run their schools by accepting or denying charter applications, and my voting record indicates that. As the bill originally came before the Senate — which I voted against — there were requirements for local school boards to provide no less than 90 percent of their local share to the charter school. However, the conference bill that ultimately passed returned authority to local school board to negotiate their share of funding, similar to the structure of Va’s Governor Schools. That’s why myself and other progressive leaders like Senators Saslaw, Herring, Howell and Barker supported the conference bill. This is consistent with my record of defending local school boards’ ability to make decisions for their students.