In tapping Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) as her running mate, Hillary Clinton didn’t just choose the popular former governor of a purple state that she hopes will turn out for Democrats in November. She also chose one half of a Virginia power couple with a history of public service and advocacy on issues related to child welfare and education.
As governor, Kaine championed early childhood education, a cornerstone of Clinton’s education platform, and pushed for more money to support public preschool. And in the Senate, he has been a champion of career and technology education and efforts to fight sexual assault in high school.
But Anne Holton, his wife — who serves as Virginia’s secretary of education — has an even more extensive record when it comes to advocating for children, particularly foster youth.
As a schoolgirl in 1970, she was on the front lines of the fight to desegregate Virginia’s public schools. Holton is the daughter of Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton (R), who championed integration in a state that was known for its vigorous efforts to resist it. To drive home this point, he sent his daughters to a historically all-black Richmond City public school, escorting Anne Holton’s sister to class in a gesture captured in a historic photograph.
“I have spent much of my working life focused on children and families at the margin, with full appreciation of the crucial role education can and must play in helping young people escape poverty and become successful adults,” Holton wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in June 2015.
Holton and Kaine also sent their three children, who are now grown, to Richmond public schools.
The pair met at Harvard Law School, from which they both graduated. She became a legal aid lawyer representing low-income clients in Richmond and eventually a judge in the city’s juvenile and domestic relations court. She stepped down when her husband was elected governor in 2005 and as first lady made a priority of finding and stabilizing homes for teens in foster care.
She continued to work on improving opportunities for foster youth after Kaine left the governor’s office.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) chose her as the state’s education secretary in 2014. In that role, she has worked to reform a standardized testing regime that had been criticized as unnecessarily time-consuming and onerous.
“Teachers are teaching to the tests. Students’ and teachers’ love of learning and teaching are sapped,” she wrote in 2015. “Most troublesome, Virginia’s persistent achievement gaps for low-income students have barely budged,” she continued, arguing that “our high-stakes approach” with testing has made it more difficult to persuade the best teachers to work in the most difficult, impoverished schools.
The gaps between student groups are indeed large: Just 22 percent of low-income fourth-graders in Virginia are proficient in reading, compared with 58 percent of more affluent students, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Racial gaps are also stark: 19 percent of black fourth-graders in Virginia are proficient in reading, compared with 52 percent of white students.
Holton is also leading efforts to overhaul the high school curriculum in the state.
Like most of her fellow Democrats in the state, she has opposed the expansion of charter schools and other school-choice measures, and she has pushed for greater investments in public education, including teacher pay raises.
Robley Jones, a lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association, praised Holton as an “articulate spokesperson for our schools” who is willing to listen to teachers, parents and students, and whose history as a family court judge means she understands the broad challenges that disadvantaged children face.
“When we look at improving our schools, a lot of people think that the only thing we need to do is change what’s going on in the schoolhouse. But she’s very aware of the broader policy decisions that are going to have to be made,” he said. “She knows that housing policy needs to be addressed, that poverty needs to be addressed, and I could go on.”
Don Soifer, a longtime charter-school advocate and education analyst at the Lexington Institute, a conservative think thank, said he was disappointed — and not surprised — by Holton’s opposition to school-choice measures. Soifer praised her for listening to those with whom she disagrees and said she has introduced innovative policies.
He credited her with modernizing the state’s textbook-purchasing process for the digital age, giving teachers more freedom to choose which online resources they use with students. “It’s a chance for a classroom teacher to control the content they use in unprecedented ways,” he said.