The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s education future is now on the right track

A woman takes a photo at a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Broadlands on Sept. 28. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

Aimee Guidera is the Virginia education secretary.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) first action within an hour of being sworn in to office was to affirm his commitment to restoring excellence to education throughout the commonwealth. Since Day 1, his administration has focused on providing every learner — regardless of background or Zip code — with opportunities to access quality education. As parents and children get ready to go back to school, our commitment to Virginians remains that every family has access to a quality education that prepares their children for success in life.

Some people quibble with our use of the term “restore.” They cite national rankings and question why we are not celebrating our reputation. I know there is excellence in Virginia education; I was a consumer of it. I first became a Virginian in 1995, when my husband chose to attend one of the nation’s most innovative law and economics programs, at George Mason University; we remained Virginians because of the promise of excellent public schools for our daughters. But I also know that the exceptional education experiences from which our family benefited are not the norm for every family and every community in the commonwealth.

A culture of high expectations for every one of our students would not tolerate the fact that 42 percent of our second-graders are not on track to read independently, that our reading scores on our Standards of Learning statewide tests have declined every year since 2017, and that only 33 percent of our eighth-graders are proficient in reading. Our reputation and overall high-average performance mask widening achievement gaps among student demographic groups and a recent slip in comparison with other states on a range of academic achievement measures.

The recent historic legislative session — culminating in a $3.2 billion education budget — laid a strong foundation to restore excellence to education by prioritizing literacy and building a best-in-class education system. If Virginia is to be the best place to live, work and raise a family, it must be the best place to learn. Money isn’t a silver bullet, especially in education. But with transparency and accountability, we know that to build a world-class workforce pipeline, we need to prioritize funding it.

Those historic investments include: a 10 percent salary increase and $1,000 bonus for every teacher to attract, grow and retain quality teachers; fully funding the bipartisan Virginia Literacy Act, which will transform the training, tools and teaching of reading based on evidence; and allocating $1.25 billion through a combination of grants and school construction loans to provide secure and vibrant educational environments for Virginia’s children. To keep campuses and schools safe, Youngkin increased the $4.7 million School Resource Officer Incentive Grants program by $22.5 million each year, bolstering this important program more than fivefold — supporting 350 new school resource officers; provided additional security funding for our Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and authorized an investigation into Loudoun County Public Schools’ mishandling of sexual assault incidents.

Youngkin’s commitment to protecting and expanding education freedom and innovation is evidenced by this budget. The new $100 million investment to support the launch of dozens of pioneering innovation lab schools across the commonwealth by our public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities will increase career preparation and success. In partnership with employers, school divisions and other community organizations, colleges will foster new approaches to ensure students have multiple pathways to be ready for life. To support educational choices for our poorest families, Youngkin protected our tax-credit scholarship program from being reduced by half. He also has required all public colleges to commit to supporting free inquiry and speech on our campuses and provide plans for promoting diversity of thought in higher education.

Throughout the legislative session, Youngkin reinforced the rights of parents regarding their children’s health, education and well-being. He issued new coronavirus guidance that reaffirmed parents’ decision-making about their own child’s mask-wearing and then followed with legislation codifying this right. Youngkin continues to be responsive to parent concerns and, thus, ended the use of any form of discrimination in our classrooms (which was documented in our report on the use of inherently divisive concepts in our schools) and advocated successfully for the right of parents to be notified when sexually explicit material is in their school curriculum.

Through the bipartisan partnership, Youngkin has achieved his Day 1 agenda. Partnering with all stakeholders, from parents and teachers to policymakers, we will redouble our efforts to do the urgent work of ensuring that every child in the commonwealth is prepared to prosper.