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Special Education Teacher, Public School Advocate on Why Tom Perriello Is the Best Choice for Public Education in Virginia

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by Meredyth Hall, a special education teacher and public school advocate in Arlington, Virginia

In the last few days, there has been a proliferation of articles attacking Tom Perriello on his commitment to public education.  As a public special education teacher in Northern Virginia, I have been proud to support Tom Perriello as he shares his plans for ending the school-to-prison pipeline, creating a revenue system that allows for us to invest in public schools, and ending school lunch debt that leaves low-income kids hungry.  I would never suggest that Tom’s opponent does not also care deeply about these issues, and both men are capable of learning from past mistakes they have made.  But as has been usual this campaign, people are holding the candidates to two unequal standards.

Ralph Northam and the PACs that support him tout “his record on public education.” Teachers are too often not treated as the professionals we are. This is an attempt further talk down to teachers by leading us blindly into casting votes for someone who is being dishonest about his record.  We must further scrutinize Northam’s actions, donations, and assertion that he has “no regrets.”  Well after Tom finished his term in Congress, Ralph Northam helped Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly pass significant pro-school privatization legislation.

In 2012, Ralph Northam voted for a controversial bill saying that local school boards would “no longer have the discretion to revoke a charter if it finds the school is no longer in the public interest or for the welfare of the students.” The legislation (which became law) also exempted charter schools from regular public procurement oversight and regulation.  It stripped the state Board of Education from being able to deny, revoke, or fail to renew charter school applications–even for charters that were consistently failing students and families.

To make matters worse, the legislation made teachers who teach in charter schools not employees of their local school board.  This meant that they wouldn’t have access to the same due process rights and protections afforded to district teachers.  Tom has consistently stood up for teachers, and has a plan for ensuring that teachers across the state receive the pay they deserve.

This law rendered charter schools less accountable to teachers, parents, and local school boards.  Ralph was one of only five Democrats to vote for the final legislation, which was heavily backed by the American Conservative Union and signed by Republican Governor Bob McDonnell into law.  It was considered a major victory by charter school advocates like Republican Senator Mark Obenshain, who wrote that because of the legislation “Charter schools will now enjoy greater flexibility.”

Northam’s vote ensured that charter schools would have the flexibility to mistreat their students, families, and staff.  Across the nation, Tom has seen the serious damages that happen to students, families, and teachers when all schools are not held to the same standards of accountability.  Nowhere is the risk of negligence more serious than to the special education students I serve.

After the vote, Northam received donations from for-profit and charter education proponents and companies. These corporations include Apollo Education Group, which owns the for-profit University of Phoenix, a company that has left Virginian students without degrees and with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Today, only Tom Perriello has a no-gimmick plan to provide two years of community college, vocational training, and apprenticeships for free – which would relieve stress from so many of my seniors just a few days from high school graduation.

Both of the Democratic candidates in Tuesday’s primary are thoughtful men.  Tom Perriello knows that the privatization of public schools is wrong for Virginia.  His opponent has touted his record on public education, but it seems he has not been able to take the plank out of his own eye and be honest about the deficiencies of his own record in supporting public schools. It’s a shame that he’s chosen to distort Tom’s record rather than apologize for his own.