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Schuyler VanValkenburg Vows to Keep “right-wing assault from gutting Virginia’s public education system”

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by Schuyler VanValkenburg and Samuel Ulmschneider

This text was delivered as a speech to representatives of the Virginia Education Association, public school advocates, teachers, and parents in Richmond last week.  It is the core of a serious set of education proposals by one of two teachers running for the General Assembly this year.  It shows how Schuyler VanValkenburg aims to bring his passion and expertise for his students learning in the classroom to advocating for their interests in the House of Delegates.

Last week I began my 13th year teaching in Virginia public schools.  From my early childhood, I was taught about the  transformative power of education by my mother, who at  every turn encouraged me to find the best opportunities I  could in our small, working class town.  She knew that  good teachers, classes, and a chance at university would be my best chance to do better than my parents.

That early emphasis is what brought me to teaching after I moved to Richmond for college.  And now, my experiences as a teacher pushed me to enter this race for the House of Delegates. I am still motivated by the basic  lessons about the value of education I learned as a kid,  but now my experiences as teacher and passion for my  students will help me to be a better delegate.

For example, every year I coach a team of students in a  We The People Competition, sponsored by the national  Center for Civic Education and James Madison’s Montpelier.  My We The People Students show tremendous passion for engagement in our democratic process, and an amazing optimism about our future.  I remember last November, on the Wednesday after the election, the shock and horror that many of them felt at seeing ideas of civic respect and democratic integrity they’d learned about betrayed.

I was worried, too – but for different reasons.  The Trump administration and its acolytes in the Virginia Republican Party are part of an all-out assault on our public education system, and I was worried about the empowerment of that agenda.  I am here today to reaffirm my belief in public schools, and to keep that right-wing assault from gutting Virginia’s public education system whether it comes from Richmond or Washington.

I stand behind three main ways to strengthen Virginia’s public education system.  First, we must reform our SOL testing standards.  Second, we must correct our state funding methods to better reflect our commitment to the Standards of Quality for all schools.  Third, we must limit the inroads of charters, virtual schools, and vouchers on our public education system.

After thirteen years in Virginia schools, I know that all testing is not bad, but bad testing can be exceptionally destructive.  Our Standards of Learning system is often used as a way to punish schools and measure test-taking skills, and it sucks away crucial classroom time for students and teachers.  The SOLs should be a way to support school improvement and further student learning, but right now they’re not. The SOL Reform Committee, originally conceived by Anne Holton as our Secretary of Education in 2014 has made an excellent start.  However, some of their key recommendations need to be implemented more effectively, which the House could ensure happens.  For example, the Reform Committee recommended reporting of context data with all SOL scores to help the public understand performance relative to the needs of the student population.  They also put forward recommendations to make school improvement more cooperative across all levels of faculty and administration, and less punitive.  Perhaps most importantly, they recommended a move towards locally developed, performance-based, genuine and holistic assessments for students that measure real critical thinking and analysis, not multiple choice learning.   As Delegate, I would work to rally the state behind these sorts of reforms – we shouldn’t leave them as unfulfilled recommendations in a report.

Virginia’s school system suffers from chronic underfunding at all levels.  Our schools, in theory, are funded to enact the Standards of Quality, through a formula which uses state funding as well as locality contributions.  However state contributions to that formula been cut by almost 8% since 2008, leaving localities to make up the difference.  These cuts were initially an emergency response to the recession, but became part of the educational austerity agenda of Governor McDonnell and the Republican House of Delegates.  Where I teach in Henrico County, per student funding has dropped 10%, and Henrico’s locality contributions are now almost double what they are required to give under the standards of quality.  This means cutbacks in support staff like counselors and second-language aides – all the way down to janitors.  It also means Henrico county is forced into regressive taxes like the meals tax to cover the under-investment by the state.  Statewide, we have 10,000 fewer staff relative to student enrollment that we did in 2008, and every year brings new headlines about teacher shortages.  This situation is unacceptable, and will only get worse – a substantial majority of our teaching population is over 50, and hiring costs increasingly fall only on localities.  The state must fix its funding levels and formulas to prevent our resource crisis from getting worse, and to avoid sticking the middle class taxpayer with a massive unfunded mandate.

My third area of emphasis will be to prevent the spread of poorly overseen and implemented charter projects, get-rich-quick voucher schemes, and under supervised virtual school experiments.  All three of these are pet projects for my opponent, the Trump administration, and the radical privatisation advocates in the Republican party.  Voucher programs are particularly troublesome – each student using a voucher transfers public money into private hands with little accountability, and Virginia’s current voucher structure also doubles as a tax break for the very wealthy.  Taken together, these three initiatives amount to taking Virginia’s already-scarce education budget and using it to subsidize a separate school system, one which can exclude less advantaged students, be gamed for tax advantage, or avoid public accountability.  Other states, like Florida, Indiana and Michigan, have expanded these programs to disastrous effect, and we need more than a Governor’s veto alone to fight against them here in the Commonwealth.  I will fight to make sure we don’t end up trying to fund a separate school system at terrible cost to taxpayers, students, and parents.

These three initiatives share a fundamental underlying principle: public education must be understood as a noble field and a central priority of state and local governments.  For the past 3 decades, we have seen an all out assault on that principle from individuals like Betsy DeVos, who have no experience or expertise in public education.  My opponent is no different.

I support reformed testing standards to help our schools chart a path for growth, accountability, and student support.  My opponent wants to continue to punish public schools, teachers, and students with outdated practices.

I support reforming education funding and giving localities the resources they need and taking some of the burden off middle class taxpayers.  My opponent wants to see the current state resource crunch stagnate, and doesn’t mind seeing our public schools scramble for resources and fight over local tax hikes as a result.

I support public schools that welcome every student, regardless of background.  Those schools will give the next generation a shot at the middle class, regardless of the situations they were born into.  My opponent supports siphoning tax dollars into private schools through vouchers, turning our educational future over to experimental virtual schools, and removing control of charters from the localities they will serve.  These initiatives will erode our communities and our children’s future. Ultimately these policies will force taxpayers to fund two school systems, with one a for-profit operation accountable to no one, the other a destabilized and underfunded public system on the funded on the backs of middle class taxpayers.

For the past 13 school years, I’ve seen the costs of the heedless, ideological education policy pursued by our state’s Republicans. But I’ve also seen the tremendous gains that good choices can create for our children.  I am proud to stand before you today, and say clearly and unequivocally I stand for a better, more courageous approach to public education policy.  As your delegate, I will not settle for putting our children second.  I will not settle for mediocrity.  And I refuse to accept a public school system that is anything less than world class.  My name is Schuyler VanValkenburg, and that is why I am running for Delegate.