By Amanda Litvinov
Virginia is one of just two states with a gubernatorial election this year, and primary elections took place yesterday.
Lt. Governor Ralph Northam emerged as the winner of the Democratic primary, defeating ex-Congressman Tom Perriello. Northam, a doctor and former state senator, has a long history of supporting public education and local control of schools by elected school boards.
Northam now faces Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, who narrowly defeated extremist Corey Stewart in the primary. Gillespie is often referred to as a moderate; however, his views on education are anything but.
Gillespie embraces ideas that are central to the corporate education reform movement, which essentially applies free market principles to education. In 2014, while running for a U.S. Senate seat against Mark Warner, Gillespie wrote:
Competition is good for Mark Warner and me. It’s good for Coke and Pepsi. And it would be good for our public schools, which is why greater choice is a central part of the education reform agenda I am releasing today.
He went on to say that he believes Congress should use federal taxpayer dollars for voucher-like schemes and to strong arm states into expanding charter schools that are not accountable to the public–the very ideas that Betsy DeVos now promotes as Secretary of Education.
In fact, Gillespie has received more than $100,000 in donations from the DeVos family.
Gillespie bashed Gov. Terry McAulliffe’s vetoes of bills for charter expansion, vouchers in the form of Education Savings Accounts, and virtual schools, and stated that he would sign such bills if elected governor.
Northam is clearly the state’s best bet in warding off the Trump-DeVos agenda to divert public school resources into unproven charter and voucher schemes.
Virginia has so far taken a very deliberate approach to charter schools, resisting the kind of unrestricted growth that has led to unprecedented waste and fraud in states like Ohio. There are only nine charter schools in the entire state, and new ones can only be opened if the charter is approved by a local school board.
Northam has pledged to uphold Virginia’s strict regulation on charter growth. His vision for education in the Commonwealth revolves around investing in the neighborhood public schools that the vast majority of families depend on–he has been clear that he will not consider any charter school proposal that could drain resources from public schools.
Northam’s other education priorities are to increase access to early childhood education, grow career and technical education opportunities, and put higher education into reach for more students.
Voters have good reason to trust Northam, given his long and substantive record of support for public education.
He voted against vouchers and charters during his time as a state senator and as lieutenant governor, and even cast the tie-breaking vote this year to defeat voucher legislation. Moreover, one of the first bills Northam sponsored when he became a state senator was to find a dedicated revenue stream for teacher salaries.
As lieutenant governor, Northam spearheaded the expansion of pre-K in Virginia that created spots for more than 13,000 students. Further expanding early learning is one of his top education priorities if elected governor.
Northam has also pledged to raise teacher salaries, which have fallen $7,900 below the national average. Just as important, he believes educators should be at the table to discuss policy decisions.
While Gillespie says unproven charter and voucher plans are the best way to help underserved students, Northam would focus on what we can do through our public school system to attack systemic inequalities. Earlier this year, Northam wrote:
It begins with investing in pre-K education because, as a pediatric neurologist, I know it’s far more cost-effective to help a child grow at three or four, than it is for society to pay to make up the gap in high school. We must end the school-to-prison pipeline and create a pipeline from our high schools and community colleges directly to jobs for those who choose not to attend a four-year college.
Northam, who was raised in rural Virginia, has expressed his deep appreciation for Virginia’s public education system, which launched his career as a pediatric neurologist and elected official. His wife, Pam, was a long-time elementary school teacher in Virginia public schools.
Both Northam and Gillespie (as well as Perriello) took part in the VEA Fund for Children and Public Education’s candidate recommendation process, though Gillespie did not complete the in-person interview. In the end, Northam earned the recommendation for governor.
“Ralph understands the foundational role public education plays in the future of our state,” said Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston, who also serves as chairman of the VEA Fund.
“He’s the best candidate for our students, schools and educators, and he has an excellent track record of working to meet their needs.”