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By Amanda Litvinov
Patricia Heininge, a retired educator who taught French in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools for 30 years, sees gubernatorial candidate and current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam as something of a kindred spirit.
“As a pediatric neurologist, he devoted his life to the well-being of children,” said Heininge, who heard Northam discuss his education plan yesterday at the Fairfax Education Association.
She agrees wholeheartedly with Northam that providing pre-K education to all children in Virginia is an essential step to reducing inequities in early learning faced by kids in lower-income families.
There’s another key reason Heininge supports Ralph Northam’s bid for governor: Northam opposes private school vouchers, which take scarce resources from public schools and channel them to private schools.
“I don’t want my tax dollars going to a private school,” said Heininge.
“I have some say in the decisions that are made in Fairfax County Public Schools through the school board, whose members I elect. I have no idea how kids are being educated in private and religious schools because they aren’t held to the same standards.”
Her sentiments were echoed by several other educators in attendance, who clapped when Northam broached the issue.
“When we hear policymakers in Washington, D.C., or in Virginia talking about vouchers, we know that would be terrible for public education,” Northam said. “Part of my plan is to educate people in Virginia about things like vouchers.… Anything that takes funding from public education, we’re not going to accept and we’re not going to tolerate.”
Northam’s opponent, Republican lobbyist Ed Gillespie, supports vouchers.
Gillespie harshly criticized Gov. Terry McAulliffe’s vetoes of bills expanding Education Savings Accounts—a voucher scheme—and supporting virtual schools and unaccountable charter schools. Gillespie has pledged to sign all such legislation if elected governor.
On more than one occasion, Lt. Gov. Northam has cast tie-breaking votes to protect public education from unconstitutional private school vouchers.
Gillespie embraces the same ideas that Betsy DeVos—America’s least qualified Secretary of Education—is promoting at the federal level.
“Ed Gillespie upholds an agenda that fails our students and leaves them vulnerable,” said Virginia elementary music teacher and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss.
Moss warned that if Gillespie wins office, he will rubber stamp Betsy DeVos’s agenda and bring vouchers and unregulated charters to Virginia.
Gillespie has accepted more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the DeVos family.
“Anybody that aligns himself with Betsy DeVos—that’s a red flag right there,” Northam told EducationVotes.
“Vouchers take money out of public education, and that doesn’t align with my priorities. Even if it helps a select few, it certainly doesn’t help all of our children. And that has to be our goal—a plan to help all our children.”
Barbara Allen, also a retired educator from Fairfax County, taught special education at Walt Whitman Middle School in Alexandria. She has been impressed by Northam’s level of support for educators.
“He understands why educators are so worried about kids who don’t get off to a good start in their education,” Allen said. “And educators need support and appropriate resources to help kids who are facing some difficult odds.”
Northam said teacher pay in Virginia, which is roughly $7,500 below the national average, must be increased in order to attract and retain talented teachers across the state.
His record reflects his support for public education and educators. One of Northam’s first acts as a state senator was to introduce legislation to find a dedicated revenue stream for educator pay.
“People sometimes ask me why I went into public service and why I want to be governor, and I tell them it’s because I want to give more children the kind of opportunities I had,” Northam told EdVotes.
Northam, who can name all of his teachers from kindergarten through high school, has credited his public school education as the basis for all he has accomplished.
“If we’re going to stress the importance of public education, we have to make teachers a priority” said Northam. “That’s how you help people, and that’s how you build a 21st-century economy.”