By Ed Gillespie
Today marks the beginning of “National School Choice Week,” a time to celebrate and promote choice in education and all that it does—and can– accomplish.
When it comes to education, Virginia has much to be proud of: Thousands of dedicated, great teachers who work hard every day to propel our students; Standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions rates that are better than the national average.
The bad news is, too many students don’t have access to a quality education that is fundamental to a vision of equal opportunity for every Virginian. If you believe as I do that the role of government is to guarantee equality of opportunity (not to guarantee equality of outcomes), then you must do everything possible to ensure that every child in Virginia has access to safe, quality schools.
Virginia’s next governor must make sure that Virginia meets the stated responsibility of our state government as set out in Virginia’s constitution. One of the best ways to improve education throughout the Commonwealth is to give parents more choice and greater control in education. Competition makes everyone better. Whether its public charter schools, education savings accounts, or opportunity scholarship tax credits, the more opportunities for success in education the better.
Thanks in large part to the hard work of countless teachers and dedicated administrators and support staff, Virginia has a strong system of public education. Our high school graduation rate exceeds 90 percent (versus 83% nationwide) and our average college prep scores are above the national average.
It is disconcerting, however, that educational achievement is becoming increasingly concentrated in wealthy areas of the state as schools in poor areas fall behind. The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reported on the number of “isolated” schools, those with a higher concentration of one race or low-income students. The number of isolated schools rose 60 percent from 2002 to 2014. Students in these schools have larger class sizes, reduced access to technology, higher rates of disciplinary action, and fewer science, technology and math classes, among other disadvantages.
We cannot accept some children having their opportunity limited just because of their zip code. The fact that any child in Virginia attends a poorly-performing school is a failure at all levels of government. Data measuring educational achievement reveals troublesome gaps between black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, English learners and students with disabilities from other students. According to data released from the Virginia Department of Education in August 2016, this gap still exists and by some measures is widening. For example, in the 2015-2016 school year, black students averaged 63 percent proficiency in English writing, compared to 83 percent proficiency for white students. Similar patterns hold true for other minority groups.
Every Virginian deserves an equal opportunity to succeed in life. Education is the gateway to opportunity, whether it’s a college degree or skills certification for a good-paying job. All who share responsibility for education — from the governor to school board leaders to parents and teachers — have a common mission: to provide our children with the best education possible.
As governor, I will tackle the problem of failing schools head on. We will meet our constitutional obligation to ensure that every child, in every community, has access to a high-quality, safe, public education. We will build a student-centered education system by supporting teachers, parents and community leaders. We will improve the SOLs and direct more money to the classroom.
We will also expand parental choice and control in education. Last week, I hosted a telephone town hall meeting with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on the success they’ve had with parental choice programs. Arizona is a pioneer in Education Savings Accounts. These accounts allow parents to keep up to 90 percent of the state funding assigned to their child to be used for other education options – homeschooling, private school tuition, or dual enrollment classes. Education Savings Accounts have proven successful in Arizona and Nevada, and there is legislation before the General Assembly to bring them to Virginia.
I also believe Virginia needs to expand access to public charter schools. We have fallen too far behind when it comes to public charter schools. North Carolina has over 150 public charter schools, while Virginia has only nine. The education bureaucracy feels threatened by public charter schools. But Virginia’s governor does not serve the education bureaucracy; the governor serves parents and children who deserve the opportunity to succeed.
There are a number of other ways to expand parental choice in education, including virtual schools, opportunity scholarship tax credits, and homeschooling. Virginia should embrace all of these options.
Throughout the course of my campaign, I look forward to laying out a series of policy proposals to give parents more choice and control in education. I know this will expand opportunity for all of our children – by giving them access to personally-tailored education options, and by improving our public schools.
I am proud to join my fellow Virginians in recognizing National School Choice Week.