I am a product of public schools, and am proud my children are, too. I've worked in some of those schools myself, as a school nurse, and I've seen firsthand the dedication, hard work, and commitment of our talented teachers and staff. They go out of their way to ensure that every single child has a chance to succeed. And they do it without compromising the ability of any student to pursue excellence.
Democracy depends on access to knowledge for all our people. A first-rate education is the key to all Virginia having an equal opportunity to succeed. But in Richmond, too many politicians see education as a game of numbers where test scores are all that matter.
Instead, we need to empower educators to teach students, sustain excellence in our public schools, and prepare all of our kids to go out into the world and succeed. We can do that by supporting the teachers and staff who already do such great work. As a nurse, I feel a kindred spirit with these folks, who fight unapologetically for every student, regardless of their circumstances. Rather than burdening them with endless assessments and arbitrary requirements, we need to help them to deliver a truly well-rounded education. That means the humanities and social sciences as well as STEAM programs. It also means physical education, art, music, and foreign languages. Cutting corners and teaching to the test is no way to prepare our children for the challenges of a complex democracy or a high-tech economy.
Virginia is also blessed to have some of the very best public universities in the country. These institutions create jobs and other opportunities for many Virginians. We need to protect that proud legacy. But we also need to do a better job of keeping tuition costs under control. Right now, attending many public universities in the Commonwealth — including my alma mater — is financially out-of-reach for middle-class families, though I’m proud to see we’re finally taking the first steps to fix that. But no one should have to go into lifelong debt to get a college degree- and not everyone needs the same degree! We need to make sure we're making trade, apprenticeship, and community college options available to folks who want them.
Pass the Goldman-Stanley school modernization bill immediately
An inventory of the state’s school buildings in 2013 discovered that modernizing only buildings more than 30 years old would cost a staggering $18 billion. Halifax County is looking at a hundred million dollar bill for repairing and/or replacing their old high school; students in Lee County are fetching buckets to catch the rain dripping through the roof, with walls have separated from the foundation, and cracked windows that are duct-taped together. Meanwhile, students in Richmond are dodging pieces of tile falling from the ceiling on their way to class, because Richmond has some of the oldest school buildings in the state, with seven that pre-date America’s involvement in World War I.
State Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) and Democratic strategist Paul Goldman have put forward an idea to help solve this funding issue, noting a recent Supreme Court ruling has cleared the way for Virginia to collect additional sales tax revenue from online retailers. A portion of that windfall could finance a bond issue and generate more than $2 billion for school construction- without the need to raise taxes to get it done.
I only have one question- what are we waiting for?
Abolish the SOLs
Seriously, everyone hates them. Everyone. We have to be able to come up with a better way to allow teachers to teach to their students, instead of the test, and simultaneously measure student success while holding school districts accountable to learning benchmarks.
Invest in the infrastructure required to enable remote learning a success
A lot of politicians point to distance or remote learning- using Skype or another internet-driven videophone service- as a panacea for almost any problem one can mention when talking about schools. Just as nothing beats a medical provider seeing a patient in person, nothing will ever replace the role a teacher plays in truly teaching in person.
But if we’re serious about that, we need to make it work. So we need to invest in the “last mile” connections to make sure that broadband internet is available in every corner, and every zip code, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, empowering localities and small businesses to fill the gaps the Commonwealth doesn’t fill.
Making Early Childhood Development the Building Block of Virginia Education
Education remains the clearest pathway to opportunity and dignity. That’s why we must fight to fully fund universal pre-K so that no Virginia student is left behind before they enter the classroom. Universal Pre-K is also one of the best steps we can take to increase workforce participation: it allows parents to go back to work with the confidence that their children are on the right developmental track.
Just as important, universal pre-K will be a huge step forward in reducing inequality in Virginia schools. Studies have shown lack of access to early childhood education disproportionately hurts communities of color and that students who start school behind their classmates are likely to fall further behind over the course of their educations. Which means we’re spending tons of money to help kids catch up, rather than spending it to make sure they don’t get left behind in the first place.
Simply by implementing universal high-quality pre-K, we can eliminate as much as 20 percent of the achievement gap- and save us all money in the long run. What’s more, if we give our students that boost early in their lives, it’ll boost them along for the rest of their lives- they’ll do better in school, make more money in their career, and even have better health outcomes!
A School Nurse in Every School
As a former school nurse- at rural and suburban elementary and middle schools- I know first hand what school nurses to do keep kids happy, healthy, and in school. Health issues don’t discriminate by demographics, and the Virginia Constitution guarantees every child in the Commonwealth a quality education. Asking teachers, office personnel, and administrators to add another job onto their already crowded and overflowing plates does a disservice to them, to parents, to students, and to our obligations as delineated in the Virginia Constitution.
In addition to providing an immediate health safety net for chronically ill students, school nurses promote a healthy school environment. They provide regular health and vision screenings, and referrals for generally healthy students. They make sure kids don’t go home hungry. They advocate for school safety and lead programs to reduce violence and bullying. And they serve a huge role as an unofficial guidance counselor/confidant/confidence booster to every child who walks through the doors of the school.
Every student in the Commonwealth of Virginia deserves to have a full-time school nurse looking out for them.
Reducing the Burden of Student Debt
The average four-year student in Virginia leaves school owing nearly $30,000. This debt holds them back from purchasing their first homes, from starting their own families, and from starting their own businesses. It means that 40-year olds are still making student loan payments on the degree that got them their first job… and what are the chances they'll go back for an advanced degree during the most intense midlife time frame? Student debt holds back inclusive economic growth- period.
We must push to re-establish the Virginia Educational Loan Authority, which will give students the option of receiving guaranteed loans and inject competition with high interest private lenders. This loan authority will also be able to refinance existing student loans, so that like a home refinancing, students can reduce their monthly debt payments.
Finally, we should work to promote and expand programs that encourage Virginians who never completed their degrees to invest again in their human capital. We could expand the Virginia Transfer Grant, which provides financial assistance to former community college students who return to school and complete a four-year degree, to Virginians who never completed their degrees but want to re-enroll in school or a training program.
We also need to look for ways to reduce the student debt load for Virginians hoping to put their skills to work in underserved communities. To motivate a new generation of mental health workers, substance abuse counselors, veterans, and others to live and work in the communities that need them most, we must push for Virginia to offer partial loan forgiveness for a commitment of two years working and making these communities better places. We must also push for a state income tax cut for anyone working in these essential fields- general practitioners, nurses, dental hygienists, mental health professionals, counselors, teachers, etc.- in underserved areas of Virginia.