Earlier this week, Virginians cast their votes for the next Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General. All of the seats in the House of Delegates were also on the ballot in districts that were drawn over a decade ago. The pundits predicted a nail biter and that was just what happened on November 2, with Glenn Youngkin winning by the narrowest of margins. Unfortunately, these cliff hanger elections only punctuate the great division in our society – a lingering Donald Trump effect. We have much work to do to bring harmony into our communities and civility back to government discourse. I intend to keep those goals foremost when we return to Richmond in January.
There were many issues at stake in this election. A significant wedge issue is/was public education. It was a strategy meant to deceive and disrupt – pitting parents against elected school boards and others intentionally to galvanize voter turnout. Regrettably, it came at the expense of our children being used at pawns in this high-stake electoral game.
Let me tell you something: The past eighteen months have taken their toll on students, educators and families up and down the Commonwealth. At the top of the litany of woes comes learning loss, only to be challenged by mental health issues at all grade levels. I am the longest serving state senator, with senior standing on the Senate Education and Health Committee, Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee (SFAC), and the subcommittee on SFAC K-12. With longevity and a passionate interest in the value of education, I speak from “earned experience” on this issue.
Much to the credit of Governor Northam and First Lady Northam, this administration demonstrated bold leadership for our children and their future. This gives me hope for our children’s potential and the runways for their future success.
Last year our students and teachers faced immense challenges. During the last Senate Finance Committee meeting, Dr. James Lane (Superintendent of Public Instruction at the VA Dept. of Education) revealed the harsh facts as well as the proposed remedies to address the challenges brought on by the pandemic and re-entry into the physical classroom. The largest enrollment falloff (18 percent) came with our youngest student population — those in head start, pre-K, and Kindergarten. These are critical learning years and we must get back on track with these young learners.
Initial outcome data indicates students made progress. However, their learning growth rates were slower than in previous years and students have unfinished learning. Catching our students up in literary and mathematics is the complete focus of our return to learning plan. This fall, we rolled out statewide diagnostic assessments to assess student learning from the prior grade to better differentiate instruction. These growth assessments will allow student growth to be measured from the fall to the spring in grades 3-8 math and reading and will provide a better reflection of a student’s progress than a single spring assessment.
However, it is more than just administering assessments that will close the learning gaps. Schools need funding to provide afterschool and remedial learning opportunities, to hire additional teachers and staff, and to provide incentive pay to our educators. That is why the General Assembly and Department of Education have provided $210 million in state and federal funds this year to help our students catch up. This support is in addition to the $3 billion in federal funds directly allocated to divisions for responding to the pandemic, including unfinished learning.
Not only do our students need to recover academically, but they also need to recover mentally and socially from the pandemic. That’s why the General Assembly acted to increase the number of school counselors in our school and implemented a staffing standard for nurses, psychologists, and social workers. These positions will ensure our students have access to supports that will help them succeed in the classroom.
It is time to come together and concentrate on the important aspects of education. This is one of the many topics we will address. Let’s put the mean-spirited rhetoric from this campaign season behind us. I will lead the fight for our kids working with the new administration as soon as they take the leadership helm.