The state of education in Virginia according to Anne Holton, part 2

A new year, a new budget, and a new interview with Virginia’s Secretary of Education, Anne Holton.

The Honorable Anne Holton in our blossoming tradition of meeting at different Lamplighters around the city.

Well, it happened again. Virginia Secretary of Education, the Honorable Anne Holton, agreed to have coffee with me and fill me with education knowledge. On the heels of the Governor’s 2016 budget announcement, Holton is about to enjoy a lot of things going her way.

“I joke that I have to walk down the hall with my head down,” she says, referring to the fact that the education made out like a bandit with the biggest piece of the pie (PDF). “Higher ed plus K-12 is getting 1.1 billion dollars of new money over the biennium. The annual budget for K-12 is around six billion dollars–it’s a very significant jump. And it goes to all kinds of things, teacher raises, innovative proposals for new teachers…and it gives localities flexibiity to decide to hire what they need most.”

With the results of VCU’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute’s annual poll indicating that a fairly shocking proportion of Virginians (greater than half) believe that education could use some more cash, such a financial focus seems appropriate.

“The real import of that poll is that people do get it–they get that our schools need more resources, which is true,” says Holton. “I think people are very close to the schools, unlike some other things that the state might do for us. People know teachers, their kids go there, or the kids down the street go there.”

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the legislature’s internal think-tank, put out a report in November (PDF) that highlighted a lot of need within K-12 education.

“It confirmed what we knew, which is that schools are strapped. The state contribution to public education is down significantly from where it was even eight or nine years ago, and down significantly compared to other states. It went down during the recession, but we’ve never really recovered. We’re falling behind the other states.”

Innovation is another focus of the budget, with a regional initiative that, locally, Goochland and Chesterfield are on board with (Henrico is still on the fence). Plus, there will be more money for innovation grants to high schools, like the one that made possible the Richmond Regional School for Innovation (opening this fall). It’s not just the advanced placement kids reaping the rewards of this innovation focus, either. “It really might be directed towards other kids who are trying to get computer jobs right out of high school. And then connecting these kids up with businesses. Part of the program is that they’re all guaranteed to have a job after high school if they want it.”

Viewing things in the long term–or at least 15 years down the road–Holton sees this new infusion of funds as just a down payment towards a better environment by the time today’s preschoolers are graduating high school, particularly in the area of teacher pay, which she hopes to see on a much better trajectory. The budget does include money for upping teacher salaries, but it’s not enough of a chunk to bring them to an optimal level, according to Holton.

“We compare ourselves unfavorably to the education system in Finland, but the solutions we focus on aren’t ‘Be more like Finland!’ Those solutions would be more teacher autonomy, more pay, more professional development, more preparation time. Our teachers spend the majority of their time in front of the classroom,” says Holton. “[More professional development time] would enable them to be sufficiently trained so that they could spend more time lighting the fire of education and excitement for learning.”

Virginia’s Standards of Learning Innovation Committee has a new round of recommendations coming this year, Holton says. And that should help chart the course.

Redirecting the high school ship

“Our high schools look like they did 100 years ago, teacher in the front of the room, kids looking forward,” and this just isn’t always the best way to learn,” says Holton.

Governor McAuliffe is backing legislation this year to “redesign” high schools to focus more on career readiness (as well as actually physically reorganizing the way classrooms operate), but the change won’t be overnight. As Holton says, “It takes time to redirect a ship this big.”

Since the Secretary and I spoke last, some significant things have changed. “No Child Left Behind is now left behind!” she says. “The feds have returned to the states a significant degree of accountability. The state departments are able to implement a whole new plan, how we test students is all up for grabs.”

Don’t get too excited, test-haters. The 17 federally mandated standardized tests are still required, and Virginia adds another 12 to that list, with most of those 12 occurring in high schools. But the “how we test students” changes will include making the whole testing system more productive and less likely to interfere with students, teachers, and administrators all trying to do their jobs.

“High School Redesign is all about alternative pathways–if a student is on an alternative pathway, like getting an associate degree before they finish high school, which is entirely possible, we might have them take the community college entrance test, or SATs, or CET, instead of taking the regular SOL,” says Holton of the new legislation’s intention to redesign assessment.

“The bill basically would mandate the Board of Education to embark first on a ‘portrait of a graduate’ project. What competencies do we want our graduates to have? Fairfax County has gone through this exercise and has come up with a really terrific statement. We need them to have knowledge, but we also want them to have competency, communication, collaboration… So the high school graduation requirements might include that everyone has to have some kind of teamwork experience, which is totally the opposite of what we have now because testing is so individualized.

“That kind of thing is all sort of an add-on. It’s not core curriculum. All students need to have communication skills including oral communication skills–right now we do test writing, but we don’t include oral commnication. Students should have that experience of standing up in front of their class.”

Even higher than high school

For the first time in, well, “as long as anybody can remember,” says Holton, the commonwealth has made made a significant investment in financial aid. “The funds haven’t gone down in the past decade, they’ve just been stretched more thinly, due to more kids going to college and then the recession. We used to meet 60% of financial need and now we’re down to 30%. If our budget suceeds in injecting $48 million and then $50 million in tuition assistance, that helps reduce the pressure on the colleges.

“There’s also a lot of research money. Overall it’s $840 million to K-12, and depending on how you add in the research budget, it’s over $200 million for higher ed. Its very exciting, and we’re very encouraged.” Secretary Holton has a very genuinely cheerful demeanor that only gets slightly eye-rolly when she says, “But you know what they say, ‘The governor proposes, the GA disposes.'” In other words, it ain’t over until it’s passed into law.

Those who see it differently

Though that CEPI poll indicates that the tide is turning in favor of education, there are plenty who have different ideas as to how it should be done. “There’s a pretty general acceptance that we need to make a significant investment in education, I do think that,” says Anne Holton. “The challenge will be, ‘Do we have enough resources?’ It’s a legitimate, fair question. Everybody’s watching the January reports–it’s a significant month to project whether we’re really in a rosier time or not. And, everyone has competing priorities, so it might just be about what’s most important to you.”

Of course to Holton, the canary in the coal mine, as she puts it, is Virginia’s slipping ranks among other states. A large part of this is finance from the state, she says, but a big part is localities not being able to up their own education spending. The state needs to do its share.

“There’s nervousness that we’re going too far too fast, are we going to maintain rigor, that kind of thing,” she explains. “When we say we’re going to leave testing, we’re not going to stop doing accountability, so I think there’s some concern about how we’ll go about that.”

Nationally, the debates for this year’s general election won’t focus too much on education, she thinks. Early childhood education will have to be addressed, now that No Child Left Behind is replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act. “Pre-K is one that will be a discussion at the national level–that’s such an evidence-based good investment,” she says. Holton reminds me that ESSA had bi-partisan support, so it’s unlikely to be hotly contested on the stump. “The federal role in financial support for education is not insignificant, but they are the least important player,” she says of whether or not we need to worry much about what the candidates are saying about education issues. “Although, it does tend to address inequities and supporting innovation, so federal funding is always a concern.”

Yes, I asked about the lottery

And I only got a very tiny sigh, much smaller than I expected. “Historically, the proceeds have gone to education,” she is humoring me very nicely. “But the authority has seen fit to use them as a substitute for other general expenditures. If lottery revenue goes way up, we don’t necessarily get extra money for education!

“I have a colleague who was really hoping there would be a Virginia Winner just so that it would have helped the Virginia tax base!”

— ∮∮∮ —

Keep up with all the bills as they pass through committee, house, and senate during this year’s General Assembly.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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