A Democratic delegation of former Virginia first ladies stopped in Leesburg on Friday morning to tout the education agenda of gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam.
Lynda Robb and Anne Holton joined the lieutenant governor’s wife, Pam Northam, at the Loudoun Government Center for an hour-long roundtable designed to highlight the commonwealth’s education challenges and the Democratic plans to address them. They were joined by local elected representatives, including County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33) and Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg), Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell and a host of education advocates.
The trio stressed the need to support teachers, invest more in early childhood education, develop ways to expand distance learning opportunities, and revamp the curricula to deemphasize standardize tests and put more focus on 21st century workforce training.
Robb—whose father, President Lyndon B. Johnson, launched the Head Start program and signed into law the landmark federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act—stressed that teachers were the foundation.
“There’s nothing more important. My father said that he believed that the chief architects of the future are the teachers of America,” Robb said. “We area the builders. We are the ones who make the difference.”
“We need to look at education as the road to the future,” she said.
She said the continuing fight for higher teacher pay was a key issue when her husband, Chuck Robb, was in the governor’s seat 30 years ago.
“You here in Loudoun are fortunate because have a lot of things that maybe people don’t have in southwest Virginia,” she said. “We need to think of ways that we, as a caring commonwealth, can reach out and get the state government to help us with long-distance learning” and make better use of technological advances.
After serving as first lady during her husband’s, Tim Kaine, gubernatorial term, Ann Holton served as Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s secretary of education for more than two years.
“I’ve been watching you form Richmond and I’ve been impressed,” Holton said.
She raised concerns about the added stress that has fallen to teachers—particularly since recession-era budget cuts—who have been asked to do more with less.
“It is no surprise that we are having severe teacher shortages that are already showing up and having impacts,” she said, noting that recruitment in impoverished areas and the special education and STEM fields have proved particularly challenging.
“Money is not all of the answer, but money is part of the answer. Our teachers deserve not to be on food stamps … they deserve not to have second jobs so they can support their families,” Holton said.
The delegation, for the most part, avoided direct criticism of Republican nominees Ed Gillespie, but Holton raised concerns about his promise of tax cuts.
“If you understand that education is a third of every state and local budget then you understand you cannot have massive tax cuts and continue that the investment in the future. The math does not work. You need to go back to kindergarten math.”
She highlighted coming state board of education policy change that will, by 2020, move schools away from standardized tests and instead focus on career exploration with internships and apprenticeships, policies that the Democratic nominee is supporting.
Pam Northam teaches elementary school science in Virginia Beach. With her experience in the classroom and her husband’s work as a pediatric neurologist, the couple has put an emphasis on early childhood education and development.
“Our brains just grow exponentially in those early years,” she said.
“The architecture of the brain is like the framework of a house and that is the foundation for all future learning and really the health and well-being of our children in those early years.”
Northam praised work by Holton and McAuliffe to providing funding for 13,000 new preschool teachers.
She also focused on the needs to revamp the state’s approach to career development.
“We want all students to have access to high quality education as we begin to help create the workforce of the future,” Northam said. “Part of that is opening up these different pathways so we’re providing internships and opportunities for different kinds of learning and pathways that are out there.”
Hitting that point further, Robb noted that her young granddaughter will have to prepare for still being part of the workforce in 2070.
Event moderator Princess Moss, who serves as secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association, raised concerns about Republican plans at the national and state levels to push school voucher programs.
“It is important that we don’t take this election lightly because a lot is at stake,” Moss said. “Whether public education lives or dies is at stake.”