Democratic candidates for House of Delegates 45th District weigh in on education problems, solutions

Democratic candidates for House of Delegates 45th District weigh in on education problems, solutions
File photo

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The candidates in the Democratic primary for the 45th District in the Virginia House of Delegates have tremendous shoes to fill in the form of predecessor Rob Krupicka (D), most notably on one of his biggest legislative priorities: education.

Since being elected in 2012, Krupicka became something of a leader on education issues in Richmond. Last year, he helped pass legislation that introduced significant reforms to the Virginia Standards of Learning test, something he achieved with almost unanimous bipartisan support from both the House of Delegates and the Virginia State Senate.

In addition, he fought against funding the controversial Opportunity Educational Institution, which would have given the state power to take over failing schools if they are denied state accreditation or accredited with warning for three consecutive years. One such school under threat from OEI was Jefferson-Houston Elementary School in the Port City, but OEI was ruled unconstitutional last summer by Norfolk Circuit Court.

However, Krupicka is stepping away from the House of Delegates to focus on his burgeoning business interests, with five Democrats looking to succeed him and continue his strong work. As Krupicka retires from Richmond, the question for his potential successors becomes what they think the biggest issues are statewide in education, and how they propose dealing with them.

One area of strong agreement is the need for effective pre-K across the state, and that it should be available to all. Some support universal pre-K, but all recognize that it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“I think when kids enter kindergarten, they come from dramatically different households, dramatically different levels of parental involvement and preparedness and socioeconomic status,” candidate Mark Levine said. “The upshot of all of that is that kids start kindergarten dramatically unequal. We have enough inequality in life itself and as adults, and if we have inequality going into kindergarten, where it clearly is nothing to do with the child, it’s not the child’s fault at all, we have a problem.”

“I think the single most important investment we can make in not just education but in anything is pre-K,” said Craig Fifer, another Democratic candidate. “Children are the foundation of so much of the rest of what we do in society. It is much more effective, much more humane, much more positive to make those investments early on in a child’s life than to deal with the consequences of foster care, of criminal activity, of unemployment and even of under-employment throughout the rest of that child’s life.”

Funding for pre-K education is thus a priority, especially for Fifer, who has made it one of his top priorities in his campaign. Julie Jakopic suggested that possible tax incentives and Krupicka’s proposal to bring Virginia’s tobacco tax in line with the rest of the East Coast could also have some merit when it comes to funding pre-K.

“I think the path is the one we’re actually on, which is to fund it going back from kindergarten,” Jakopic said. “The first step is to make kindergarten free for every kid, the next is to make pre-K free for every kid. I think we also have to set clear licensure standards.

“If we do that, we also have to make it easier for homecare providers and others to get licensure and equip their homes and learn how to do it well. We have to make it easier for people to get what they need to get for licensure, but we have to require licensure. Safety is first, and the second step of that is having quality standards.”

Krupicka’s work to improve the SOL for K-12 drew high praise when it passed the Virginia General Assembly in 2014. His legislation reduced the number of standardized tests for students in third through eighth grades from 22 to 17, and also empowered school boards to administer alternative tests when an SOL was not given.

In spite of his efforts, there is still plenty to be done in K-12 education, especially in balancing the number of standardized tests students have to take and the importance that is placed on them while at the same time making sure that students are equipped to succeed.

“I think in the 45th, the biggest issue we have is our K-12 program,” said candidate Larry Altenburg. “We’re so focused on standardized tests and teaching to the test because of the pressures that the schools and the district face from the state to meet accreditation standards that are based on those tests.

“The SOL exams, they measure student, teacher, school and district performance all based on how the kids perform on a five-hour set of exams. The focus has been really to narrow the curriculum for our students to performance on those exams.”

“The whole school year is driving towards a test at the end that’s used to grade kids and teachers,” said Jakopic. “If kids do badly on their SOLs, there’s no time to fix that. Yet, if we try to test in February, teachers feel like they don’t have enough time to teach what they need to teach.

“The goal is to move to a place where if the kids are ready to take the test, they take the test and it’s a measure of mastery for the individual student. We don’t have a way yet, and we need to find one, to measure progress or the term that they’re using more often — growth. It’s measuring improvement not just where you are at the end. Then there’s the fact that we spend a huge proportion of time focused on the test. Ultimately, the real issue is that process that can account for real improvement.”

Altenburg agrees that SOLs should be reorganized, and that students should be assessed in a more fluid way. With children in public school himself, he says he is acutely aware of the challenges that the system faces.

“First we need to really restructure the Standards of Learning program and really encourage teachers to individualize instruction and take them away from teaching to the tests,” he said. “We also have a limitation in Virginia where we only test in English, and in Alexandria especially we have got a high number of English language learning students, almost 50 percent in ACPS. Yet we have to test in English, so our students in Alexandria are automatically at a disadvantage. We need to change that.

“The assessment system really needs to be competency based and enable our schools to assess our students when the standards are mastered, rather than structuring the school year around a schedule that’s based on the standardized test.”

In addition, the funding of public K-12 programs remains a core concern, and ensuring that schools are in the best possible position to teach students while also not being too focused on the SOL tests.

“In terms of education issues for K-12, I know that a major issue is funding at the state level and trying to find ways to make sure that schools have the resources they need and are able to hire good teachers,” said candidate Clarence Tong. “I know that Rob spent a lot of time on SOL reform and I definitely commend his work on that as well. I think there needs to be a balance between accountability but also reducing burdens on teachers that have to spend too much time teaching to the test.”

After students leave high school, they are faced with even more challenges and decisions on where to go next. All candidates are united in their belief that higher education institutions should try and do more to keep their costs down rather than pass it on to families with higher tuition and other fees, and that there should be other credible alternatives available.

Tong says he will look to fight tuition costs as a top priority while also partnering with community colleges to emphasize coursework in the STEM fields, something he believes will keep the state competitive.

“One of the areas that we know that our country is falling behind on is making sure that we have a workforce that is going to lead the world in innovation in STEM fields,” he said. “We’ve been big proponents of promoting those programs. I think it’s certainly an area that if we want to lead as a state and in our country so we’re competitive globally, we have to make investments in STEM education.”

“We need to ensure that different options are available to students based on what is important to them and what will help them find the lives that they want to in the future,” said Fifer. “We need to make higher education more affordable and accessible, we need to make trade and vocational programs a more viable, attractive and accessible option for students who would benefit from those opportunities. And we need to support young people who want to enter military service by making sure that they have great opportunities.”

“For students or young adults, and not everybody wants to sit in a classroom, I would create jobs for folks that have a career ladder attached to them so they can support their families and live a good life and retire here” said Jakopic. “The trades are one of the ways to do it, so creating that trade education is important.”

With work still to be done as Krupicka steps aside, the candidates know they will also be required to work with their Republican colleagues across the aisle, should they be elected to the House of Delegates. However, on what should be a nonpartisan issue, all expressed their confidence at being able to work with others regardless of party lines to try and improve the futures for all in education in Virginia.

Editor’s note: this article has been updated to include quotes from candidate Clarence Tong.