Ken Plum: The most important thing we do
Last week I attended the Virginia Education Summit 2021 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. I could hardly recognize the location where I attended undergraduate school in the early 1960s when it was the Norfolk College of William and Mary. Unfortunately I could recognize many of the topics on the agenda for they were the same topics discussed during my 30-year career in public education that ended with my retirement from Fairfax County Public Schools in 1996.
The Summit was designed to educate legislators on current education issues, but it was not organized by the Virginia education establishment. It was organized by the Hunt Institute, a non-profit institute named for former four-term North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt who has been described as America’s first education governor. Governor Hunt was known for saying, “Education can’t be just another thing we do. It’s the most important thing we do!”
The Summit was held at a critical time in the Commonwealth’s history. The last two years have seen amazing advances in early childhood education that a whole body of research has shown to be critical to an individual’s future success in schooling and in life. Presently fewer than half of Virginia’s three and four year olds attend preschool. Under legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor the multiple programs related to preschool education have been brought together creating a unified public-private early childhood system that needs continuing financing and monitoring in order to ensure that all children have access to programs and services.
Not surprisingly a major theme permeating the Summit was the impact of COVID on our schools. The increased stress of teaching in an often changing environment that included virtual learning has resulted in many retirements and in increased difficulty recruiting teachers to teacher-training programs and to employment as teachers. There are about 106,000 teachers in Virginia whose average pay is 34th lowest in the country. There is a serious need to recruit more men and more persons of color into teaching positions.
Every school system faces the challenge of dealing with learning losses among children as a result of interruptions in their schooling from the pandemic. I was so impressed with the teachers and school administrators at the Summit and their stories of heroic efforts to continue to deliver schooling to their students during a time of unprecedented challenges. They deserve our commendation and support as we move forward with schooling that has been changed in many ways during the pandemic. Some of those changes are worthy of continuation.
Virginia has made progress in the last several years in reducing excessive testing that limits time for instruction and provides little useful information. We can measure how our schools are doing without the large number of high stakes tests that have been given in the past. A study of our educational system for children with special needs has been shown to have major deficiencies that are now being addressed.
We are about to move to a new administration of state government. The rhetoric I hear about cutting taxes indicates that a sizable chunk would come from education and that charter schools would divert public monies to private schools. These issues cause me a great deal of concern as does the call to strip libraries of books. The new administration and legislators need to heed Governor Hunt’s admonition that education is the most important thing we do!
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.