Gubernatorial candidates discuss education plans
Your child’s education could rest with the future governor of Virginia.
Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor have outlined plans (a.k.a. political promises) to improve education and its affordability.
Democratic State Senator R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert “Bob” McDonnell previously faced off in the 2005 election for state’s attorney general in which McDonnell won by a narrow margin. But McDonnell resigned that position Feb. 20 in order to focus on his campaign to be the next governor.
In campaign ads about his own education, which includes a law degree, Deeds has said, “My mom sent me off to college with just four 20 dollar bills. So I know education is the best investment Virginia can make for our children – and in our future.”
In an address at George Mason University on May 12, McDonnell took the opportunity to tout his own educational qualifications. “Had I not graduated from college and then gone on to earn two master’s degrees in public policy and business, as well as a law degree, I would not have the great opportunities I have had in my life.”
But not too many Virginians can afford to pursue two master’s degrees and a law degree in the current economy. So, much of what the gubernatorial candidates’ education plans focus on is affordability.
“Over the last eight years, tuition increased… around 80 percent. It's unacceptable. It's brought education out of the reach of ordinary people,” stated Deeds at the final Democratic gubernatorial debate at Northern Virginia Community College on May 19. “We've got to make sure campuses like this one, this place of hope and dreams... is open and accessible to many people.”
“To a large extent, colleges have passed on state funding cuts to tuition-paying Virginia students and their parents. And so, during tough times when Virginia families had to cope with job loss and insecurity -- seeing their incomes sag and their investment portfolios deflate and their home values plummet -- they endured the added insult and injury of experiencing more than a doubling of tuition and fee costs just since 2000,” said McDonnell in his speech at GMU.
He went on to say, “Some parents have watched as their child’s opportunity for a college education… slipped from reach. Others have seen their kids’ future buried under a mountain of college loan debt. And middle-income families have especially felt the squeeze because they do not have ready cash to pay the higher tuition bills, yet generally don’t qualify for need-based aid. At the very time when the tough economic situation made getting a college or community college degree or professional certificate even more crucial for getting a good job, misplaced priorities in state government made it tougher for ordinary Virginians to afford it.”
Deeds’ plan guarantees loans up to $4,500 for community college students and up to $15,000 for four-year college students. It also proposes to forgive a year of loans to teachers for every three years of work in high-need areas. McDonnell wants to restructure the Commonwealth's college system to focus on affordability and “employability.” Both candidates support increased participation in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, known collectively as STEM. Deeds’ proposed loan forgiveness plan includes forgiving one year of loans to STEM teachers for every three years of work.
“We must place special emphasis on the high-income, high-demand sectors of the economy, especially [STEM].” According to McDonnell, The U.S. now ranks only 29th out of 109 countries in the percentage of 24-year-olds with math and science degrees, possibly because those degree programs are some of the most expensive to run. His solution would be to create financial incentives for institutions of higher education to emphasize these programs, to encourage young people to get on the STEM track and to attract, train and reward more teachers in STEM disciplines.
“Today, we are in the midst of a technological revolution. We live in a time of unparalleled promise and discovery. And as fast as the change has already been, the experts tell us the pace of new breakthroughs will increase dramatically in the next quarter century. Consider, first of all, the gap between the education level that is needed for success in the new economy and the education level that most Virginians now are attaining. The Virginia Business Higher Education Council recently reported in a survey that more than 75 percent of Virginians believe a college degree now is essential in order to succeed in the knowledge-based economy. Yet, currently, only about 35 percent of college-age Virginians are enrolling in a four-year or community college, and only about 42 percent of working-age Virginians have college degrees,” McDonnell pointed out.
Both Deeds and McDonnell believe that those who possess knowledge and skills in the STEM disciplines are the people who will earn the highest incomes, and it will be their communities that will attract the largest business investments and most research grants.
One of Deeds’ proposed solutions to the STEM resource problem would be to re-train outdated factory workers into a high-tech (and hopefully higher-paid) employable workforce.
“The jobs are out there… I know of lots of people who used to work at sewing plants and textile mills who now work at Wal-Mart if they work anywhere at all. They have to drive 35 or 40 miles, so you can imagine they’re paying $2 to $4 in gasoline, what crisis that creates in their lives. States have retooled their community colleges to build -- to take those laid off textile workers making $15,000, $16,000 a year and turn them into pharmaceutical factory workers making $40 to $50 an hour. I think we just need a little retooling of our community colleges, and not just here but across the state to attract smart jobs to Virginia.”
But such a plan might not be that easy to implement. Training someone in a high tech field can take months, even years, and costs money. In all likelihood, some of those factory and mill workers Deeds referred to do not even have higher-education degrees – some may not even have high school diplomas. Can a mill worker with limited education be effectively retrained into a high technology worker in a time- and cost-efficient way? And would retaining be enough when most companies and the federal government usually require applicants to have college degrees before even considering hiring that person?
Deeds’ education plan is generally more specific in terms of actual plans, while McDonnell’s has a more ‘I feel for the people and will help you’ tone. But McDonnell does hit on an innovative idea – shortening the amount of time needed to earn a degree.
“The old notion that, unless you are some kind of prodigy, you have to spend 12 years getting your high school degree, and then two or four full years in college, then whatever additional is required for post-graduate work, is outdated,” stated McDonnell. “Time means money, and if we can create good opportunities for students to get more degrees in fewer semesters, the savings can be enormous.”
Students study a wide range of general topics in high school. Shouldn’t university be a time to focus on one specialty? Or must a physics major be required to take geography, anthropology and lots of other electives and have to additionally pay thousands in tuition for the credits?
If such a plan is formally proposed by a sitting governor, colleges won’t like it and will probably try to stop it.
Photos and article by KJ Mushung who is a Stafford county mother and free-lance writer.