How Virginia Dems are talking about education

(AP photo/Steve Helber)

By Carolyn Fiddler

November 7, 2023

On Tuesday, Virginia voters will cast their ballots for all 140 seats in the General Assembly.

Democrats currently have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, while Republicans control the House, so this election could result in either party having partial or full control of the legislature.

Since this election will determine which political party controls state government, it’ll also determine how the commonwealth will fund public education, support teachers and kids, and more.

Here’s what four Democratic candidates for office have to say about public education in Virginia and what they would do if elected or reelected:

Del. Shelly Simonds, House District 70

Newport News-area Del. Shelly Simonds is running for reelection to the Virginia House.

In an interview, she highlighted her own experiences as an educator and how that’s impacted her work in the legislature as an advocate for public education.

“I was a teacher in Newport News Public Schools and I loved my students, but I really fell in love with my fellow teachers,” Simond told Dogwood. “I would go home after teaching and have all these ideas for how we could improve public education in Virginia, policy solutions. So somebody said, ‘Hey, why don’t you run for school board?’ And I served on the Newport News School Board for about seven years, and then I ran for delegate.”

Simonds explained how she and her fellow lawmakers have direct impacts on education in Virginia.

“Supporting teachers and teacher pay raises have been really important,” she said, and went on to discuss how the legislature can continue to help teachers and schools improve, like ensuring that teachers have access to world-class professional development and providing time in school for educators to both collaborate and plan.

“I think that at the state level, we can have a huge impact on the experience of students and teachers in our schools.”

Simonds also talked about the importance of meaningful parental involvement in kids’ learning experiences.

As a one-time PTA president at a local middle school, she “spent a lot of time encouraging other parents to be involved in their kids’ education.

“I think it’s super important for parents to be on top of homework and assignments and who their [kids’] teachers are and what the goals are for the year, what the [state-mandated] Standards of Learning are that they’re supposed to learn that year. I believe parents are partners on everything we do in schools.”

Michael Feggans, House District 97

Michael Feggans, who is running to represent Virginia Beach in the Virginia House of Delegates, is the son of a public school teacher.

“She taught for 30 plus years at J. Cox and Northview Elementary,” he told Dogwood. “I’ve seen how hard she dedicated herself to the public school system here.”

Feggans credits Virginia’s public schools for helping lay the foundation for his success in life: “I’m able to be where I’m at currently in life because of the Virginia Beach public school system.”

He went on to make a deeply personal revelation.

“When I was growing up, I actually had a pretty bad speech impediment,” Feggans told us. “From elementary school to middle school, those speech therapists worked with me, and now I’m able to speak in large, large crowds and you wouldn’t even guess I had a debilitating speech impediment. It’s those investments and it’s showing children where they can go if they obtain an education.”

Feggans’ experience in the Air Force helped him truly appreciate the quality of his Virginia public school education.

“I know that my exposure to the tech labs I had in middle school and in high school really showed me that my path was going to be involved with technology. Then when I left for the Air Force, I saw the difference between me and some of the other airmen that I worked with from different states where they didn’t invest as much in their public schools – you could tell that there was a difference.”

If elected, Feggans is committed to ensuring public education in Virginia remains strong.

“I know people move here and stay here because of our public school education, and I want to make sure that we’re continuing to fully fund our schools and to attract that next generation of teachers – and not just teachers, but our education support staff, as well.”

Del. Rodney Willett, House District 58

Del. Rodney Willett, who is running for reelection to continue representing Henrico County in the Virginia House of Delegates, is a product of the commonwealth’s public schools. Supporting public education is a huge priority for Willett, and he discussed with Dogwood the crucial role the state legislature plays in ensuring kids in every corner of the state have access to a quality public education.

“[The legislature has] a huge impact on education, starting with funding, putting more money to schools – particularly to teachers – more money for support staff,” he told us.

Willett is proud of the work he and his fellow Democrats put into supporting Virginia education this year – specifically standing against Republican tax cuts for corporations and the ultra-wealthy in favor of “a budget that boosted our teacher salaries across the board and increased the number of support staff in schools.”

But Willett is already looking ahead to ways the legislature can support public schools in the coming years.

“The biggest issue I hear about in education right now is teacher retention,” he said. “Teachers have been through a lot. Families have been through a lot. But we’ve really had to struggle to keep our teachers in the classrooms. And a lot of that is because we don’t pay them enough. A lot of that is because we don’t put enough support staff around them. They’re having to do too many administrative things versus actually teaching, which is what we hired them to do. The last thing you want to see is just 4,300 teacher vacancies in Virginia – it’s a statewide issue.

“We’ve got to respect our teachers,” he continued. “And unfortunately, the dialog you hear coming from the Republican Party is all about disrespect of teachers.”

Willett went on to address the recent push to ban books from school libraries across the state.

“Right now, what’s happening is a very vocal, super conservative minority is keeping the rest of the kids from having access to really significant works of literature that I would be absolutely thrilled to have had any of my kids reading,” he explained. “And now that’s being taken away from them.”

Sen. Aaron Rouse, Senate District 22

Sen. Aaron Rouse, who is running for reelection to continue representing Virginia Beach in the state Senate, discussed the importance of prioritizing investments in public schools.

“Here in Virginia Beach, we have some of the best public schools in the nation – for many, it’s the reason people want to move to the city of Virginia Beach,” Rouse told Dogwood.

“Virginia has great schools, but we have to make a significant investment in those schools. We can’t fund [private and charter] schools at the expense of our public school system, especially at a time where our teachers, our support staff, and our schools need to be modernized,” he cautioned. “You look at what our teachers have to do today, not only teach, but they’re dealing with so many different issues, including behavior issues and mental health issues. And yet their pay does not reflect that.

“A lot of the teachers are having to pay out of their own pockets for supplies in their own classroom,” Rouse continued. “And you think about that, when our state has this surplus of billions of dollars. It should be a priority to ensure that we can fully fund salaries of teachers and support staff.”

Rouse also illustrated the importance of strong public education to his local economy.

“You can tie our economy directly to education, because when there is a strong and significant investment being paid to K-12 education, then that yields a better workforce that actually incentivizes companies and global corporations to look at places such as Hampton Roads.”

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION | POLITICS

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