McAuliffe highlights Lucy Simms as part his campaign proposal for education

The mural on the Elizabeth Street Parking Garage honors educator Lucy Simms.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat running for that job again in 2021, is naming a key piece of his education plan after one of Harrisonburg’s most prominent historic figures: educator Lucy Simms. 

McAuliffe will visit Harrisonburg virtually on Thursday, fielding questions in a town hall hosted by JMU Civic & Dukes Vote.

His “Lucy Simms Educator Program” will pay the college tuition and room-and-board costs for certain students who commit to teaching in Virginia public schools for five years in high-demand fields. Those include special education, elementary education, middle school education, middle and high school math, and career and technical education. 

McAuliffe told The Citizen he named the initiative after Simms because “for decades, [she] taught young Black students and really was a legend and an inspiration for so many people.”

To qualify for the program, students will need to be Virginia residents and study education at a public university or Historically Black College or University (HBCU) within the state. Their families also must make less than $75,000 per year. 

“We’re trying to help people who really would love to go in to teach, but they just can’t handle the student loan debt,” McAuliffe said. 

His plan, if he returns to the governor’s office, is to fund the college education of 1,000 qualifying students at the rate of 250 per year for four years. He didn’t specify to The Citizen as to how many of them could end up in the Harrisonburg area.

“We’re about a thousand teachers short in Virginia,” he said. “It’s no surprise. We rank 50th out of 50 states when you take teacher pay and compare it to average pay [of other full-time employees] … that is a disgrace for the 10th wealthiest state in the United States of America.”

To that end, another piece of McAuliffe’s education plan is to raise teacher salaries – currently averaging $53,000 in Virginia, according to his campaign – above the national average of $62,000 within four years. 

Michael Richards, the superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, told The Citizen he’s encouraged by commitments to raising teachers’ pay coming from candidates like McAuliffe.

“Governors in Virginia have influence over public education in three ways. The No. 1 way is through their budget. And we are perpetually underfunded in education,” Richards said. The other two forms of influence, he said, are the governor’s power to sign legislation and generating a narrative to promote education.

Richards said he hopes that whichever candidate is elected in the November 2021 election “listens and works with us to strategically adjust standards of quality so that it reflects the kind of teaching and learning we need to do,” including mental health services for students, access to preschool and a focus on learning that goes deeper than just passing state standardized tests.

Education “needs to be based on problem solving. It needs to be based on real-world application,” Richards said. “The governor needs to be able to hear that … if we’re going to take public education to the next level.”

McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-2018, is the first 2021 gubernatorial candidate to publish a detailed education plan. Besides the Lucy Simms Educator Program and raises for teachers, he’s also proposing other changes, including: 

  • Creating a school integration officer position in the Virginia Department of Education to address modern-day school segregation;
  • Expanding publicly-funded preschool programs;
  • Fully funding the new state standards of quality (SOQs) that include new ratios for the number of school counselors each division needs;
  • And expanding broadband internet infrastructure to ensure every student has reliable internet access.

But to win the job he’s held once before, McAuliffe first needs to secure his party’s nomination in the June 8 Democratic primary and is facing well-known candidates. 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan is a Democrat who’s been endorsed by Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, Vice-mayor Sal Romero and Council member Chris Jones. On her campaign website, she harkened back to her record as a legislator: fighting for teacher pay raises and trying to get more social workers, counselors, and nurses in schools.

Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Democrat who stepped down from the House Delegates last week to focus on her run for governor, also calls upon her legislative history, which includes supporting a 5% pay increase for teachers, reducing the length of suspensions, advocating for disciplinary issues to be dealt with in the schools rather than in the courts, and introducing the Diversifying the Teacher Workforce Act.

And Lt Gov. Justin Fairfax wrote on his website that he will “continue to fight to make sure that every child has access to a world class education and academic experience” and pledged to “fight to make college education affordable.”

Two Republicans have announced they’re running for governor: former state House Speaker Kirk Cox and State Sen. Amanda Chase. Chase did not include education in the issues listed on her website. And Cox hasn’t yet rolled out detailed issue proposals on his campaign site. As many as five other Republicans are considering running, including Augusta County’s state senator, Emmett W. Hanger Jr., according to the Richmond Times Dispatch

Earlier this month, Republicans decided to hold a convention to pick the GOP nominee for governor, as The Washington Post reported

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