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Governor Promises Reform, Money for Schools

Highlights include "achievable" initiatives and $525 million in new money.

Seeking to cement his legacy as the "Education Governor," Gov. Mark Warner (D), unveiled a series of school initiatives last week and promised to fight for an additional $525 million for the state's public schools next year.

Warner took his message all over the state Wednesday, stopping for a speech at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, where recent budget cuts have raised in-state tuition by about 44 percent over last year.

"We know all of us who care about education that good schools create opportunities for children who too often are caught in the grip of poverty and despair," said Warner.

He vowed to impose "accountability" on schools by sending a team from the state's Department of Management and Budget to examine how public schools could spend their money more wisely. He also said he would send "turn-around specialists" to underperforming schools to help them improve, create a mentoring program for new teachers, work with high school seniors to ease the transition into college or the workforce, and improve day care programs.

The reforms, he said, "will be measurable. They will be accountable and they will be smart investments."

WARNER, a former telecommunications executive, used the language of business to talk about schools. He promised Virginia taxpayers that schools would be held to the same standards as a business in its spending practices.

"Any large organization can always find ways to improve and become more efficient," he said.

For Warner, education and business are intricately intertwined. When he tries to woo companies to move to Virginia, the first question he is asked concerns public schools, he said.

"We have to be smarter than our competitors" in other states vying for the same business, he said. "The bottom line, it's about that smarter better-trained workforce."

And that workforce training starts even before first grade, he said.

"Investments made in preschool pay enormous dividend in terms of a child's achievement for many years to come."

Fairfax County School Superintendent Daniel Domenech approved of the governor's business metaphors.

"[Education] is a big business and it has to be run like a business," he said.

A BIG PART of Warner's education agenda consists of winning an additional $525 million for education in the next two years at a time when the state's budget deficit exceeds a billion dollars.

That money, Warner said, is necessary to educate the 32,000 new children who will be attending public schools in the next two years, which breaks down to roughly $16,400 per student.

The money, therefore, will only be used to ensure that Virginia complies with the constitutional requirement that it provide an adequate education to its children.

"It doesn't mean we're adding any new programs," said Warner.

He drew a distinction between the additional funding and the new accountability measures saying the reforms are a matter of setting "doable and achievable goals."

"The reform package is almost all self-financing," he said.

Education advocates in Fairfax County said they were delighted to hear the governor promise to fight for more school funding.

"He's not lowering any standards. He's providing the opportunity for students to meet those challenges and that is wonderful," said School Board Chairman Isis Castro (Mt. Vernon).

But where the money will come from is far from certain. Virginia must first dig its way out of its budget deficit before it can consider increasing spending, said Del. Jim Dillard (R-41) who chairs the House Education Committee.

"Without additional resources I don't know what kind of programs we're going to cut," he said. "$900 million [of the deficit] is unavoidable. We've got to make that up before we can even get started."

He said he didn't foresee much of a fight over the governor's request in Richmond next year, because "nobody's going to be opposed to what we're legally required to do" but it may go unfunded for lack of resources.

Del. Gary Reese (R-67) agreed that finding half a billion dollars for education would be next to impossible.

"I do not believe, given the budget that it will be achieved next year," he said.

Del. Tim Hugo (R-40) was more optimistic.

"I think it's going to be a challenge but seriously I believe if the Republicans and Democrats work together on this we can hopefully accomplish it," he said.