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High school students leap at chance to question Del. David Englin.

After answering questions on gay marriage (for it), recycling (“I’m very pro-recycling”), BRAC (“an issue we’re working hard on”), education funding (give raises to teachers), how to find money for things like giving raises to teachers (“you raise taxes”), the national debt (“obscene”), earmarks (“one person’s pork is another person’s local priority”) and changes to the legal driving age (“I’m pretty comfortable the way it is”), Del. David Englin, a Democrat who represents parts of Alexandria and Fairfax County, was finally stumped on the last question of the day: whether a ban on minors driving after midnight should be reconsidered because it causes too many 11:59 p.m. crashes involving teenagers speeding home to beat the curfew.

“I’d have to think about it,” Englin admitted. “That’s a difficult one.”

In a little more than 30 minutes, 11th grade students in Emer Kennedy’s history class at West Potomac High School picked Englin’s brain on a wide array of issues. “There were terrific questions from the students,” Englin said after the class, as he toured the high school with principal Rima Vesilind, “really no different from a community meeting with their parents.”

When Erika Swartz asked Englin how the General Assembly planned to help the region cope when over 20,000 new employees begin working at Fort Belvoir at the end of the decade as part of the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure plan, Englin said he and other area representatives were “working hard” to find more funding for transportation infrastructure. Another aspect of the BRAC problem, he added, is that the area’s housing is too expensive for many workers. “Nobody can afford to live here.”

“What are you doing about the fact that education isn’t fully funded?” Kwabena Owusu asked. Among other things, Englin replied, he’d introduced legislation that would make the state pay the cost of the standardized tests it requires its school systems to administer. He added that the General Assembly had already raised teacher’s salaries. “Hopefully you saw some of that,” he said to Kennedy.

“Yes,” she replied. “Keep it coming, keep it coming.”

Englin said schools must accept that attracting good teachers is a matter of market forces. To get the best, they must be willing to pay. And good teachers are key to making a school successful. He praised “small classes with very well-qualified teachers when you give them the freedom to actually teach.”

“A LOT of what you said today is ‘Put money here; put money here,’” said Laura Howell “How are you going to get this money?”

“The answer to this question is you raise taxes. People who tell you different are blowing smoke,” Englin replied. He said that if the General Assembly had not repealed the estate tax on inherited wealth, and if it had adopted a bill he introduced that would have raised cigarette taxes by 25 to 50 cents to meet the national average (though he would be happy to see taxes on them raised up to $10 a pack), the state would earn enough money to put every 4-year-old into preschool. And in the long run that could save the state money. “If you send a kid to preschool you’re much less likely to pay for a kid to go to jail down the road.”

He added later that the money the country has spent on Iraq could put every high school graduate in the U.S. through Harvard. “Imagine if we decided education was such a national priority we would spend money that way.”

“When you invest in people early there’s a cascading effect that saves you down the road.”

Englin said the General Assembly has a very open process so that voters can see who is responsible for the spending measures (called “non-state agency requests,” the General Assembly’s version of earmarks) inserted into each bill. In this spirit of openness, he assigned them a project: to visit www.vpap.org, the website that tracks campaign funding for every member of the General Assembly. He said that if they looked him up, they would find money from his gay supporters and from tobacco companies (who tend to spread money to every candidate), even though he opposes the latter’s agenda. “If I’m in there fighting against their interests and they’re dumb enough to write me a check so I can continue to fight against their interests, then they’re suckers.” But Englin said he refuses money from the NRA on principle.

Englin said Mount Vernon School Board representative Dan Storck offered to arrange his school trips (he visited Hollin Meadows earlier in the morning) after Englin mentioned that he wanted to visit more schools. “I always say the more time you spend seeing how things happen on the front lines, the better you’ll be able to represent those interests.”