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Va. Gubernatorial Candidates Spar Over Testing, Teacher Pay, School Choice

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Virginia's state testing regimen is in need of significant changes to better evaluate both students and teachers, both candidates for Virginia governor argued during their Thursday night debate. But when it came to other education policy priorities, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe had major differences, with Cuccinelli focusing on school choice and McAuliffe criticizing the state for its relatively low teacher salaries.

The tests that measure students' grasp of the Standards of Learning (Virginia's content standards, what it's using instead of the Common Core State Standards) have become controversial in the state for reasons that often mirror those associated with assessments linked to the common core. Asked during the debate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg how he would change the SOL tests, Cuccinelli said that not only are there too many such tests right now, but that teachers are "teaching to the test" instead of providing the instruction students need.  Cuccinelli also said he wanted to create more flexible testing schedules for schools. On a broader level, he also said he plans to create a commission to examine changes to the SOL exams "so they better evaluate our children" as well as teachers.

McAuliffe addressed the tests themselves by saying he'd prefer that more of the questions on the SOL require "short, essay-type" answers, in contrast the recitation of facts. Like Cuccinelli, he also said the current SOL tests aren't evaluating teachers properly. But he used the problems with the SOL to launch into a defense of public school funding, an area where his campaign has attacked Cuccinelli for wanting to provide state financial support for religious schools. "I don't want to see a penny taken out of our public schools," he said.

McAuliffe also claimed that average teacher pay in Virginia ranks dead last among the 50 states, but that appears to be incorrect, according to recent data from the National Education Association.

What about that school-choice plan of Cuccinelli's? A supporter of choice, Cuccinelli didn't hide it in the debate, arguing that parents should be able to make the decisions about the best education for their children. He said that choice is particularly important for parents whose children attend low-performing schools, saying, "What matters is getting that child the best possible education that we can."

Appropriately enough for a debate taking place at Virginia Tech, the site of a mass shooting in 2007, the candidates were asked about their positions about school security and arming teachers. McAuliffe said flatly that he did not want teachers or professors to carry firearms, but that more schools should have more school resource officers available to them if they feel they're needed. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, said the real priority should be helping people with mental health issues, identifying them early and helping them get support and treatment. 

Photo: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, greets Republican challenger Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli after their debate Thursday evening at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

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