Although Session 2023 adjourned on Saturday, February 25, the pace of activities throughout the Commonwealth continues. Thank you for taking the time to read our newsletter and for staying informed.
A Town Hall on The State of Education in the Commonwealth
Last Thursday, Governor Youngkin spoke with CNN’s Jake Tapper on the state of education in the Commonwealth. Audience members included many Virginia residents who sought to address key concerns that impact schools and education in the Commonwealth. Among those concerns are inadequate and uncompetitive salaries for educators, lack of full funding for our school districts, culture wars targeting LGBTQ+ youth, and the push for the creation of charter schools at the expense of public education.
A teacher from Chesterfield raised the first question regarding teacher pay in the Commonwealth. We certainly have to address the low pay of Virginia’s educators; our teachers are paid at rates significantly lower than the national average, and we cannot address the teacher shortage without providing our educators with competitive, professional pay. In response to this teacher’s question, Youngkin touted the 10% pay increase provided by the General Assembly (5% for each of the two years of the biennium budget). However, this 10% teacher pay increase was actually an outgoing budget item from Governor Northam’s administration and pushed aggressively by Democrats in the General Assembly. It’s time for this current administration to demonstrate its own full commitment to public education and teachers in Virginia.
Regrettably, however, while the Youngkin Administration claims to prioritize education, it is actually pushing for a budget that focuses on tax cuts and diverts funding away from our students and educators. This side-by-side provided by The Commonwealth Institute highlights that the Senate, under majority leadership of Democrats, are investing heavily in education; the Youngkin and House budgets are not.
Questions about “school choice” were also raised. School choice is a catch phrase that actually means privatization of public education. Directing public education dollars, as this proposed legislation would have done, defunds our public schools, creates a two-tier model of education built on tax dollars but with little or no accountability, and invariably leaves struggling communities, children, and school districts behind.
A riveting moment in the town hall came when Niko, a young transgender man who attends a public high school, asked Governor Youngkin about his attempts to reverse existing supportive transgender model policies and about the Republican push for transphobic policies that threaten the safety of students. Niko’s comments highlighted that, in 2020, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to establish model policy guidelines for the treatment of transgender students. The efforts of the current administration have been to reverse this existing model policy, but these efforts have not been successful because of the numerous legal challenges that they face. The administration’s efforts are attempts to silence and make members of the transgender community invisible, and they simply fly in the face of laws that prohibit discrimination.
Two Years of the American Rescue Plan
This week marked the two-year anniversary of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) which has brought tremendous benefits to both the Commonwealth and the nation. The Biden administration spearheaded one of the largest investments in American economic wellbeing in our country’s history. Below are just a few highlights of how ARPA has secured a better future for all Americans:
Gun Violence in Our Communities
Last Friday, I joined a panel hosted by the Richmond Peace Education Center, focused on gun violence prevention strategies. The other two panelists included Dr. Ram Bhagat and Lori Haas from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Dr. Bhagat’s expertise is as an educator and advocate for community-centered responses to trauma; he offered unique insights to the conditions of violence in communities, the processes of healing, and the opportunities to prevent violence. Ms. Haas is a well-known gun safety advocate who directly confronted the traumas of mass shootings in the aftermath of the profound tragedies on the campus of Virginia Tech in which her daughter was shot. She has been a key driver of efforts to bring gun safety legislation through the General Assembly. Our conversation was wide-ranging and was particularly shaped by community members who shared their own stories of experiencing and witnessing gun violence.
Photo credit: Valaryee Mitchell
I am pleased to see new efforts to address gun violence on the federal level. On Tuesday, President Biden joined members of the Monterey Park community to announce an Executive Order to reduce gun violence by increasing the number of background checks performed before firearms purchases; expanding knowledge of extreme risk protection orders, commonly referred to as “red flag laws”; and holding the gun manufacturing industry accountable. These efforts echo what we were able to accomplish in Virginia during past Sessions in 2020 and 2021.
Unfortunately, during this most recent Session, the Republican majority in Virginia’s House of Delegates blocked bills that would save lives and prevent tragedies. The House committee even refused to hear testimony on legislation. Here are just a few bills that passed out of the Senate but were killed in the House:
No other developed nation in the world is witness to the levels of gun violence that we experience in the United States. It is long past time for our legislators – both at the federal and state level – to move beyond inaction to address gun violence in our communities.
Community Events and Meetings
On Saturday, I joined in the festivities at the 18th Annual Punjabi Mela at Main Street Station. We were welcomed by Bhangra dancers, delicious Punjabi food, and a variety of community members. The Main Street Station was packed all day with visitors streaming in and out to enjoy this special day of celebrations highlighting the diverse cultures of the Commonwealth.
On Sunday afternoon, I joined Senator Jennifer Boysko, Delegates Suhas Subramanyam and David Reid, Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, former Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, and many others supporting Dr. Sumera Rashid’s campaign for Loudoun County School Board. Dr. Rashid is a proven public education champion, whose voice and expertise will be an asset to the Board.
On Wednesday, I joined elected officials and community members from across the Commonwealth for the unveiling of Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn’s official portrait. Delegate Filler-Corn broke numerous glass ceilings as she became the first woman and the first Jewish Speaker of the House in the 404 year history of the Virginia General Assembly. Under her leadership of the House, the General Assembly passed historic legislation for Virginians.
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