An attorney and former juvenile court judge, Holton became Virginia’s secretary of education in 2012, but she resigned last year after Hillary Clinton tapped Holton’s husband, Sen. Tim Kaine, as her running mate. Now, post-election, Holton has returned to Virginia education politics. In February, Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed her to the commonwealth’s Board of Education.
In an interview with The 74, Holton discusses her own education experiences, her time on the campaign trail, and how she’s working to improve Virginia public schools. The conversation was edited lightly for length and clarity.
The 74: You played an important role in desegregating Virginia schools while your father was governor. As your father pushed for school integration, you and your siblings attended historically black Richmond city schools. What sticks out in your mind from that experience, and how do these memories influence your education policies?
Holton: I was 12 years old when my dad was elected governor — and we were public school students all along, but we moved from the town we’d grown up in, from Roanoke to Richmond.
Richmond schools were technically desegregated by then, but de facto, there were white schools in white neighborhoods and black schools in black neighborhoods. We started out going to the white schools in the white suburban part of Richmond, and that was in January of 1970. Dad put forth in his inaugural address that he was going to end the era of defiance and wanted to help integrate Virginia government and to help bring Virginia into the 20th century on race relations. But we did not know at that time that a few months later the courts would issue this order to use crosstown busing to integrate the schools.
That happened in August, and we started school in September, and my sister went to the high school. My father took her there the first morning of school. My mother took my brother and me to the middle school, so my sister got all the attention — and there was a lot of attention. My parents did a good job of helping us feel like we were part of something bigger than ourselves, something that really mattered. That influenced me in all kinds of ways.
It influenced me toward a career in public service, and more immediately, the experience of going to school with people who were from different backgrounds. My background was not only white, but homogenous: Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper middle class. I didn’t know much of anybody who came from different backgrounds, and that experience of being with folks who were different, and yet discovering how much similarity we had across differences, it was a very important part of my education, and I have valued that throughout and including in my role as secretary of education.
Schools across the U.S. remain heavily segregated, based both on race and family income. On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton even said, “Schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s.” What obligation do education officials have to address school segregation, and what policies could be implemented to help resolve segregation?
Those are absolutely $74 million questions. Ironically, in my community, our Richmond city schools, the schools that we did go to that first year, were supposed to be a healthy racial mix. In fact, they remained virtually all African-American. We were one of a small handful of white students who attended there over those first couple of years because of white flight. Most white families left for the counties or took their kids out of public schools altogether, started little schools in people’s basements. It was not an easy time, and that has left that impact. Those Richmond city schools are still virtually all African-American and largely poor, maybe even more largely poor now than they were before.
My kids went to the Richmond city schools and got a great education and got the experience of being with folks of different backgrounds, both economically and racially, but the Richmond city schools are a microcosm of the country. Interestingly enough, some of the suburban schools that white people fled to then, the middle class of all different colors has moved to the suburbs, and some of those schools are more racially integrated and somewhat more economically integrated than the urban core that we’ve left behind.
As a policy question now, what do we need to do about it? I absolutely think it’s kind of like “separate but equal.” Originally, folks were fighting the Plessy v. Ferguson rule, they were trying to make the African-American schools be equal, and then eventually came to the point that separate was inherently unequal. I think that’s still true. I think we need to fight to desegregate and we need to fight for equity. I think we need to fight on both prongs. Now, it’s not just urban high-poverty communities, but urban and rural high-poverty communities with schools that are very unequal. It is one of the biggest challenges to the education system as a nation.
Tell me about what you’ve referred to in Virginia as the “trifecta” that has affected Virginia schools over the past decade or so, and how are you working to overcome the three specific hurdles that you’ve referred to in this way?
The trifecta is that our schools are facing students with more and more poverty and more and more challenges of all sorts. Poverty does bring all kinds of challenges with it. Our Virginia schools have gone from 30 percent economically disadvantaged to 40 percent over the last 15 years or so, and that still means we’re lower than the nation. But that’s a lot. To have 40 percent of the school system — and, in many, many communities, 70 and 80 percent of the school system — be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds means an awful lot of extra challenges for those schools. We also have increasing numbers of English-language learners. The last data I saw, we don’t have increased numbers of students with disabilities, but we have increased numbers of students with the most intensive disabilities, such as autism.
So that’s the first of the trifecta: more challenges we’re asking our schools to deal with.
Second, that we’re asking them to meet higher standards, as we should. We have asked them to meet higher graduation rates, and they have risen to that challenge. We’ve asked them to meet higher results on standardized tests, to raise the bar on tougher curriculum, and they are working to meet those challenges. We’ve asked them to lower achievement gaps, so we’ve raised standards and expectations, and at the same time, the third of the trifecta is that resources are significantly less.
The way I see it, in Virginia, we cut school funding significantly in the recession, and it’s taken us a long time to begin to restore it. If you look at the per-pupil spending in our urban and rural high-poverty schools and all the needs that go along with that, and compare that to, say, to the tuition at elite private schools, there’s just no comparison. We are not funding schools the way they need to be funded.
You have pushed Virginia state lawmakers to spend more money on education. How can you convince lawmakers that schools need more resources, and especially these rural districts in mostly western Virginia where it seems schools are scrambling to make ends meet?
There are really two contexts where schools are scrambling, and it’s rural districts — you’re right, many of them in western and southern Virginia — but rural communities across the state and urban high-poverty communities. There are some differences between the two. The rural communities are losing population, that’s on top of everything else, but there are a lot of similarities. Both have aging infrastructure, often have excess capacity in their infrastructure.
But your real question is, “What can we do to help legislators see the need and address it?” I will say in Virginia, we were successful in — not solving all the problems in one fell swoop — but we did, with Gov. McAuliffe’s leadership and bipartisan consensus in the general assembly, have over the last couple of sessions made a real dent. We’ve turned the cost curve. We haven’t gotten it back to where it needs to be, but we’ve turned the cost curve significantly back. We passed a budget back in the ’16 legislative session with over $1 billion in new money for education over the biennium, which was the equivalent of a 7 or 8 percent jump for K-12. That was the first real big increase since the recession, so getting us back on the right path.
How do we do it? A consensus among the education stakeholders, parents, and the business community, frankly. The business community is telling us that they need us to be upping our game, to have students ready for the workforce and citizenship in the 21st century. The public, in survey after survey, when asked, says that they’re willing to spend more money on education, that they’re willing to be taxed more to spend money on education, that the public generally gets the benefit of public schools. One of the challenges is, folks want to know their money is being well spent. I think one of the tasks for the system is to make sure we’re spending resources well at all levels.
You’re an attorney, you’ve served as a judge, you were first lady of Virginia, and most recently you served as Virginia’s education secretary. Why did you think it was necessary to step aside from your role as head of the state Education Department when Hillary Clinton tapped your husband as her running mate?
I don’t know if “necessary” was the word, but I’m a huge fan of Secretary Clinton’s, and I wanted to do everything I could to help her get elected. I think she would have made a great president, and it was an easy call when Tim was nominated that I wanted to do everything I could to be helpful. I said that to the Clinton people, and I asked, “What do you want?” and they said, “We want you on the campaign trail every minute we can get you, and we want you talking to teachers and parents and students all across the country and bring back feedback to Hillary on what we can work on together.”
Knowing that I wanted to be all in for Hillary meant that I couldn’t do that and do justice to the job.
You were actually on Secretary Clinton’s campaign trail, attending events all across the country, speaking with educators. What opportunities did you have to speak with Americans about their public education system, and what issues did they discuss?
Money is an issue everywhere, and particularly money for schools in very high-poverty schools where the needs are more and where local funds are not able to compensate for cuts in funding coming from the state level. So that’s one issue that cuts across. One is the need to connect our K-12 world better to higher ed and postsecondary students’ needs after they graduate. Are we giving kids the skills, the exposure to career possibilities? Are we giving them what they need to be successful in the workforce and in citizenship in the 21st century?
There is definitely frustration across the country about whether we’ve got the right balance on how we evaluate students and how we evaluate schools. I am a strong believer in accountability, but the devil is in the details. For instance, if we’re only testing the things that are easy to test, like the certain amount of knowledge you can share back on a standardized test, but we’re not evaluating whether we’re teaching kids oral communication skills or collaboration skills, or giving them an opportunity for some creativity and even for failure.
We’ve kind of worked failure out of the system. Failure is not allowed, right? So the business community tells us what you need to be successful in an entrepreneurial world is something where you try things; if something doesn’t work, you learn your lesson from that. The whole experiential-learning thing is getting squeezed out a little bit in the focus on things that are easily tested. Virginia has got real frustration with just sheer excessive testing. We test more subjects, we do longer tests — some of that is more Virginia-specific — but the frustration of “Are we getting the devil in the details right on accountability?” I heard everywhere.
Is there anything you heard that maybe didn’t specifically relate to challenges that were being faced in Virginia that were shocking and maybe influenced the way you think?
Virginia has very, very little experience in the charter world. That’s a long, different topic. We do have a number of different ways for folks to do innovative things within the public schools, but for various reasons fairly little engagement in the charter world.
So that was something I heard a lot about on the campaign trail, and I came away with my new lesson learned from that, that I will bring back to our Virginia discussions if and when we move more in that direction. My lesson was that charters work well when you have good oversight, and when you don’t have good oversight, there are some very serious potential problems.
There is a bill on the governor’s desk that would create regional authorizing commissions to allow for more charter schools in areas with the lowest-performing schools. What are your thoughts on that proposal?
There have been folks who have been trying to help broaden the footprint of charters in Virginia for a while in a number of different ways, and they have struggled to find the right pathway. Personally, I think the very best pathway — and I’ve encouraged some divisions to do this — would be to have some of our divisions with challenges reach out to some of the best charter operators and figure out what it would take to bring them to town.
I’m not clear whether this bill would help further that or not. I think that would be the lens through which I would look at this. Would it do good oversight? Does it set up an entity that has the power and expertise and authority to do the oversight well, and does it honor local authority as much as possible?
I think part of the reason people across the nation are such strong supporters of public education is because there is this long tradition of local control. We’ve seen in Virginia that we do have divisions — there are high-poverty, starved divisions, so it’s no surprise — that are not succeeding as well as we think they need to. If anything, we need those schools to be our very best schools, because those kids need the education as a ticket out of poverty.
My approach as secretary was to work collaboratively with the leaders in those communities, and I think that is the best approach, but we at the state board have some carrots and some sticks to work collaboratively but firmly on a path to better success for those divisions.
President Trump has made school choice a staple of his education platform. He also said during his inaugural address that schools are “flush with cash” while failing students. How should state education leaders respond to the new administration’s education priorities?
“Flush with cash” is not my experience. What do people who have resources to bring to bear on behalf of their own children, what do they pay at elite private schools? We are way, way, way short, and we are asking our schools to deal with all these related problems that children bring to school. My past as a juvenile court judge, dealing with foster care, etc., I see this through the eyes of kids, and they are not moving in worlds that are flush with cash.
On the choice agenda particularly, I am all for all kinds of innovation and all kinds of choice within public school options. I am not a supporter of diverting public resources to private schools, so I would not support President Trump’s approach on vouchers. Some of it is just philosophical — that our public schools, we have a long tradition, back to their origins in the 19th century, of the common school being a place that brings people together from different backgrounds.
I also have a money objection that unless and until we’re fully funding our public schools, diverting resources to private schools seems like a major mistake.
In Virginia, we do have a small tax credit program — like in a number of states, we give no accountability to it. Basically, there are no testing requirements, no assurances to the quality of the education that’s being provided through those tax credits.
What I do know anecdotally is there are some schools that do a good job and there are some that are very, very shoddy and of questionable quality, and I think this is borne out in states that have had bigger experiences with vouchers. Look at it this way: Who are the private schools that show up willing to take kids with vouchers? They’re not the top-of-the-line, elite private schools that are charging two and three and four times what those vouchers are. They’re schools that are starving for enrollment, often, and why are they starving for enrollment? What’s the nature of the product they’re delivering?
I’ve had experiences in Virginia, again just anecdotally, but people trying to transfer back into the public schools midway through high school from an education-tax-credit-funded private school and didn’t have the credits they needed. The lack of accountability is a huge problem.
Why are you interested in returning to public education in Virginia, and what are your top priorities on the state board?
It was an easy call when the governor asked me to serve. I’m just such a champion of public education and so committed to helping improve the opportunities, especially for our least of these children, that it was an easy call to say yes. We’ve got some exciting things the board of ed is working on, things that I helped get in process when I was secretary, and I’m delighted to get to help move the ball forward in this new capacity.
We’re working on redesigning high school to better connect, make sure we’re giving our schools more flexibility to be helping kids get those collaborative skills, those communication and critical thinking and creativity skills. Part of the work of high schools should be to introduce kids to different career possibilities — and not just the kids who opt into CTE, though I’m a huge fan of CTE — but giving all kids more exposure to career options.
We find that so many kids find their way all the way through college without quite knowing what options are out there. On the flip side, our business community reminds us regularly that we have all these really good jobs, well-paying middle-skills jobs that are going for the asking, and we don’t have kids who know about them, and we don’t have kids who are getting the preparation that they would need to follow those pathways. So there’s this disconnect between the skill sets and the knowledge base about the working world. High schools should be helping fill that gap more, and our board of ed is working on that.
The state is also working on its ESSA plan. How we evaluate schools and students and how we intervene in schools that need it should be oriented toward continuous quality improvement for everybody. I think one of the saddest unintended consequences of our current approach to accountability is we’re chasing great teachers and great school leaders out of the schools where we need them the most.Any teacher in their right mind is going to get the heck out of Dodge if they’re in a school system where the kids aren’t coming well-equipped to pass these tests and the teachers are just going to get beat up and beat up and underpaid as well. So to have an accountability system that more focuses on growth, especially at the younger ages, so teachers who are moving the kid two years forward in their academic progress, even if they don’t quite make the benchmarks, those are our superstar teachers. Instead of declaring them failures, we ought to be celebrating their good work. So I think we have a good opportunity as we rewrite our accountability plan under ESSA to be more growth-oriented and be more improvement-focused, rather than a punitive labeling approach.