Virginia’s education secretary talks teacher raises, Trump administration

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia teachers can be confident in some kind of extra pay this year, the state’s Education Secretary Dietra Trent said in a wide-ranging interview in her Capitol Square office as the General Assembly moves into the final two weeks of its session and a new administration settles into Washington.

“We don’t know how yet, but I believe in my heart that they’ll be better off than they were a month ago,” Trent said.

The budget plan in the Senate would provide raises for teachers. The House of Delegates would give school systems additional unrestricted money that could be used for raises if school boards choose.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed a one-time 1.5 percent bonus for teachers and state workers after planned raises were wiped out by a big budget shortfall last year.

The House and Senate passed their budget amendment plans this week, and final negotiations are now underway with about two weeks remaining in the session.

After the General Assembly adjourns, lawmakers return in April for what is typically a one-day session to address any vetoes or amendments offered by the governor.

Trump administration changes?

Trent said she has not spoken with new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and has not had any other high-level interactions with President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I fully expect us to have a great working relationship with the new administration, but I’ve not spoken to the new secretary,” Trent said. “I look forward to meeting her and look forward to hearing her ideas.”

But until those ideas or concrete plans are made public, Trent said she has no way of knowing whether there will be any significant changes.

“There’s no way for me to make any kind of prediction,” she said, adding that Virginia would “continue to push forward on our progressive ideas.”

“It’s going to stay great for us because we’re going to continue to push forward on the things that we’re doing here,” Trent said.

Addressing the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

Virginia students are referred to police for incidents in schools far more often than students in other states, which has sparked a series of bills in the general assembly this year that would limit school discipline and suspensions.

Trent said the Department of Education is working with Virginia Tech researchers to “take a deep dive into that data.” In addition, Trent said the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Education planned to soon release a memorandum of understanding that addresses the collective responsibility to deal with some of the issues.

Virginia hopes to go from a “school-to-prison pipeline” to the “classrooms not courtrooms” initiative that would reduce the use of criminal charges for simple school disruptions.

“We understand that there is a problem regardless of whether we’re No. 1 or we’re No. 50,” Trent said. “It’s a problem and we have to look at it, and we have to do a better job of training our teachers on how to de-escalate certain situations, and so we’re looking at that.”

College financial aid changes, incentives

Separate bills unanimously approved by the House of Delegates and state Senate would provide new financial aid incentives to college students to take more classes and graduate on time.

“Right now, when you look at financial aid either from a federal perspective or a state perspective — you know this from college — 12 hours is full time. If you take 12 hours for four years … you don’t get to the number of credits you need to graduate on time,” Trent said.

Under the bills, the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program grants, beginning with the 2018 fall semester, would only go to full-time students who are making satisfactory progress toward a degree by earning enough credits to advance from freshman to sophomore, sophomore to junior and junior to senior status.

The bills also would limit students to a total of four years for this financial support, with only one year of support at each class level. Some schools already have this requirement.

The House bill would provide increasing grants as students progress from one class level to the next, while the Senate bill gives colleges and universities the option of giving more money to students at higher class levels or to students who take 15 or more credits per semester.

To be eligible for the grants, graduates from Virginia high schools or children of active-duty military personnel living in Virginia with a 2.5 or higher GPA would no longer have to be classified as dependents.  To keep the grants, students must maintain a 2.0 GPA, demonstrate continued financial need and make progress toward a degree.

“We’re trying to incentivize that student to take just one more class or maybe two more classes that year so that they can actually complete in four years,” Trent said. “We believe that the best way to reduce … debt is to get a student in and get them out in four years with a degree.”

The state also provides financial support for residents to get certifications in high-demand fields such as computer science. In a related development, the state is in the process of finalizing a new Standards of Learning test for computer science.

Recommendations for revisions to other Standards of Learning tests remain in progress, and Trent said more testing recommendations could come out soon.

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