This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Ann Holton, a former Virginia education secretary and the wife of Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, campaigned in Philadelphia on Saturday to talk up Hillary Clinton’s agenda for improving the nation’s schools.
Holton, 58, an attorney and onetime juvenile court judge, was Virginia’s education secretary from 2014 until July, when she resigned to help the campaign after her husband joined the ticket. In addition to her professional background in education, she and her family have been on the front lines of a defining issue in American education today – the persistence of a separate and unequal school system segregated largely by race and class. As a child, Holton helped desegregate Richmond, Va. schools, when her father was governor.
In her swing through the area, Holton spoke to a few dozen members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers at a Mount Airy church Saturday morning.
Education policy has certainly not gotten much attention in this election season. Although inequality was a big theme in the Democratic primary between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, educational inequity got scant mention.
Holton was making her rounds in the area as the race was rocked by the revelation of a tape of lewd and predatory comments about women by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
In an interview, Holton said that Hillary Clinton has a robust education agenda that includes working toward ensuring that all schools have adequate resources – although that is largely determined by state and local policy. Federal money makes up less than 10 percent of total school spending, much of that directed to low-income areas.
But federal policy can be leveraged to promote equity, she said.
“We don’t just need equal funding, we need more funding for the schools that are serving kids with more needs,” she said. “Equitable is not equal.”
In most states, including Pennsylvania, the opposite is true; wealthier districts have more to spend than poorer ones. Pennsylvania has the largest gap of any state.
“It is such a fundamental part of democracy that education is the path out of poverty,” she said. “When we don’t have successful pathways for children in every zip code, that undermines the democratic system.”
The federal government can point out inequities, do good research on issues such as discipline policies and their effect on different ethnic groups, “and help raise [the issue] up with the bully pulpit,” she said.
“At the very least, the solution has to be partnership with all three” levels of government.
The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), should change the dynamics around federal pressure to improve low-performing schools, she said. Its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, enacted during the Bush administration, drew attention to persistent achievement gaps but was sharply criticized as counterproductive by punishing low-performing schools without giving them more help and resources.
Among other things, ESSA will put more emphasis on recognizing the progress that schools are making, instead of simply judging them on whether they reached certain benchmarks, Holton said.
“The accountability world has done a good job of pointing out the weak schools,” but not such a good job in helping them get better, she said. For one thing, current policies often “make it so miserable for teachers to be in those schools, it forces them away.”
Holton also said that Clinton wants to “modernize and elevate” the teaching profession and work on improving teacher preparation in colleges and universities “by making sure teachers are equipped to handle children with lots and lots of needs.”
Clinton, she said, also wants to fundamentally alter the approach to school discipline, which now generally banishes students for misbehavior and has a disproportionate effect on students of color. Approaches like positive behavior supports help students deal with conflict and make amends for misbehavior without suspending or expelling them, which often would launch them on a trajectory to prison.
“Hillary has a concrete proposal to increase federal funding for programs that work and provide alternatives so that students can be in the classroom. I call it classrooms, not courtrooms,” she said.
She also spoke in favor of dealing with “whole child” needs through a community-based approach, which Philadelphia is attempting through its community schools initiative. She’d like to see "collaboration across sectors so housing authorities, social services, parents’ organizations can all work together. You can’t have children learning if not actually in school."
Holton also talked about her own experiences attending a virtually all-black school in Richmond when her father was governor.
Gov. Linwood Holton, a Republican, wanted to set an example for desegregating schools in Virginia, which had done its best to ignore and defy the Brown v. Board of Education decision 16 years before.
Her own three children, two recent college graduates and one a college senior, also attended Richmond public schools.
“I grew up in a homogeneous, all-white background for the first 12 years of my life,” Holton said. In 1970, as a 7th grader, she helped integrate a school whose enrollment was virtually all African American.
She said she learned the traditional subjects – math and science and English – “but I also did get to learn what it meant to be with children of different backgrounds, especially different income backgrounds. I’ve watched my children graduate from the same schools.”
The schools had great arts programming, she said; two of her children are pursuing arts careers.
She said her children got a “phenomenal” education academically, but in other ways as well.
“Anywhere they go in life, they will bring with them the ability to work with people of all backgrounds, racial, ethnic, income diversity." She said they all went on to good colleges “and they are equipped for 21st-century life.”
Desegregation, she said, is desirable not just because it is “a valuable experience” for everyone involved, but because it can help promote equity. When schools are used by people of all classes and races, it builds political – and financial – support for their improvement, she said.
“It’s good to have people taking advantage of public schools and supporting them,” she said. “I worry that abandoning school systems to those of lower-income backgrounds undermines the strength of public education in our democracy.”
During her visit, Holton also attended several voter registration drives in Montgomery and Chester Counties. The deadline to register is Tuesday, Oct. 11.